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Canadian in race to empower the poor

Saturday January 16 2010

Canadian real estate magnate-cum-microfinancier Steven Funk. Photo/FILE

Canadian real estate magnate-cum-microfinancier Steven Funk. Photo/FILE 


It is not common for successful businessmen living comfortable lives to leave home to embark on risky and high-energy adventures to help people escape from poverty. But a Canadian dentist-cum-financier-cum-real estate investor was recently in Kenya to do just that.

Dr Steven Funk may not be well known in the auto rally world. Although he loves to drive race cars, he rarely competes. But when a Kenyan crusader against poverty, Ms Ingrid Munro, approached him last year for help with Jamii Bora Trust, a microfinance project, Dr Funk had an idea: he would realise his dream and enter a safari rally under the banner of Race4Change and raise funds at the same time.

Unlike most of the drivers who took part in last year’s Kenya Airways East African Safari Classic Rally to win – or at least have fun – Dr Funk, 59, was on a different mission: to drive the 4,500-kilometre route through Kenya and Tanzania and create awareness among people along the way through his Race4Change initiative of how microcredit institutions could help them improve their lives.

“I was here to literally race to promote microfinance, which is a vehicle of global revolution that defeats poverty by empowering the poorest of the poor to make a brighter future for themselves, their families, and generations to come,” Dr Funk told Lifestyle at a Nairobi hotel soon after the 10-day rally ended in Mombasa on December 1.

“I grew up in a poor family by American standards,” he said. “My parents were farmers, and we were so poor that when I was six years old, my father asked me not to use too much toilet paper because he did not have enough money. He worked very hard to raise us and give us a good education and health care. He started off by taking a small loan.”

Funk was hardly the focus of attention when he took off with his co-driver and French financier Jean-Louis Juchault in Car 20, a 1975 Peugeot 504 coupe. Apart from his support team, the only other people following him were sons Nathan and Trevor – both film producers – who were shooting a documentary on their father. Car 20 finished 33 among 37 entries. And the two drivers survived even after their car crashed into a tree.

Race4Change is an NGO set up by the two financiers to raise awareness of microcredit as well as funds to support the Jamii Bora Trust in Kenya and the Microcredit Summit Campaign, a global effort to reach the world’s poorest families, especially women, with credit and other financial services. Dr Funk calls them “two of the world’s most important poverty fighting machines”.

“Microfinance is my passion because I feel I have been born and raised as a product of it in the United States. I was here not so much to win but to create awareness about microfinance. My parents depended on small loans, working to create something of value,” he said, describing his years growing up on a 160-acre farm outside Osage, Iowa, as the eldest of Bud and Shirley Funk’s four children.

“That is why I am committed to helping the poor get out of poverty,” he said. “In microfinance, I give you the fishing pole and teach you how to fish. By doing that, I make you responsible to pay back ... I hate handouts. I dedicate my time, expertise and financial resources to expand microcredit worldwide.”

Dr Funk was also trying to raise funds for the Microcredit Campaign Summit, which he calls the Davos of the microfinance industry – called so after the annual meeting in the Swiss mountain town of the world’s leading financiers and politicians. Scheduled to be held in Nairobi in April, the microfinance summit brings together leading practitioners and seeks to reach 175 million families worldwide with micro-loans.

His campaign has so far raised more than $100,000 (about Sh7.5 million). “We are now transitioning to Race2Prosperity, which I think has a much better connotation ...  In this initial effort, I think money may not be the biggest factor to measure, and it may not be fully measurable until well into the future,” Dr Funk said last Thursday.

He said the exposure and interest generated during the race should be invaluable to help Jamii Bora bring microcredit services to the poor. Dr Funk first came to Africa in 2001 when he and elder son Nathan visited several countries and topped off the trip with a game safari in Kenya.

But it took a meeting about seven years ago in New York with Jamii Bora director Ingrid Munro to shift his interests to Africa and Kenya in particular. “I became exposed to Jamii Bora during a Mirocredit Summit in New York in 2002. It doesn’t take long sitting in the presence of Ingrid Munro to realise you are sitting in front of a giant of a woman.

You would be amazed by the respect she commands outside Kenya. She is one of the greatest women of our time,” said Dr Funk, who is a founding member of the respected World Presidents’ Organisation, a group of some 4,600 business leaders and chief executives. “In June 2009, she asked me if we could work together to raise funds for Jamii Bora and the Microcredit Summit,” he said.

“I thought of combining racing with fighting poverty. I knew the least I could do was to drive 4,500 kilometres around East Africa and make people around the world aware of Jamii Bora and support it. People back in Canada became interested. We all need help.”

Dr Funk, whose poor background and generosity of his underprivileged father inspired him to become a philanthropist, is a fitness and life experience enthusiast. As a boy, he would collect nails and damaged timber pieces from demolished houses in the town and take them to his father to build a family house.

Today, the former farm boy is chairman of the Microcredit Summit Campaign Directors Advisory Group. He remembers his father’s chastisements to be thrifty but he says he doesn’t recall his refusing to give a helping hand to anyone. “It was really a great way to grow up. My passion is to make a positive difference in the world in everything I do,” he said.

“If you’re given a chance to succeed in life when you have the means, you should pass that chance on to someone else.” He urges the government to empower people, mainly through microfinance to help fight poverty and crime. “Microcredit is loaning money to individuals who want to work, and who are therefore by definition entrepreneurs in a segment of society we call poverty.

The more a society’s workforce is empowered, the more likely it is going to be peaceful. When people have something to lose, they’re less likely to be involved in conflict,” he said. He offers hope to poor families who may think the world has collapsed on them: “Don’t give up. If you believe in what you are doing, you can get out of poverty. If you believe you can make a better life for you and your children, you will do it.

“But you don’t just have to believe; you have to think. And you can go borrow money from microfinance institutions.” After completing his education at Purdue University in Indiana and the University of Iowa and becoming a dentist, he spent only one year on the job before he quit to become a messenger running errands for a Canadian real estate magnate.

He knew his father had struggled to put him through school with hopes that he would become a lawyer or a doctor – or at least a dentist – and he tried to please him. But he had other interests. Funk had moved to Canada to do his residency at Vancouver General Hospital where he earned about 1,500 Canadian dollars a month.

He met Nelson Skalbania through his landlord and left dentistry for 3,500 Canadian dollars a month to become the magnate’s private messenger. His father thought he had gone crazy. “My father was surprised after I told him I had quit my profession and become a gofer, which is a polite word for messenger,” he said. “But I told him oral surgery wasn’t for me. I wanted something exciting.”

Mr Skalbania would mentor his employee so well that by the time they parted ways after the tycoon’s empire Skalbania Enterprises collapsed in the early 1980s, Funk would use the skills learnt to start his own business and become not only a top-flight international real estate investor but a microcredit financier as well.