Real Leaders

Microfinance – a Local Solution to a Local Problem

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Lily Lapenna spent thousands of Pounds on her education growing up but had no clue on how to manage her finances as an adult. Sound familiar?  She gives a first-hand account of setting up MyBnk, a London-based social enterprise that works with young people to build the knowledge, skills and the confidence to manage their money effectively. The idea for MyBnk started when I was at school, disillusioned with the overtheoretical nature of learning and frustrated at having so many ideas and so little I could do with them. So I started running car boot sales, making and selling things and putting on plays at school, all my profits went to charity.

These little entrepreneurial endeavours gave me the energy I needed to survive the many hours in the classroom. As I grew up and started to study and work in international development in amazing places like Zimbabwe and  Bangladesh I developed 2 passions, one for education and one for microfinance. At the age of 18 I finished school in London where I was born and I decided to go and work in Zimbabwe, where I worked in a rural primary school on non-formal education programmes. The school became a hub for community involvement and social innovation.

Together with the community, the teachers and the children, we created huge AIDS awareness campaigns, built libraries and influenced local policy makers on issues relating to education and health. I realised how non-formal education could change communities for the better. More importantly, I realised how much joy and energy I got out of working with young people and how I could happily spend the rest of my life working with and for young people, helping them improve their lives.

My interest in microfinance started after my work in Zimbabwe when I returned to London and did a degree at the unorthodox university SOAS (School  for Oriental and Africa Studies). In my three years of study at SOAS and a year Erasmus at the Istituto Orientale in Naples, I became very disillusioned with trends in international development.

It was apparent that the aid industry had created many dependencies across countries and had in many cases failed to acknowledge and utilise local knowledge and local problem solving. It was common for the western aid organisations to go to the majority worlds and impose development solutions and often these didn’t lead to the desired outcomes.

In contrast to this, I started to learn about microfinance a local solution to a local problem, a movement in Bangladesh led by superheroes such as Professor Yunus and Faisel Abed (the founder of BRAC). Microfinance is a self-sustaining development model that creates a ladder to self-sufficiency for the poor. In essence micro finance is about unleashing enterprising ideas by giving women small loans to set up businesses. Three days after I graduated, I moved to Bangladesh and there I worked in the rural north with women borrowers and savers. These women, where using microfinance to change their lives and those of their children. They inspired me!

I was lucky enough to spend months with them and to realise how microfinance was not only a powerful financial tool but also a powerful educational tool. I started exploring how small enterprise loans and saving schemes provided a transformational educational experience for the Bangladeshi women. They were in many cases illiterate and yet they had a business acumen that no MBA programme could teach. They were innumerate and yet were savvy at  managing their family finances in a way that most of us in the UK would envy. I came to the conclusion that I had spend thousands of pounds on my education but sadly I had no clue how to manage my money nor did I have business skills.

Coming back to the UK I found many people my age facing spiralling debt, the majority of adults being financially illiterate (myself included of course), more people in the country getting a divorce than changing banks and a staggering 150,000 young people  growing up believing that an ISA (Individual Saving Account) is an IPod accessory!

The government rhetoric in the UK at the time (2007) was that if we didn’t have an enterprising new generation “China would have us for breakfast and India would have us for tea.” At this point, it all started to make sense to me; the need for a sort of microfinance and education programme in the UK was evident. In 2007, I set up MyBnk – a London based social enterprise that works with young people to build the knowledge, the skills and the confidence to manage their money effectively and to make enterprising choices throughout their lives.

Right at the start of the MyBnk journey, when it was just me, my laptop and this idea, a group of friends took me to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. We ate, talked, and after dinner we were given a fortune cookie each. I opened mine to find this Chinese proverb: “I do not know the solution, but I admire the problem”


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