Empowering Communities In Uganda Using Microfinance With Clark Varin
Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the fastest-growing economic regions, but its people still experience major financial issues. Microfinancing is an effective tool that is being deployed to help people realize their potential. In this episode, Monika Proffitt delves into microloans and community building with international entrepreneur Clark Varin. Clark co-founded Muvule, a microfinance firm dedicated to empowering women and breaking the cycle of poverty in Uganda. Clark lets us in on how he became motivated to help the people of Uganda, how DLN can help people, and why sustainability is even more important now. Tune in to learn more about the changing world of Africa and how microfinance is helping facilitate that change.
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Empowering Communities In Uganda Using Microfinance With Clark Varin
I’m here with Clark Varin, the Cofounder of Muvule and Travel Young Adventure camping trips. Clark, thanks so much for joining us.
Thank you, Monika. Thanks for having me.
I know that adventure camping trips don’t fit into this. We are talking about finance. You had some other company, but I know it does fit in. I thought it would be good to make sure we mentioned it a little bit. I want to start with this Cofounder of Muvule. Can you tell me what Muvule is?
Muvule is a microfinance institution in Uganda. The whole point of Muvule is to empower people who have literally no resources. They have nothing to their name, but they want to make money high in Uganda. If we give them a tiny loan, even $100, so that they can go buy something to resell, then they can start to create a job and work their way out of poverty. It’s all about economic development and women empowerment because 90% of the people who take out our loans are women.
Why do you think that most of the lendees are women?
It’s because women, first of all, repay their loans. That’s the number one thing. Men typically don’t. After spending a lot of time meeting with our clients one-on-one, I realized why. It has to come down to the psychology of men and women. Women are a lot more fear-driven, so they will not spend their money frivolously. They won’t go buy beer for themselves and whatnot but also a lot more caring. They have put a lot more into the communities. They will reinvest in their children’s education or into building their homes. When they have a little bit of money, they spend it wisely.
Men, on the other hand, are a lot more shame-driven. We don’t like to talk about our financial problems. It takes away from our manhood of, “I can provide for the family,” but when something is wrong, they tend to hide their problems because there’s so much shame involved with it. As a financial institution, if we know about your problems, we can typically help you, give you some resources or whatnot. If you don’t tell us something is going wrong and hide the problem, you are more likely to default.
You can’t get help if you don’t ask for help or mention that you need help.
Women are a lot more open about their problems. Men tend to bury it under the rug.
That’s true. I have noticed that. Even though you are talking about potential lendees or applicants in Uganda, it sounds like you are also maybe describing most of my boyfriends in my twenties. Before, I was like, “You can’t be a potential, never mind. If it’s already a problem, it will stay a problem.”The secret to living is giving. Click To Tweet
That’s a funny way of putting it.
Here’s the psychology of it. I was like, “Yes, very much.” I know the story of how you’ve got to Uganda in the first place. Pardon me for saying this but you don’t seem like you are no longer in the tooth. It’s like, “Why isn’t to the level of a 40 or 50-year-old entrepreneur here?” Going to Uganda, opening a microlending platform, and basically, any bank is a pretty lofty ambition. It says something about your background. How on Earth did you end up so comfortable in a place like Uganda?
That goes back to my college days because I started Muvule right after graduating college. I booked a one-way ticket to Turkey, Egypt, and then Uganda. I finally found my perfect business partner in Uganda. The reason why I was in the right place, right after college, to do this was that I started this company, Travel Young, which exposed me to poverty all over the world.
I was guiding these high-adventure camping trips, jumping off bridges in Ecuador, backpacking in Patagonia, and things like that. As a college student, I spent every vacation doing my absolute dream. I felt so grateful for what I had. While I was traveling all over the world, living the absolute dream, I saw all these people who had zero opportunity.
I looked back on my own business and saw that it took me about a $700 loan on a credit card to start my travel agency. I started small, and it became something pretty big. I was passionate about helping entrepreneurs at that time because I was one myself. I was touched by poverty and by my own opportunity. I wanted to help entrepreneurs. I said, “Why not help entrepreneurs in emerging markets who worked freaking hard yet have so little opportunity that it takes forever for them to climb up the ladder?”
