by Sylvia Ross

Sylvia Ross, senior communications officer at Mercy Corps, recently visited the northeastern region of Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami nearly one year ago. She writes about Mercy Corps’ $2 million partnership with NVIDIA to help jump-start the local economy through a small business recovery program.

One year after the tsunami, Japan is slowly recovering – one small business at a time.

With the anniversary of the tsunami in Japan looming, I set out to visit the country’s coastal area, which experienced unimaginable destruction 12 months ago. The purpose of my visit was to monitor Mercy Corps’ programs – supported, in part, by NVIDIA – aimed at helping the local communities recover from the disaster, and to understand how the tsunami survivors benefit from the generous support of our donors.

Upon arrival to the tsunami zone, it was evident: even the famed Japanese work ethic and drive are no match for the beast that was the March 11th tsunami. I was not prepared for the vivid damage, destruction and debris that I saw. It was jarring, disturbing to the eye – unnatural to see sights such as a rusted, mangled train car atop an office building.

Imagine two square miles along the ocean, once home to a quaint town is now flat with no buildings, no grass – just dirt and outlines of building foundations. Entire towns are gone. Odd objects –  a hospital bed, a rusted rudder, a photo album – now pepper the landscape in the most unexpected places.

After enduring these dreary images day after day, you can imagine my glee when I met the people who directly benefit from Mercy Corps’ work.

The tiniest survivors enjoy a daycare in Kesennuma that
was completely washed out by the tsunami last year and
recently restarted with the help of a Mercy Corps grant

They are the entrepreneurs who are restarting their small businesses, giving the crippled local economy a much needed jump-start and providing goods and services to other tsunami survivors.

Take, for example, the 69-year-old family-owned bakery that reopened its doors after having lost everything in the tsunami. Or the print shop owner whose business was completely flooded but has since been able to re-open and hire an employee. Or the young moms who now have jobs making canned goods while they bring their babies to work. Or the infant daycare owner who was able to open her doors again after the last one was decimated. Or the kimono shop owner who has restarted her business but now focuses on restoring precious, water-damaged kimonos. Thanks to the generosity of NVIDIA employees, many more entrepreneurs will reopen their doors.

Everyone I met expressed profound gratitude for the assistance they are receiving in order to re-start their livelihoods. In many cases, returning to work is the only normal part of their still surreal daily lives. For the next two years, NVIDIA’s donation to Mercy Corps will provide microfinance assistance to more than 100 decimated small businesses and new start-ups in the Tohoku region of Japan.

Seeing signs of economic progress provides some comfort and gives me hope that little by little, the people here will chip away at the astronomical challenge laid out before them. Small businesses are crucial to the local economy. In fact, they are the local economy – without them, quite certainly, life in this region could not go on.

The local officials estimate that rebuilding efforts will take between 10 and 15 years. With help from NVIDIA, Mercy Corps is proud to contribute to laying the groundwork for this tremendous effort.