Senior Australian of the Year, David Bussau, sums up his contribution to society simply: “God created me to be an entrepreneur, and I realised that the best thing I had to contribute to society was those entrepreneurial skills. The problem is the poor have never had the assets to be able to go to the commercial sources of finance and, in fact, they don’t even have the sandals on their feet to be able to get in the door of the bank.”
For Bussau, his recognition on Australia Day this year is more a platform for continuing to speak for the poor than a crowning recognition of lifelong achievement—it’s another opportunity to serve others.
Bussau never knew his parents.
Before he was old enough to have any clear memories, he was abandoned at an orphanage in Masterton, New Zealand.
It became the only childhood home he knew. He has said that one of his primary motivations for a life spent in giving to others is that he does not want any other child to go through what he did growing up.
At the age of 15, the orphanage found him a job and a place at a boarding house—and he was on his own.
Determined to be able to make his own decisions in life, Bussau applied his entrepreneurial flair and hard work to doing so, beginning with a single hotdog stand outside a football stadium that, within a few months, grew to half a dozen such stands. A fish and chip shop, and hamburger bar, followed and in his late 20s, now married, he moved to Australia and began working in the construction industry.
On ABC TV’s Australian Story, he said, “Even though I didn’t have knowledge or experience about construction, I think I had the tenacity and aggressiveness to have a go at it,” he told ABC TV’s Australian Story. “From there, within a short period of time, and using my own capital, I bought into the construction company and then bought out the partner, then set up other construction companies to complement that program.”
By age 35, Bussau was a millionaire and seemingly in charge of his destiny.
But questions came with success. “We really felt we had been challenged to look at our lifestyle, assess what we were doing with our lives and what we were doing with what we had,” he recalls. “We had to reconsider where we put our energies and where we put our resources.
“We had reached a point where we recognised the economics of enough.
We had enough to live on for the rest of our life so we turned our attention to setting up a family trust. This trust was the seed for Opportunity International.”
But his story was a little more complicated than that. Moved by the destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day, 1974, Bussau organised a team of tradesmen from his construction company to assist with clean-up and rebuilding. With his family, which now included two young daughters, he moved to Darwin to lend a hand.
Then in 1976, a major earthquake hit Bali, Indonesia, destroying villages and infrastructure. Again, Bussau and his family moved in response to disaster.
“Of course it was strange to start off with,” he begins retelling the story, “we couldn’t even speak the language. But it was the beginning of a journey and a whole new season of life, where we learned to understand and appreciate the poor and see the beauty of the poor, rather than pitying them.
“The village was remote—it was a 14-kilometre walk from the nearest road—and there was no electricity or telephones, toilets or running water.
For our kids, it was a wonderful time.
They look back on it and reminisce about the great time they had living in the village.
“But for me, one of the salient points to come out of this was to be able to relate to people who have nothing. It can be difficult for us in the West—we have so much stuff around us we don’t know what it’s like to have nothing—to go into someone’s home and see that the only piece of furniture they have is a chair and to see the simplicity of their lifestyle.
“What that did to Carol and me was to enable us to see the depravity in our own life, which was cluttered with possessions, ambitions and self-interest. So the poor have really been instrumental in setting me off on a whole new journey, which I have been travelling for 30 years.”
It was here that David Bussau stumbled across the idea of micro-finance, a concept he pioneered which has transformed the approach to combating poverty around the world. “We were building a dam and Ketut—the foreman—was sharing with me one day that he and his wife were about to have their fourth baby,” he says. “But while the baby was still inside the womb, he or she would inherit four generations of debt. He was worried the next generation was going to continue to suffer this indebtedness to loan sharks, who would continue to take 60 per cent of their harvest in payment of the debt.
“He asked me what suggestions I had for how his family might be able to get out of this situation. And I asked him a simple question: what gifts and talents do you have?
He said, ‘My wife is very good at sewing.’ So I said, ‘I tell you what, I’ll loan you some money. I’ll lend you $100 and you buy a sewing machine, make products and take them to the market. And when you make money you can pay me back and I will charge you just a little bit of interest.”
It was an appropriate entrepreneurial response to the situation but had some immediate implications. “We were very aware that if we just gave him a gift then everyone else in the village would also want $100,” Bussau explains. “And we really wanted him to have the dignity of being able to repay it.”
It was the beginning of something big. For Ketut and his family, it was the end of poverty—they now export furniture, own a fleet of taxis and employ a number of people from their village. For Bussau, the idea of micro-finance had sprouted. He set up a family trust to begin to implement this concept on a wider scale which, in conjunction with US businessman Al Whittaker, in 1979 grew into Opportunity International.
“When we started this 30 years ago, we were ostracised and even despised by the development set, by the ‘good guys’ who were alleviating poverty,” he says.
“Most of them had the ‘Robin Hood’ approach of taking from the rich and giving to the poor—and then the rich keep getting it back from the poor.
“The prevailing paradigm 30 years ago—and, in some places, still today— is that the resources of the world are small and we need to find how to cut the cake so everyone has a slice. But for me, the question was not ‘why is the cake so small’ but ‘why don’t we make a bigger cake and then more people can have a piece of it?’ “So the basis was the biblical concept of enabling people to create wealth so they can enjoy the riches of the earth.
Not enabling them to be dependant on others but to live with the dignity of providing for themselves.”
Today, Opportunity International is a worldwide development organisation, which has given 1.25 million small loans to people in 23 countries. Their work creates a job in the developing world every 30 seconds and they estimate that every permanent job created directly lifts six people out of poverty.
The numbers are impressive but the stories Bussau is first to tell are of families and communities strengthened in ways that are not just economic, mothers—84 per cent of these loans are made to women—with confidence to rebuild their lives and hope that their children will not have to overcome the poverty that has bound them.
“Then there’s the other end of the spectrum,” he adds. “One of our clients was a woman who used to sell onions on the side of the road. She received a small loan from us and—to cut a long story short—is now a conglomerate.
She floated the company last year and now has 2300 employees.”
So, now a 68-year-old “senior Australian,”
what keeps Bussau working and travelling as much as he does for a variety of projects and causes?
“I think a lot of it is self-centredness— I enjoy the challenge,” he says.
“But I think deep down in my spirit there is a need to respond to my destiny, the purpose for which I was put on the planet. God gifted me to do this.
“My perception of God is probably screwed up a bit. But my perception of God is like an investment banker—and He expects a return on His investment.
In fact, the Bible says He wants a hundredfold return on the investment, not just 10 per cent.
“God has poured so many blessings into my life and my family, so He has given me a responsibility to give that return on investment. This keeps driving me to seek how I can be used to contribute to God’s kingdom.”
Additional sources: ABC TV’s Australian Story and Opportunity International www.opportunity.org.au.