If I can get them to the point where they can climb up the ladder a little faster, that would make me feel good. I learned about microfinance for about a year. Right when I graduated school, I was like, “I’m going to go start this microfinance company.” I went to Uganda, which is what I read, was the best microfinance market in the world. That was an ideal place for me to start. Through my connections from Travel Young, I had one guy there who was a safari operator and ended up becoming my business partner in the microloan business. It was a dream come true. It’s a perfect fit.
Why is it that Uganda is considered the best market for microlending?
The way microlending works are you don’t give a loan to an individual. You give it to a group of people. If you want to give out microloans, instead of giving an individual $200, you will give five people $1,000. They are responsible for paying it back as a community. If the five people are responsible for paying back $1,000, if one person defaults, the other four people still have to pay that $1,000. For that model to work, you need to have communal social structures.
In places like Southeast Asia and Africa, where they are very community-oriented versus being individualistic, microlending works super well. It’s more of like, “I know you had a genuine problem paying it back. I’m going to get you this time. Knowing that when I have a genuine problem, you guys are going to cover me.”
Uganda has the highest rate of forming groups of any country in Africa. They are the most communal country in all of Sub-Saharan Africa, which is one of the most communal regions in the world. There’s a high rate of single mothers, who we mostly serve because of the history of wars and disease. It’s a place where it needs a lot of help. There are a lot of women who need help. You can go in with a little bit of money and create a huge impact.
I’m wondering about this as a person with enormous first-world or a developed-nation privilege. Do you do micro-fundraising from people here to enable loans to happen there like a Kiva model? Do you mostly do large deployment of capital into your bank, and then manage it?
We have basically three ways of raising funds. The biggest reason why we don’t raise a lot of investment capital in small chunks is because of the SEC Regulation in the States. The SEC blocks us from being able to accept money from anyone who’s not an accredited investor. That’s a big reason why we say, “If we have to go through all this trouble dealing with the SEC and whatnot, we should have a pretty high minimum of what a minimum investment can be.”
Our minimum investment is $25,000, and you can earn a 10% return on that. For anyone who wants to put in less than $25,000, we ask for it to be a donation. We will donate the 10% that would have come back to them as an investment to Moses’ school. My business partner, Moses, started a school in Uganda. We support that school through the profits we make through microloans, which is cool because now we have a mix of education and financial inclusion, which is a great way to grow an economy.
The third way is specific to people who are in the crypto community. This is a partnership that I am engaging in with a family office in Dubai. Anyone who has Ethereum can stake their Ethereum into these family offices and liquidity pools. They will earn 1.125% per week as a return in Ethereum, and Muvule also earns 1.125% per week as a donation to fund our operations and give out loans. That’s the best way for us to raise money. If someone has Ethereum, they can get a high return, and Muvule also gets a lot of donations, which are obviously better than money that we have to pay back.
This is specific. I’m not sure if you can speak to the tax implications of this. There has been a lot of talk in the crypto community about tax implications of capital gains, and also different types of activities that may be before were not considered taxable events in the past, and now they may be. There has been a lot of back and forth in the Biden administration about that. Needless to say, there has been a lot of discussion around taxes. If a person was to make that investment, would they get the tax benefit of a donation or does that go pass through to the family office?
That’s a good question. I don’t have a firm answer for you, but we could give the tax donation to the person who is staking Ethereum. It’s because of the way that it’s set up, I’m pretty sure that would be the case but I’m not entirely positive. I would have to check with the family office.
We can always do a round two and go back to this. This is the first place I can imagine anyone can stake their crypto and get a built-in potential, likely a tax incentive. A lot of people, who live here in Puerto Rico, so we can erase the need to talk about taxes with crypto because it’s complicated to keep up with. It’s hard even to track everything if you are often trading in the markets on platforms that don’t give you lots of reporting. You can be easily in trouble by not having the information that you need because you didn’t track it yourself constantly. It can be a real nightmare but thinking that you could put your money somewhere and also automatically get a repeated and recurring tax deduction is pretty cool.
I’m going to verify that, and I will get back to you.
I know that decentralized finance and especially in microlending, is a pretty new space. Most of our audiences in the US are crypto-curious at the very least. We don’t always dive into every single detail like taxes as I do, but we try to make sure that this is accessible to people that this might be the first piece of anything about crypto that they consume. It’s always nice to be like, “If you were a user, what would that be like?”
