by Randy Martin

If you had never visited Japan’s tsunami-ravaged coast until this week, the bleak landscape where homes and businesses once stood would be sobering.

Having watched the relief effort and the recovery, my visits back to the Tohoku region have been increasingly reassuring. In fact, my recent visit with colleagues from PlaNet Finance Japan and Yukari Mitsuno and Mari Nagahara from NVIDIA was inspiring. We were there to witness the signs of recovery – and we found many.

At an event organized by Kesennuma Shinkin, a local cooperative bank we’re partnering with to support small business recovery, the first round of NVIDIA-funded grants were awarded to 13 entrepreneurs. The recipients from Kesennuma and three neighboring coastal towns have used the funds to start new businesses in the disaster area. Their businesses run the gamut – from a day care center, a fish processor and a baker to a machine repair shop, a mulberry tea producer and an ice-making factory.

In only five months since its inauguration, the grant program has funded the startup of 20 new businesses and supported the recovery of an additional 50 businesses through a loan subsidy program. Well over 300 jobs have been created in the process. These numbers will continue to grow thanks in part to a significant contribution from NVIDIA.

But the program does more than restore jobs – it recreates livelihoods and self-determination. Each of the entrepreneurs has an incredible story to tell and an important contribution to make.

One such person is Tomohiro Kashiwagi, whose repair shop was completely destroyed by the tsunami. Without a building or the capital to buy or build one, he and his wife, Akiko, are starting incrementally by setting up a completely new – and very innovative – business in their home. He is recycling cooking oil into fuel oil.

Kashiwagi has lined up a string of restaurants as a source of used cooking oil. He collects it and refines it using a machine that he bought with his grant. He then sells the fuel for use in converted diesel engines. It sells for about 30% less than commercial diesel fuel. His primary customer so far is the city of Kesennuma, which has converted some of its garbage trucks to run on his recycled vegetable oil. He says they smell like fried chicken when they drive by!

It was a very moving day. I was pleased to get to know our new friends from NVIDIA and to bring them together with our partners at PlaNet Finance Japan and the Kesennuma Shinkin bank. I look forward to having them back again to see how their support is transforming the lives of hardworking entrepreneurs, their families and their community.