1 of 2
Provided by US Synthetic,
These three women are among 17,000 Kenyans who have received microloans from Yehu Microfinance to start their own businesses.

When Louis Pope retires as chief executive of US Synthetics in January, he's moving into a nice house on a beautiful beach — in Kenya.

But the 62-year-old isn't planning to settle down. Instead, Pope will take a hands-on approach to directing two businesses he has created to lift the poorest people in Kenya out of abject poverty.

"This is what I'm interested in. It's my hobby," he said. "You have got to do something with your money besides being rich. I find it a lot more fun than playing golf."

Pope formed Orem-based US Synthetics in 1978 and built the company into the world's leading producer of synthetic diamond drill bits, a critical component in oil and gas exploration.

Along the way, he discovered a passion for helping others.

A weeklong visit with West Jordan-based Choice Humanitarian to rural Mexico in 1996 to help build a school was the first step in what became a life-changing journey for Pope. A year later, he went to Kenya with the same organization.

Pope has since returned more than 25 times to the former British colony on Africa's east coast on a personal mission to help "the poorest of the poor," he said.

"When I put my feet on Kenyan soil, I get buzzed," Pope said. "Everyone who goes there with me is immediately excited. This is where I have to be."

During the past 10 years, Pope has established two Kenyan-based companies — Yehu Microfinance, which offers loans to women living in extreme poverty, and Coast Coconut Farms, which produces coconut oil using low-tech methods developed by a group of BYU engineering students as one of the school's Capstone projects. Pope created a third company, Basa Body, based in the US Synthetics Orem plant, to use the coconut oil to make body lotion and similar products.

Coast Coconut Farms provides work for more than 100 Kenyan families, from farmers' cooperatives to harvest coconuts to groups of micro-franchisees that operate small-scale oil presses.

Yehu Microfinance offers loans that average about $135 to women who have had no access to money lenders in the past to start small businesses.

"We have got about 17,000 ladies right now," Pope said, "and we think we can help them make sustainable jobs. Their poverty is such that if we help them raise their income by $1 a day, we've made a difference."

Pope's enthusiasm for this work is infectious. Photos of Kenyan women who have benefited from the companies line the walls of the US Synthetic offices; dozens of workers from the company have been to Kenya to volunteer to help the poor; and Pope said about half of the employees donate money to Yehu Microfinance, money that is matched by US Synthetic.

In January, Pope and his wife, Chriss, will take the next step when they move into a home they are building near Mombasa. They plan to live there nine months out of the year so Pope can focus his energy on his Kenyan businesses and perhaps launch some new ones — all of them designed to provide work for the Kenyan poor.

"We are going to try and create some jobs and perfect the jobs we have already started. I just feel a responsibility," he said.

Chriss Pope said her husband would never settle for a relaxing retirement.

"He's got high energy. He can't sit still for one second," she said. "He'll play golf socially, but if you ask what he's excited about, it's about his projects in Kenya. He just loves to see how happy they are and how they are so anxious to have their own business and to be able to send their kids to school."

Chriss Pope has accompanied her husband on about a third of his trips to Kenya.

"It was the last time I was there that I knew I could do something worthwhile there," she said.

The Popes will be leaving behind five adult children and 21 grandchildren, but they have plans to keep the family connected.

"We'll have Internet access, and we'll talk to our kids," Chriss Pope said. "But they are also very excited to come over and visit."

One of the Popes' daughters and her husband have expressed an interest in moving to the country for a time so their children can attend Kenyan schools and experience the culture.

"Our whole family is really into this," she said.

The presence of the LDS Church in the area — Mombasa has three branches — means the Popes can stay close to their faith. And as a former British colony, Kenya has two official languages — English and Swahili.

When you ask Louis Pope about the hardship of moving to Africa, he just smiles.

"Kenya has no gold or diamonds. We are their only asset," he said.

And the home he is building is nice.

"He'll be living in a beautiful house on an incredibly beautiful beach," said Douglas Jackson, president of Deseret International Foundation and a friend of the Popes.

But Jackson said Louis Pope is more interested in doing good than living well.

"He's been successful," he said. "He feels an obligation to take his success and make the world a better place."

e-mail: mhaddock@desnews.com