It’s great to see what you are creating for users in Uganda. In terms of what you are doing on a larger scale to shift microfinance from centralization and decentralization, what does that look like? I don’t even know how to frame the question. I’m not sure many of my audience members would either but if we are going to talk about centralized microfinance, how does that shift operationally and its execution when it becomes decentralized?Your competition is your best collaboration. Click To Tweet
If you think about a centralized microfinance institution, that’s what I run and what the whole industry looks like. We are essentially like banks. We can serve people who live near the bank well. When we go out, we have to do due diligence on people. We have to see their business and whatnot. We basically have to become a part of the community to give out a loan effectively.
If we don’t understand the community, it’s very likely that we will default. That leaves a huge portion of people who don’t live in urban areas. They live in rural areas, are farmers, and whatnot. People who are in the most extreme poverty are basically excluded from being able to have access to loans. If they do have access to loans, it’s at a very expensive interest rate because the institution has to travel long distances to do due diligence and collections.
It’s expensive to access capital if they have it at all. With decentralized microloans, the idea would be that people even in these remote areas would be able to have access to cheap capital. They would be able to borrow a little bit of money to invest in their farm and whatnot. Those people are completely unserved. They have no other alternatives.
The way that it would work is that instead of going to a bank, you would go to your friends and family and would ask them, “I want to get a loan. Would you be willing to back me and stake collateral on my behalf?” You get a few friends together and say, “We support you. We know that you are going to put it to good use. You are not going to waste your money.”
They get the community to stake collateral on their behalf and get access to loans from a decentralized lending pool. By doing that, the people who are staking the collateral earn an interest rate because their money is being staked into a liquidity pool, which is earning yield. The borrower doesn’t have to pay an interest rate. The profit is no longer coming from the borrower paying back their $200 plus interest.
The profit is coming back from, “While my money is staked, it’s earning transaction fees and yield.” This is a cool way for communities to support their local friends and family, where they can invest their money and earn interest without having to charge their friend who they are lending their money any interest at all.
Could they even invest in us their collateral and still earn on that?
Talk about a liquidity pool that’s opened up.
The Decentralized Lending Network that created this technology, I’m partnering with them because the way that they plan on introducing their technology into emerging markets is by using microfinance institutions. The institutions who are already doing the microloans to start staking collateral on behalf of their borrower. The microfinance institution gets an extra 3% return. Instead of lending it directly to the borrower, they stake it into a lending pool and get an extra 3% return.
The borrower doesn’t have to pay any more interest. It’s a good way to start introducing this technology to the borrowers. Once these borrowers have enough wealth within their own communities, they can start doing the fully decentralized lending where it’s their friends and family who are staking the collateral.
The fact that you already have an infrastructure and are part of an infrastructure that provides them the reach, and they have the backend, the technology all worked out, that allows you to bring a new product to market. It’s such a wonderful marriage. What is the name of that organization?
It’s the Decentralized Lending Network. Their website is DLN.org.
As a user here, Stateside, can we engage the DLN in some way as well? Do you have to be a part of a microlending ecosystem?
No, there’s going to be a release. It’s not open yet, but investors will be able to come in. They will be able to provide liquidity to give out these loans. They will earn an impact-adjusted return. It’s not going to be the most profitable investment but you can put in a few $100 and know that you are helping people across the world earn their way out of poverty.
There’s a stock fund called the Calvert Fund or whatever. It’s the only impact fund that I could find when I was first trading and investing a long time ago. I was like, “That’s nice.” It’s the only one that’s like, “We won’t invest in oil.” It was so sad. It was like, “We will invest in McDonald’s.” I’m like, “That’s smart, guys. Better than oil.” I have made many investments where it was impact-adjusted returns, meaning-making less money.
It’s also sleeping at night and knowing that you are doing good. How did you end up so altruistic? How did it occur to you? Was it you were exposed to poverty, and it surprised you? You had not seen it before, and then you were like, “Whoa.” You’ve got excited to do something about it. Were your parents like the UNICEF donors? How did this happen?
