This January, I spoke at La’akea Permaculture Community about new models of green business and finance, and as always, included a brief history of international microfinance as developed by Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. After my talk, one of the attendees told me that she herself had been a microloan success story, and I’m honored to share her story here with you.
In 1991, Donna Fischer was a poor single mother living in Taos, New Mexico and looking for work. She suffered from health problems and low self-esteem and never imagined that she would one day single handedly found a flourishing solar power installation company.
She benefited first from a job training program that paid half her wages as an electrician’s apprentice; here, she first discovered her deep interest in solar power to meet people’s home energy needs. She then had the good fortune to join a local women’s economic opportunity development program that used a comprehensive microloan program based on Grameen’s highly successful model. She became part of a small group of eight women, all hoping to gain skills to build businesses as a way to improve their economic conditions.
The women received training in business development, financial management, and long term planning. They also served as an emotional support group for each other around the challenges of trying to start businesses, brainstorming ideas to help each other, and celebrating successes along the way.
With support from the group, Donna worked hard to gather the basic skills she needed to launch a solar installation business, beginning with a summer training program at Solar Energy International. SEI was very supportive of women joining the field and Donna was one of the first 100 women trained. One of her teachers was Richard Perez, founder of Home Power magazine, who deeply impressed and inspired her. For some time, she’d been playing with the name “Amazon Power” for her business, but felt shy—she credits her teachers at SEI for giving her the support to be brave enough to claim the name.
When she was ready, her microloan peer group selected her to receive a $3,000 low interest loan, with which Donna made her first bulk order of solar panels, officially launching her business. She had one year to pay back the loan, then funds went on to benefit other women in her group. She credits that loan and the peer support group setting as a huge part of her success, as she was on welfare at the time and would never have had the funds or the guts to get started.
In time, Donna got her electrical contractor’s license and built Amazon Power until it was doing complete design, wiring, and installation of turnkey electrical systems fully integrated with solar. She derives great satisfaction from being part of the movement to move people away from fossil fuels. Donna loves using her skills to help others and over the years, she’s chosen to freely share her expertise in many remote parts of the world, from India to Brazil. One of her favorite examples comes from a project she did in a small village in the heart of the Amazon forest for Maria Alice Campos Freire, one of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers of the International Grandmother’s Council. Maria founded the Centro Medicina do Floresta (Forest Medicine Center) to preserve and expand traditional knowledge of native plant medicines. The center maintains a large herb garden with over 350 plant species and Maria wanted to be able to irrigate without running a generator, so Donna custom-designed a solar powered water pumping system to water her gardens.
Today, Donna has mostly handed off the business to her partner due to health problems, and under the name Amazon Power Plus, the company continues to install residential solar systems in Hawaii. She appreciates the opportunity to tell her story and wants to spread the message that it’s truly possible for poor women with no skills or business experience to follow their dreams and create meaningful work that can lift them into economic self-sufficiency.
Grameen America continues the legacy of their peer group based microloan programs for women living in poverty here in the US; to date it has served 21,740 women in 397 communities, and with $64,653 in loans, has helped women generate $161M in additional income and create 25,000 jobs.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of the Natural Investment News