By Stephanie Harp
As soon as Bertrand Nikuze Muguberi heard about the low-interest business loans available through the Indus Fund and cPort Credit Union, he hoped one could help him and his two partners open Karibu Kwetu, a new bar and lounge near Portland’s Western Promenade. “I heard it from a friend who applied and knew that some new businesses can get help from the fund. I went to cPort right away and asked about it, and then I applied,” he said.
The Indus Fund launched in late 2020, in partnership with cPort, as “a community-supported micro loan program for the immigrant community in Maine,” according to the website. The idea is to provide capital for immigrant business owners who may not yet have had an opportunity to establish enough credit in the U.S. to be eligible for loans at reasonable rates; fixed at 3.5%, the Indus Fund interest rate is far below what financial institutions typically offer. Any first-generation New Mainer who lives or has a business in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec, Sagadahoc, or York county is eligible to apply for up to $10,000. So far, the fund has provided 18 loans, with two more in process, according to cPort CEO Gene Ardito.
“It’s a really low rate compared to other loans, especially at this time,” said Honorine Uwishema, Branch Manager at cPort’s Forest Avenue branch in Portland, who is in charge of the Indus Fund for all of cPort. “They can call us and fill out an application over the phone or in person, whether it’s just a start-up or they already have a business established. Within two or three days, we’ll get back to [them] with a decision.”
With an opening planned for late July, a bar and lounge might have remained just an idea without the Indus Fund. “It has made a difference,” Muguberi said. “It’s a new business, so it requires so many things, and we couldn’t just do it with our own savings. So the Indus Fund has really been helping a lot, especially in finishing up and winding up the whole thing so we can get going.”
He and business partners Antoine Bikamba and Thierry Mugabe already are involved in the community. Bikama is a former vice president of the Rwandese Association of Maine and Mugabe is president of the Burundi Community Association of Maine. Muguberi, a youth organizer, is from Burundi as well. They would like for Karibu Kwetu – which means “welcome to us” in Swahili – to become a community gathering spot. Bikamba previously was one of the owners of 207 Bar and Restaurant, and Mugabe owned Buja Bear Bar. The three expect that Karibu Kwetu’s atmosphere and snack menu will be “mostly African, Caribbean, that type of thing,” Muguberi said.
They would like for Karibu Kwetu – which means “welcome to us” in Swahili – to become a community gathering spot.
About a mile away from where Muguberi and his partners are busy preparing Karibu Kwetu is Mimio’s Boutique, a grocery store that Mimie Mobesha started in 2017. She later moved from her original Forest Avenue location to Portland Street to be closer to the affordable apartments where many of her customers live. Last year, she and her sister Madalena Macano opened Eprhata Fashion.
Mobesha’s father had heard about the Indus Fund from a bank teller when he was making a business transaction for the store. “And then I went to them to see if I can get a little bit of help,” she said. Before the loan, she had been using her own savings to help the store. “It wasn’t easy.” The loan allows her to add more orders. “More stuff that I wasn’t able to get because it’s a set amount. So I can order every two weeks,” she said. Her customers frequently request a specific type of fish, which she previously had trouble stocking. “That one I wasn’t able to afford because it’s a certain amount you need to [order] before he will bring it to you. Now I don’t have to travel to New York every month or every two weeks…. . With this money, it’s like it bumps you up.”
Every day, Mobesha knows the loan is making a difference. “You see movement in the store. You buy this week, and next week you have to buy another one. The money is in your hands. It makes it easy. You can go out with the money and buy stuff,” she said.
Through the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, the Indus Fund program also can introduce business owners to advisory organizations such as Maine Technology Institute, Coastal Enterprises Institute, Maine Center for Entrepreneurs, New Ventures Maine, SCORE, and others.
All this is free. They will help you with your business if you are struggling with finances, help with taxes, give you advice about operations, The first step is just to get a loan, but they also want to make sure your business is successful – especially for the start-up, especially if they don’t have experience in the business side of things, if they have the money and don’t know what they’re going to do next.
– Honorine Uwishema
The Indus Fund was Kerem Durdag’s idea. Now president and chief operating officer of the Biddeford-based GWI Great Works Internet, he has stood in the shoes of first-generation business owners trying to get a loan, and he wanted to help ease the way for others. “This comes from a wellspring of desire to redress the lackings of the past,” he told Amjambo in 2021. “There are inequities out there, there are xenophobic attitudes out there. And we want to close the gap in an infinitesimal way, but do our part.”
As a credit union that already had deep roots in immigrant communities, cPort was an ideal choice. “This is a really interesting partnership between a traditional financial institution, in our case a credit union,” its CEO Ardito said, “and a group of community-minded people who wanted to give back and help, especially as it relates to the immigrant community. How can we leverage our experience – because we truly are leaders in serving the immigrant community in banking services.”
The credit union already provided microloans prior to the Indus Fund, but they couldn’t offer such a low rate. “That’s the difference,” Ardito said. “These loans are backed by deposits by the community members [who contribute to the fund]. In the event there is a loss, it would be backstopped by them, versus by cPort. So therefore the rate is much lower because the risk is lower.”
Having many New Mainer employees at cPort helps build trust within immigrant communities, for regular credit union business and for the Indus Fund program. “Your organization should represent your community,” he said. “If your employee base doesn’t represent your community, it makes it harder to interest, and in our case to serve, our community. The identity of our organization is one of our strengths… . This is not for some philanthropic reason. This is good business. It has to be or else it’s not sustainable.”
Breaking down barriers is one key to cPort’s – and the Indus Fund’s – success. “That’s actually a huge issue,” Uwishema said. “Most of the time when we reach out to the community, either someone from the community comes with them, or we use a translation company. They can bring a friend or anybody they trust… . They don’t even need to do the loan that day. They just want to get to know what’s going on. They trust this bank because they have friends who bank here.”
Having a prior account at cPort is not a requirement for applying to the Indus Fund. “I’m hoping that more people will know about it and will come to us,” she said. “The money’s available. We just need people to come over. They don’t need to bank with us; they just need to be willing to work with us and we will help them out.”
To learn more about the Indus Fund, see www.theindusfund.com. The “apply” button takes a reader directly to the cPort website to begin the underwriting process.