This is a tricky question. A lot of people don’t like him, but I’m a huge Tony Robbins fan. He has a big message like, “The secret to living is giving.” He ingrained that into me at an early enough age, where it’s in my neural system now. It’s right. At the end of our lives, we are going to end up passing on only our impact in this world. There’s nothing material to pass on. I have looked back at some of the memories where I go back to Uganda and see the change that we are making. Those are my happiest memories. That feeling is what life is all about.
Tony Robbins, people can look down at him all they want. He’s a big rah-rah guy, but I’m sorry, how much can you hate someone who’s going to try to promote people giving as a part of their life goals? That seems a little odd. I’m a Tony Robbins fan, too. Oddly enough, I see a lot of things I could criticize about him but I can’t allow that a lot of human beings, especially the more in the public eye you are, the more you are going to get criticism.
I want to make sure I hit the high notes here. I know you went into what was happening with 0% loans. I want to reinforce that because I have some debt that may be sitting on a credit card at a promotional rate for a little while at 0%. I always look for those things, and I’m like, “I’m going to take advantage of that.” That’s it. Free money or money that doesn’t cost you any extra money to have is not hard to find.The problem is that whenever we look at the most profitable option, it tends to be what's worse for the environment. Click To Tweet
It seems like it’s so much more expensive to be poor than rich. Money gets more and more expensive and difficult to find if you don’t need a lot of it, are not looking for much, and can’t pay back much. The idea that people in such a struggling position would end up with 0% loans. Is this something that you are thinking of bringing to more markets than the emerging markets of the world?
No, this is something that if you are in the states and want to start a business, go to your friends and family, and do fundraise, you can ask them to put some money and tell them, “I’m not going to pay any interest but through the liquidity pool, you will earn at least 3%. You will be able to support startup my family business or whatnot.”
You make a good point. It’s an impact-adjusted return. You are not going to use this as your primary way to earn money. Here’s the crazy thing. There’s $500 trillion in the world economy and about a $5 trillion gap in the access to credit that these poor entrepreneurs, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises need. If everyone stakes 1% of their portfolio into something that they weren’t donating but were plopping it there and earned them 3% interest, that’s still pretty good for 1% of your portfolio. If everyone, every business, and the individual did that, we would completely solve the financial inclusion gap, which is the number one way to eradicate poverty. Anyone who’s considering this, consider doing 1%.
Doing 1% would be on the DLN.org website. That would be the easiest place to do this and get an income impact adjusted return. You come on as the Cofounder of Muvule, but then you end up evangelizing this other company. Can you talk a little bit about how that happened? How did you end up in this position where you are talking about a company that’s not your company necessarily but it’s such a good add-on to the company that you have made?
I was introduced to the crypto world in 2021 and quickly got into it. I very quickly caught up. I remember the first time we met was one of my eye-opening moments. I started attending all these conferences around the world and reading books. I started thinking, “How does this apply to emerging markets?” Everyone is talking about how it’s going to be the solution to bank the unbanked. I haven’t seen anything happen yet.
I went deep into the technology. I educated myself and wrote a white paper on defined microloans. I started speaking about this at different conferences. At one of the conferences in Dubai, someone came up to me and said, “I invested in this company. It sounds like they do exactly what you are talking about. You should meet him. I know you are looking for your tech Cofounder. Maybe he could be the tech Cofounder, and this could be the startup that you get involved with.”
Many people would look at that and think, “What, my competition? He’s already doing what I’m doing.” Many people would go, “He might steal my ideas.” Instead, it’s back to maybe a little Tony Robbins or stuff, this abundance mindset of collaboration instead of competition. We could have so much that we could share or maybe he could fill in the gaps. We could be better together than alone. That’s not everyone’s knee-jerk reaction to hearing that someone else is doing what you are thinking of doing.
I have to point this out. That’s incredible on its own that you would see that opportunity. Some entrepreneurs take it that way, and some take it the other way. They go back into the hole and say, “I need NDAs.” I need for you to go, “I want to meet him. This could be amazing.” It sounds like a unique thing that I don’t see in every single area of the economy or people in personalities.
It’s totally true. I have had the belief that your competition is your best collaboration for my entire career in business. When I started Muvule, I added every employee of every single one of my competitors on LinkedIn and begged them for help and advice. I was like, “I’m getting in way over my head here. I’ve got a business in Uganda. I need advice or a board of advisors.” That was a fun time.
