Google Code participant, Gabe Brown, conducted an interview with Elevate Africa founder, Henrik Esbensen, on his experiences with Mifos X.
As he adjusted the computer camera, Henrik’s face came into view. He had a big smile on his face as he said hello, his blonde semi-long hair contrasting with his small round black glasses. His amiable expression and a certain energy to his eyes made it hard to guess his age, and he spoke with a light northern European accent. Even though we were about 1,000 miles apart, Skype enabled us to converse without interruption.
Henrik Esbensen, trained as a software engineer, is the founder and executive director of Elevate Africa, a company that takes a holistic approach to microfinance in Mali and Burkina Faso. “It’s really about poverty alleviation” he said, “helping people start businesses to create income,” but Elevate Africa’s mission doesn’t just stop at funding. “They need mentorship, and a business partner that’s going to be next to them when things get tough,” said Henrik. Elevate Africa also provides entrepreneurship training and helps to support all of their client’s businesses. They’re trying to create a business network that creates innovation Henrik said, saying,
“we’re basically applying a Silicon Valley startup approach to the whole thing.”
This adventure started for him when an English teacher from Mali moved in with Henrik’s friends for a few months. The man had met Henrik’s friends while they were doing “some mission work”. When Henrik’s friends went on vacation, they left the man with him for three weeks. He talked about what it was like living with someone from such a different background, saying “it was like he was from a different time”. Taking him to see the ocean for the first time “he was fascinated but also scared” Henrik said, “we couldn’t walk on the beach – we had to walk on a parallel road 200 yards away.” As Henrik spent more time with him, he learned about what life was like in Mali – how this man had a sick child but couldn’t pay for the ten dollars that medicine would cost. After the man left, Henrik got together with some friends and they decided that they were going to try and help. “I can honestly tell you this was a life changing experience” he said, “It’s not that I didn’t know that there are countries that are very different from ours – I knew that, but it makes a difference when suddenly you have a person with that background in your house right next to you.” They started giving loans to a few people in Mali including the English teacher, and it all grew from there. “We’re still very small,” Henrik said, “we’re trying to prove the business model of it before we scale it.”
Henrik talked about Mifos saying, “Mifos is absolutely central to what we do.” Elevate Africa uses Mifos X, which he called “an absolutely fantastic system”, to run their loan portfolio. He talked about the benefits of working with an open source organization, talking about being able to create an interface with QuickBooks for accounting “based on the hooks that they added to the system last year.” He paused and then added, “this is phenomenal stuff.” Henrik raved about the exceptional support, saying “I’ll email about a problem and have a response within hours.” He talked about how he doesn’t understand why Mifos wouldn’t charge, listing the excellent service as a reason that he should be paying money for the service. It’s incredible to hear about the work that people are doing to help create a world of “3 Billion Maries”, benefiting from the help of Mifos.