While the world is holding its breath to see what pandemic news comes next, a flock of sheep is slowly looking for fresh grass to graze undisturbed. Surprisingly, 500 sheep herded by five border collies are mowing Rotterdam city parks—with none of the carbon emissions of a conventional gas-powered mower. (There are, of course, urine and manure emissions, which make for “all-natural fertilizer.”).

Two female shepherds, Marlous and Maria, are behind the idea of using sheep as a ‘green’ alternative to gas-powered lawn mowers and they’re backed by a small-business loan from Qredits. “We are looking at the past to see the future,” says André Dolsma, Commercial Director at Qredits. “Marlous and Maria have proved to be innovative entrepreneurs and we are proud to support them.”

Qredits is one of the largest non-profit microfinance organisations in Europe and a long-standing partner of the European Investment Bank Group. In the past months, Qredits and the EU bank have been working hand in hand to help thousands of small businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic in the Netherlands.

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Marlous and Maria are behind the idea of using sheep as a ‘green’ alternative to mow Rotterdam city parks. ©Qredits

When people and ideas matter

The little frisson every morning as André leaps out of bed is the same he had as a child, running in the Dutch countryside. Thrilled, curious and big-hearted. Qredits is a reflection of who he is and vice versa. “If your organisation doesn’t inspire passion, I don’t think you’re going to succeed,” says the 49-year-old, who has raised his two teenage children with the same spirit.

COVID-19 blew up plans for many entrepreneurs, causing a lot of stress and panic. From the restaurant owner unable to pay the rent to the experienced manager struggling to stay afloat, Dutch entrepreneurs have had to rethink how they are going survive. André and his team of 25 loan officers listen carefully to each entrepreneur.

“Our conversation often digs deep into the uniqueness of each story. We ask questions, zoom in and help reframe our clients’ strengths and business plans into something viable,” says André. For him, a good match between the loan officer and the customer is crucial. It is clear that this sense of connection is a big part of the company’s urge to lend.

Qredits also offers free coaching and training to help its customers cope with stress and stay resilient. The company does not aim to make a profit, but enables entrepreneurs to make a profit. For a lender, that’s a change in emphasis that has made a world of difference:

  • Since its start in 2009, Qredits has created 30 000 jobs by and through its customers and provided over 20,000 loans
  • 87% of Qredits customers are still active three years after receiving the loan
  • In 2019, 32% of Qredits loans were issued to female entrepreneurs and 12.1% of the company’s clients had a migration background.
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André Dolsma is Commercial Director at Qredits, the largest non-profit alternative finance organization in the Netherlands. ©Qredits

Refugees fight the virus

When COVID-19 hit Europe in March 2020 and masks became the world’s most coveted commodity, a group of entrepreneurs kickstarted the very first Dutch surgical mask factory. Located in Arnhem, Mondmaskerfabriek (“Face-mask factory” in Dutch) has employed residents with a refugee background. The factory’s employees are also following a Dutch language course and other learning programmes offered by the Refugee Company which supports people who have a migrant background.

“We are helping refugees and contributing to the fight against COVID-19,” says André. The face-mask factory received a €250 000 social credit from Qredits.  Mondmaskerfabriek started off with two fully automated mask production machines from China and now produces 100 000 masks a day to serve thousands of customers, including the Dutch Ministries of Health and Social Affairs.

Entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions to the problems caused by the pandemic. Many are looking to turn their COVID-19-inspired innovations into sustainable businesses that will stay alive past the immediate crisis.

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Located in Arnhem, Mondmaskerfabriek has employed residents with a refugee background. ©Qredits

André says that a customer with a take-away shop in Rotterdam was able to buy the shop next door to be able to expand. And a small flower shop in Amsterdam has increased revenues significantly due to local customers—buying locally has become more attraction due to COVID-19. Other small business were forced to operate online, only to discover that online purchases and social media helped them stay competitive.

On a darker note, of course, there is hardly any business for some sectors, including events (e.g. stage builders, sound and lights effects), travel (small agencies, personal travel assistants) and several bars and restaurants.

Guarantees against risk

Many Qredits clients have a weak solvency in their balance sheet, no collateral or little experience. Banks are not willing to help them because of their high risk—a market failure that Qredits has filled with the help of the European Union.