I met with him, and he’s like, “I’ve got the tech 90% built. We are going to be ready to start launching in quarter one.” I was like, “This is so perfect. This is exactly what I want to do. I’ve got a lot of stuff where I am the champion of it. I’m the CEO and the Head of it. This is great because I’m going to be a supporter of the Decentralized Lending Network, but I also don’t have to put 100% of all my time and effort into it.
I can put as much time into it as I have. “One of the reasons why I’m a big advocate of it is because I plan on joining their team as a part-time consultant and advisor. My company is going to be spreading the DLN across Sub-Saharan Africa. We are going to be huge evangelists, not only in Uganda but all across Sub-Saharan Africa.
Talk about accelerating the growth of what you are looking to make and by finding the right people to be along with you. I feel the same way. Maybe it’s also that you mostly serve so many women, not to gender it too much but I do see this general collaborative approach that women have learned that they have to have. Maybe it’s born out of childcare that you can’t be awake every two hours around the clock for months on end and have nobody to help you.
You can’t let somebody go wither on the vine and let their child suffer, too. You have to jump in and help in some way. That collaborative approach sounds like it’s part and parcel of who you are. It’s lovely to see. It doesn’t happen often. I don’t hear from a lot of people that they are that sensitive to the need for people to work in groups for them to sustain whether it’s in who and how you will lend to or how you structure a loan, or how you are structuring your businesses. Where are you going now? It sounds like you’ve got your fingers in a lot of bowls. Are there any other pieces you are looking to round this out with?
This is going to be a broad topic show, but in addition to poverty eradication, the second biggest passion I have is regarding energy. I have also been thinking about how I can start to get more broadly minded, include energy into my portfolio as well. Without getting into too much detail, that’s one big thing that I’m thinking about as well. If I do that, it will make for one pretty killer, sustainable development goal consultant at some point in the future.
You do a lot more than just consult at that point. I have a feeling you might be doing more than consulting. Does it fit in because you see poverty and energy closely related? I think about the people investing in utilities because they are defensive stocks. The users are going to pay their heating bill because they don’t want to go cold. They will default on lots of things but won’t default on that. I wonder if, because that’s so close to how we live comfortably on the planet, that energy and poverty are closely tied. Do you see the two as being closely tied? Do you think they are two cool things that, on their own standalone, are cool?
No, they are closely tied but they are closely tied because of the problems that climate change will hurt the poorest people the most. It’s a problem that rich countries have created that poor people are going to pay for. That’s the tie there. It’s not that poor countries are creating the most pollution or whatnot. It might seem like that.
When I go to Uganda, there are all these motorcycles that are old, cheap motorcycles from China that pollute like crazy. When you go there, the air quality is bad. In Uganda, at least in the city, but then you look at the statistics of how much carbon emissions do they have, it’s a tiny drop in the bucket. The US is half of all carbon emissions in the world.
You look at it, and it’s like, “This is a big problem. The US is causing it.” In places like Uganda, poverty was going down until about a few years ago. It went from 85% to about 15% in 20 years, which was huge. You can imagine that’s huge poverty eradication happening in several years. All of a sudden, it started going up again, not up slowly either. It’s going up by 1% per year, from 15% to 20% over the last few years.
The biggest reason is because of extended drought periods. Uganda is a country that has seasonal droughts, but now the soil is getting drier because as the climate warms up, it evaporates the water out of the soil. It makes the soil drier, harder to grow crops, and the drought season even longer. Poor people in Uganda were getting out of poverty and knocked back into poverty if they were on farms. That’s a big issue.
Energy is one place we can at least go. Let’s track carbon credits or something quantifiable, deal with that, and see if there can be some way to slow down this accelerated problem.The biggest problem right now is we have a trade-off between profitability and sustainability. Click To Tweet
We talked about this a little bit but what I am looking at in terms of energy is carbon credits. The biggest problem is now we have a trade-off between profitability and sustainability. Oil is super cheap. That’s basically the big problem here and those other things, too. The problem is that whenever we look at what’s the most profitable option, it tends to be what’s worse for the environment.
