Tianshan Road in PingZhuang, Chifeng Prefecture, Inner Mongolia, is a long way from the familiar – a frontier, on levels too numerous to mention.  But if you squint a little through the hard March light, what comes to mind is a mid-sized city in western Pennsylvania, complete with graying piles of leftover snow and the sharp tang of coal smoke.

Go about as far away as you possibly can go, only to find home again.  Go figure.

Although we’re here at the beginning – microfinance in Chifeng Prefecture is barely a year old, and Accion Microfinance Bank (AMB) is only one of three foreign microfinance companies in the region – some things remain universal:  opportunities, ideas, entrepreneurs.   Yue Hongwei and his wife, Jhang Yanan, are among AMB’s very first clients in China.   They have borrowed 20,000 Yuan — $3,000 — for 12 months to support not one, but two new ventures:  Yue Hongwei’s modest taxi business, and the Wujia Barbecue Shop here on Tianshan Road, of which Jhang Yanan is clearly in charge.

It’s just past 4pm, the late afternoon sun slanting through the plate glass windows and casting long shadows across the restaurant’s few high-backed wooden booths.  The Wujia is about to open for the day – and will remain open until 1 or 2am tomorrow morning.

Jhang Yanan shows us the kitchen, a narrow, high-ceilinged room at the back whose walls are stained black from charcoal that glows in the deep, narrow hearth.  Seven or eight bowls of sauces and marinades wait in front of the fire, ready for skewers of pork, beef, lamb and chicken.  She reaches into the small freezer and takes out a few specialty items popular with her customers: lamb hearts, pork knuckles and…what are those?  Accion’s David Bian translates, and I blanch.  The world may be small, but the human appetite remains enormous.

No customers have arrived yet, so I sit down with Jhang Yanan in a booth and switch on the tape recorder.

Am I crazy, I ask her, to come all this way to hear more about the business?  She giggles and, like any good entrepreneur, says only that she hopes our visit will draw customers.

Is the restaurant open seven days a week?  She laughs, like one would at a child’s foolish question.

Can she possibly be old enough to have a 15-year old daughter?  She laughs at me again, but this time in a completely different way.

The couple bought the Wujia only eight months earlier, and though their experience as restaurateurs has been limited, they are determined to make it work.  They could have borrowed money from family to get their start – the common route in a country where small working-capital loans are virtually non-existent.  But relatives, it is explained to me, don’t accept repayment on the installment plan.  And while money from family is generally loaned interest-free, there’s always some kind of premium that also needs to be factored in.

When Jhang Yanan heard about Accion from a friend in the PingZhuang shopping center, steps from Accion’s first Chinese branch office, she told her husband, and together they joined a modest, but growing, group of borrowers.

Today  those clients number more than 500, divided between Accion’s branches in PingZhuang and Hongshan County – capitalism writ small on the northern edge of China, in a place that reminds us a little of Pittsburgh, and a lot about the common desire for a better life.

Written for Ventures, Accion ‘s bi-annual newsletter, December 2010. 

Header image: coal mining in Inner Mongolia, courtesy of Visual Hunt.

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