In your experience, what is it that people find most interesting about OPIC’s work and what do they find most surprising?
It varies by audience, of course, but in general OPIC’s project success stories are what people are most interested in. People like to hear how two college friends who traveled through Brazil came up with the idea to introduce the acai berries to the U.S. market. Or how an OPIC loan helped rebuild a flour mill after the earthquake in Haiti to help that country get back on its feet.
One of my favorite stories comes from a trip I was able to make to Jordan and the West Bank last year. I got to see the impact first hand of a microfinance project called Netkatabi, which in Arabic means “my notebook.” This project helps provide loans for families to buy their school age children laptops equipped with books and other educational materials, allowing them to use modern technology in their classrooms for the first time in their lives.
The biggest surprise that I encounter when talking about OPIC is that people still don’t quite understand that there is a difference between investment and aid. It is part of my job to explain that at OPIC we aren’t exporting American businesses or jobs, but creating investment opportunities for U.S. businesses to expand abroad. The only thing OPIC is hoping to export are American best practices and business know-how. By applying American values to those businesses abroad, we are helping them grow in a way that may help minimize corruption and other challenges, so they can become solid players in the global economy and help create bigger markets for U.S. goods and services.
Your team has created the Expanding Horizons workshop series, which recently hosted a very successful event in New York. Why do you think small business owners should explore opportunities with OPIC?
Small businesses fuel the growth of the American economy and when they invest abroad they can produce big dividends for the domestic economy. Seventy eight percent of projects we did last year were with small- and medium-size enterprises and many of those projects involve diaspora communities. With a strong working knowledge of their homeland, we find they are the first people who want to go back and help their countries rebuild and grow.
One way we reach out to small businesses is through our Expanding Horizons workshops. We have four on the books this year. We’ve held two already and we are gearing up for two more this fall. At the New York event, we had nearly 200 participants. It was one of our largest workshops to date. Next we head to Seattle. We are excited to be bringing these successful workshops to the Northwest, as we haven’t been before. Then a few weeks later we head to Chicago, a return visit to a thriving market with many diaspora communities.
With this program, OPIC has educated nearly 2,000 U.S. small businesses to date on how to work with us and other agencies of the federal government to invest abroad. We also invite our sister organizations, including the Department of Commerce , the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the Small Business Administration to talk about their services.
Have you seen a fundamental shift in the way people are thinking and talking about the future of global investment given the increased focus on sustainability and clean technology both at home and abroad?
Yes, more talk is centered on clean technologies and renewable resources. Companies want to be good stewards of the land and friends to the community but they should also be poised to take advantage of new markets and technologies. We know American businesses are paying attention to the renewable resources sectors from solar, to geothermal to biofuel, and won’t be left out of the mix around the world.
We would like to be doing more in Africa. If you think about the telecom industry over the past few decades, they have been able to take advantage of mobile technology instead of hard-wiring the continent. They were able to leapfrog old technologies by embracing new ones. Although cell phone use in Africa varies significantly by region, a 2010 Gallup survey of 17 Sub-Saharan countries found that 57% of the adult population had mobile phones. We might think of energy in the same way: plugged in to the grid vs. generating power off the grid. Let’s turn to India for example – Husk Power is one of the best examples of distributed energy projects in our portfolio—we hope to replicate this success in Africa, and our new U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative aims to bring more clean energy to Africa. OPIC currently has a number of transactions in its pipeline centered around electrification on the Continent. And as you may know, a big part of our mission at OPIC is our investment in the development of sub-Saharan Africa.
Which countries and areas of focus do you see being front and center for OPIC over the next 12 months?
I just mentioned the huge opportunity in Africa, but there are many other regions where we are focused. Post Arab Spring, President Obama and Secretary Clinton announced OPIC would provide $3 billion to spur investment and job creation, with an emphasis on small- and medium-size enterprises, in the countries impacted by the uprisings. Looking ahead, the Middle East and North Africa will continue to be a priority region particularly from a foreign policy/national security perspective, as will Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet OPIC tries to maintain a balanced portfolio across all of its markets so we will continue working with U.S. businesses to pursue opportunities in Latin America & the Caribbean as well as Southeast Asia.
Is there a particular project that sticks out in your mind as an example that best embodies OPIC’s mission?
Coming up with one example is so hard. We are so diverse in our product offerings and the projects in which we invest. But examples that come to mind are of projects where our lending to a bank or financial institution is providing microfinance loans with the sole purpose of helping people get their small business off the ground. For example, earlier this year, we signed an agreement with Afghan Growth Finance (AGF), a subsidiary of the Small Enterprise Assistance Funds (SEAF), to co-finance small business loans of up to $11.5 million.
There is one project, which recently won a prestigious award, that embodies the purely innovative spirit of the agency and people who work here. OPIC and Terra Global Capital were just awarded the Sustainable Forestry Transaction of the Year award from Environmental Finance for developing the first political risk insurance contract for a Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) project in Cambodia. The deal will protect close to 65 thousand hectares forest in Cambodia through the sale of offset credits in international carbon markets, with $900,000 in political risk insurance. This creative forward-looking project is a great example of our work.
If you have any questions for Judith, be sure to leave them in the comment section of this blog.