With carbon credits and aligning the incentives of profitability with sustainability, that’s like the core principle of what needs to happen in order for all these other projects to take off. If we want more solar or wind farms and whatnot, we can make it more profitable to create those things by incentivizing them with carbon credits. It’s like not only are you going to be able to sell your energy but you are also going to be able to sell carbon credits on top of that, which then oil and pharmaceutical companies are going to go buy.
If they can have to purchase something to deal with that, you are at least giving somebody the other end of that purchase an incentive to do the right thing and to not add to the problem.
It’s all about incentives.
Making new incentives is the only thing to be doing with DeFi, in my opinion. Incentives and governance structures are my favorite things. How have we already organized ourselves? I’m fascinated with the idea that you can see the most micro-lending doing well in a place for people to act communally in groups of 5 to 10, which is amazing to me. How is that the case? I was raised in a hyper-individualistic country and culture. The idea of finding 5 or 10 people that would truly be that invested in me might be a real struggle for me and most people in the states because of how our culture is made.
Other cultures have something, a greater richness that could be capitalized on, it’s strange to use the word capitalist but to be leveraged and used. They have an untapped resource or richness in how they govern themselves. I think about DAOs and all these ways that we are using technology to organize in a very decentralized manner. Can we take the best rules from the best centralized or decentralized?
It’s historical ways we have organized ourselves and embedded that into our technology so that we can hopefully use the best of what we have already known of ourselves to make it go to scale rather than constantly reinventing the wheel to look like the wheel you have already seen but using slightly different little levers that we pull. I’m always interested in how to make new incentive structures.
Your incentive structures around microfinance have been incredible. I never thought that I would end up running into someone who is doing 0% loans. It’s like, “Are you kidding me? You sound like a scammer,” but you are not. I love that we are able to start making things hopefully seem a little better than the dim outcome they have had before. Thank you for your work.
I forgot one more thing, too. You mentioned how DeFi always sounds too good to be true. Investors in the Decentralized Lending Network not only do get the 3% yield from staking their collateral or liquidity but they also get a governance token. That’s cool because it means that we are now creating a way where you can earn more for the investor.
We can make it a more profitable thing for the investor. If the value of the governance token goes up, you will also be able to earn a higher interest rate. I don’t know until we launched how much it might go up but it could make it way more profitable to give out 0% interest loans. You could never imagine a world where that happens.
What are the other call letters or whatever? What’s it going to be called?
I need to talk with the founder about branding because DLN is not a sexy name for it yet.
It’s the same as the actual company but there might be a better one to use. I have seen a few deflationary tokens that look seem pretty interesting, too. We can definitely come back to this and do a round two on how DLN has worked after the launch. If somebody wants to be involved in DLN now, what could they do? They go to DLN.org. Is there any call to action that’s there now?
You can follow them on the website DLN.org. When there is a big announcement saying, “We can now accept investors,” you will get an email about it.
Head over to DLN.org and see if you can join the investors.
You also can follow me on www.ClarkVarin.com. I will also make a big announcement when that happens because I like to share news about exciting projects like that.
I always try to hit on everything we need to make sure we touch on. It sounds like we hit all the highlights. Do you have anything else you want to share before we take off? You are with a super broad question that has no actual direct answers.
No, I think we covered all of it.
Thank you so much for joining me on the show. This has been great. It has been well worth it to talk about energy, microfinance, eradicating poverty, and Tony Robbins. Hopefully, we will do a round two and talk more about this stuff as things get going and 2022 bears even more fruit. Thank you, Clark, for joining us. It has been great having you.
Thank you so much for reading. We will catch you on the next episode. Take care.
About Clark Varin
In college, I started a travel agency that exposed me to international business. By the time I graduated from school I had made my first major international investment — $70,000 to start a bank in Uganda. As I watched that investment grow, I realized that the biggest opportunities of the century will be in Emerging Markets.
The way I work is I take a macro-view of the world economy, find the gaps, meet the experts on the ground, help build the vision, and then pitch the people that we need to get on board and the investors we need to contribue the capital necessary to pull it off.
Today I’m working on expanding my bank in Uganda and building an eco-wellness resort in Panama. Why the bank? Because I believe it’s the best way to make money and help people. Access to capital is an essential piece of a thriving economy. Why the resort? Because I want to help preserve the environment and culture of this amazing place and pass it down to future generations.