By Katie Preston, Queenslanders Credit Union
In early 2014 I was given the opportunity of a lifetime when I awarded the Harry Zaphir Village Entrepreneur Scholarship, organised by CUFA and sponsored by TSWG.
I recently returned from Cambodia where I engaged in CUFA’s programs and projects and visited many wonderful people who are pulling themselves out of poverty thanks to their small business training and supported provided by CUFA.
The areas I visited are remote and credit unions are absolutely essential because the banks are too far away to access. There are no services in the remote communities – no postal delivery, no street signs, no roads and no rubbish collection. People have to dispose of their own rubbish – food scraps go to the chickens and everything else is incinerated or dumped behind their homes.The credit unions are run entirely by volunteers. They don’t usually have a physical building, but are run underneath the Director’s house. There is no internet or mobile banking, no ATMs, no credit cards. Transactions are all done in person with cash and a passbook. Many people in these villages do not know how to read or write and do not have a signature, so they have to give a fingerprint instead of signing.
Credit unions pay interest on savings and also give out small loans. CUFA works with these credit unions to identify members who are the poorest of the poor and who are keen to change their situation by becoming a Village Entrepreneur (VE). They must show commitment and a clear business plan in order for CUFA to work with them. CUFA then finds Australian community investors who will sponsor an individual VE to start a small business with materials and ongoing training and support to ensure it is sustainable over the long-term.
I have met many VEs and their families and have heard first-hand how they are now breaking the cycle of poverty and giving their children a good education. When locals become VEs, it is expected that by the third and final year of the program they will not only have grown a sustainable business and sent their children to school, but that they will also have installed a toilet and a water pump at their house (yes, many homes also do not have running water, let alone electricity or a flushing toilet!)
This really makes you realise just how good we have it in Australia and how much we take our blessed lives for granted.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Cambodia. The absolute highlight was meeting the dozens of locals who were so happy and generous to open up their homes and share their stories with me. Like any good traveller, I did try to pick up a few phrases in the Khmer language, but my pronunciation was woeful!
Thanks again to the wonderful staff at CUFA who looked after me so well, to TSWG who sponsored the scholarship, and to Queenslanders Credit Union for supporting me every step of the way in applying for this opportunity, undertaking the required fundraising challenge and having time away from the office.