“I went swimming yesterday in the Amazon.  It was pretty cool.”

I fired off that brief email to my little sister on Friday afternoon while waiting for the TAM flight from Manaus to Miami.  In addition to being gloriously supportive of her brother, she’s got a fine appreciation for the exotic.

Rightly so.  For a norteamericano, ‘Amazon’ ranks right up there on the Scale of Cool with…well, Inner Mongolia, for one.  When I tell people what we do, they look at me with wonder and envy.  When they ask me where we do it, I sometimes just say, ‘All the hot countries.’

As we like to say, we work in the difficult places, and cool, more often than not, means hard.  Take Manaus.  From one perspective, it’s a vibrant, honking, sprawling place, bursting with 21st Century promise and spirit and a reputation for entrepreneurialism.  People come here from all over Brazil – to the middle of the Amazon, where the primary way in is by boat or plane – for jobs.  The Honda plant in Manaus (and there are many, many other brand-name companies in the Industrial Sector, too) builds something on the order of 5,725 motorcycles per day.

“Manaus isn’t like anywhere else in Brazil,” Brazilians keep telling you.  And then you think that, if it were, watch out, world.  Manaus is the future, flexing its muscles.

Then there’s the other side, just across the river.  Hop a water taxi or excursion boat from the city pier and cross the Rio Negro (root beer-colored), or venture even a short distance up the Solimões (chocolate milk):  pink dolphins, water lilies big enough to dance on, toucans that glide across the sky in pairs, and fuzzy brown tarantulas as big as your fist.  I know, because we coaxed one out of its hole with a pointy stick.

And heat – did I mention the heat?

This is the part of the globe that inspired everyone from Teddy Roosevelt and Hiram Bingham, to Percy Fawcett, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the camp-followers and authors who traced their exploits in Boy’s Own-style adventure books:  The River of Doubt, The Lost City of Z and The Lost World, to name just three.

Someone – John Fowles, I think – once wrote, “If you‘re not curious about the world, what are you curious about?”   That philosophy runs straight through the lineage of notable explorers – and would, I’ve always thought, serve Accion well as a tagline.

‘Undeveloped’ doesn’t mean you have to leave Manaus, though.  Despite the boom-boom economy in evidence everywhere, many people remain unserved by any type of formal financial services.  Brazil’s Northern region, which comprises Amazonas and six other states and boasts a total population of 14.7 million, is home to an estimated 1.9 million microentrepreneurs – only 8 to 10 percent of whom have been able to access financial services from banks or microfinance organizations.  The Northern region covers 48 percent of the land mass of Brazil, but remains the second-poorest region in the country.

Accion Microfinanças’ mission is to help address that.  Finally.

Finally, because the arc of MFI creation in new regions of the world is often a long and bendy one.   We first requested approval from the Brazilian Central Bank to launch an SCM – Sociedade de Crédito ao Microempreendedor  –  in March of 2009.  Preliminary consent came in September of 2009, and President Lula signed off in November of that year.  But it took yet another year before final agreement came down from the Bank.  Incorporated in December of 2010, Accion Microfinanças made its first loan on February 1st of this year.

The inauguration is almost anti-climactic, given the route to get here.  Almost, but fortunately for CEO Eduardo Lucchesi and his staff, being conducted and celebrated with the appropriate and deserved fanfare.  Board members Diana Taylor, Gustavo Herrero and Nancy Truitt are here; so are Tomas Miller from the IDB, and Luis Felipe D’Avila, both co-investors in the MFI.

Film producer Steve Atlas is here, documenting the inauguration and Accion’s 50th anniversary year.   It was Steve, an Accionista in Venezuela and Brazil in the late ‘60s, who made ‘The Recife Experiment,’ tracing the route of microfinance in Brazil – coming full circle, both he and us.

A Crítica is here, too – the Amazon’s biggest newspaper.  And The New York Times is following Diana Taylor around for two days, tracing her role as ACCION’s board chair.  New York Society wants to know.

I look around sometimes and can’t help but marvel at what we, and microfinance, have become.

From a mere 150 clients today, Accion Microfinanças plans to reach 1,000 by year’s end, and 13,000 by the close of 2013.  By then the MFI plans to operate out of five branches, with 65 loan officers, and also provide services through small, automated kiosks and other agent outlets.  Micro-insurance and financial education will come sooner – by the end of next year.

From some angles the numbers look daunting, but the challenge is tempered by the passion and commitment shared among Eduardo’s young loan officers.  Add in the warmth and openness and vibrancy that the people of this country embody, and the potential becomes obvious.

Every time I come back from my travels in Latin America, I think:  In my next life, I want to be a Latino.

I’ve refined that.  In my next life, I want to be a Brazilian.

Written for Accion’s employee intranet, June 2011. Photo: Manaus waterfront. John Rae for Accion.

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