Grace Mbakwa and her business partners are taxpayers—and proud of it. Before they received a small private "foreign aid" grant, Mbakwa and 10 friends in Dschang, Cameroon, earned too little making clothes to owe taxes. With their grant, they were able to rent a stall in the market to display their wares and take orders. The tax certificate on the wall of the stall now symbolizes their business's success.
Mbakwa and her friends were able to leap that initial hurdle into a culture of prosperity thanks to a mere $100 from the Trickle Up Program (TUP). The program is the brainchild of Glen and Mildred Robbins Leet, who brim with stories like Mbakwa's, interrupting each other in their eagerness to recount them. The Leets run TUP from their cozy apartment in Manhattan, giving out $100 grants—in $50 installments—to tiny businesses throughout the Third World.
The idea came "from observing that large grants were not reaching the poor," says Mildred. "Everybody knew the problem—trickle down was not working. We had to give the poor people an opportunity to produce."
The Leets first tried to interest the U.S. government in giving out such mini-grants. But, despite testifying before committees of both houses of Congress, they had no success. "That's when we decided we needed to make a demonstration," says Glen, who, like his wife, spent decades working in more-conventional development programs.
The couple first got together, several years after both were widowed, when a United Nations seminar on disaster relief adjourned to Mildred's house. "Someone started playing the piano, and Glen asked me to dance, and that's when he became something more than an expert to me," she recalls. A globe-trotting courtship followed: Glen proposed to her in a glass-bottomed boat in Mombasa, Kenya; she phoned him from Japan with her answer; and they were married in Vienna in 1974.
The Leets founded TUP in 1979 with $1,000 of their own money. It went to fund 10 new businesses on the Caribbean island of Dominica. "We picked Dominica," Glen recalls with a hint of irony, "because it had an adverse balance of trade, a deteriorating economy, a high level of unemployment, and the lowest per capita income in the hemisphere next to Haiti. And it was nearby, so it wasn't expensive to travel there." Funded entirely by private contributions, TUP has since developed into an 86-nation network of over 4,000 businesses throughout the developing world.
"Fifty dollars," notes Mildred, "to the largest group of people in the world, is a great fortune. It can buy a hundred chickens, or wool to accept orders to make sweaters in Kenya. Or seeds for a farmer, or fertilizer. Or the flour to start a bakery. In Rwanda, the $50 permitted a group to buy better tools for their blacksmithing." "We make all payments in checks," says Glen, "because that requires them to get acquainted with the banking system. Most of them have never been in a bank before. And they're sometimes quite frightened by the prospect, and exhilarated by the experience. It's a real triumph when they've succeeded."
The Leets emphasize the importance of women in developing economies. "One-third of households worldwide are run by women," notes Mildred, yet most development programs overlook them. In her youth in New York, Mildred, taking Marie Curie as a role model, wanted to become a doctor. "But at the time women were not looked upon as proper candidates for becoming doctors," she says.
With TUP, the pair has opened many doors for women. Says Glen, "Women all over the world are searching for ways to improve themselves. Money-making activity is one of the least controversial and most effective ways of doing that."
TUP requires a business plan describing how a group of five or more people will invest 1,000 or more hours of their unemployed time during a three-month period. The group must anticipate a profit and must put at least 20 percent of it back into the business. (The average reinvestment is 67 percent.) "If they save and reinvest, they'll have the independence to make their own decisions and carry out their own plans," says Glen.
The result is continuing and increasing levels of self-employment. In the first year, these businesses had profits almost four times the entire cost of the program. TUP spent $222,340 in 1986, encouraging poor people to invest nearly seven million hours of work in profit-making enterprises—a cost to TUP of about three cents per hour.
As Glen says, "Energy and ideas create wealth. TUP proves that among the poorest people, there are resources, fires to be lighted within the people themselves."
John Dentinger is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Trickle Up Prosperity".