The Red Notebook and the Glue That Holds the Whole Story Together
By Taylor Akin, KF9, Togo
Sleep-deprived and over-heated, I sat in front of the fan in the loan officers’ room. I had been waiting for a loan officer at the WAGES branch office in Hédzranawoé for over an hour and sat unmoving as the room buzzed with activity all around me. Loan officers ran in and out, clients sat down and stood up, phones rang and calls were made, passbooks opened and closed, pencils scratched paper, sweat stained foreheads. I looked at the loan officer sitting across the desk opposite me. Adam is one of the kindest people I have met since my time here at WAGES, and I have had the opportunity to visit clients with him on several occasions. He is gentle, quiet, smiles easily and works extremely hard. I watched him flip through papers and carefully write the names of clients on a yellow post-it. With every name, he would “tsk tsk,” exclaim a high-pitched “ah” sound of frustration, and shake his head.
My eyes narrowed as I became increasingly curious about what he was up to. “What are you doing?” I asked. Adam explained that he was making a list of WAGES clients who were late on repayment. “Some people just don’t understand,” he said. “You have to repay! It’s not a gift, it’s a loan!” He “tsk tsk”ed, “ah”ed, and shook his head as he scanned the list in his hand. He explained that he was going to visit the clients that morning and “encourage” them to repay. Well, the word he used was “chauffer” meaning to put on the pressure or heat. I had trouble imagining this friendly man taking a firm stand in the name of microcredit, but after listening to him tell me about how some clients simply refuse to repay, I wanted to know how this encouragement took form.
Often, WAGES clients repay their loan in installments on the same day every month. Adam explained that when he meets with a defaulting client, he has two complimentary approaches. He will first clarify the process of a loan, how it is meant to be repaid and that it is not, in fact, a donation. He will then suggest an alteration to the repayment schedule. A client can opt for repaying in daily, minimal installments. In the end, the amount repaid is the same, but it is less of a burden on the client than having to pay a monthly lump sum.
“And what if that doesn’t work?” I asked. “Well, then their names go in there,” he replied as he slid a red notebook in my direction. “Oh no! Le cahier rouge!” I laughed. “Yes, the red notebook,” he responded, his face solemn. There before me was an alphabetized list of all the branch’s clients who had defaulted on their loan. Adam explained that each loan officer must refer to the book before allowing a client to apply for a loan. If their name is found, their application will be refused.
I watched in awe for another hour as Adam would forcefully call clients and hang up before they could explain why they hadn’t repaid. He then dashed out of the room exclaiming “She’s going to leave!” and ran to catch a client before she left the branch office.
To be sure, this scene unfolding before me can seem rather unsettling to the outsider. Certainly, some clients have extremely legitimate reasons for being unable to repay. Sometimes a family member has fallen ill, or they have fallen ill themselves. At other times, their own customers have refused to pay for the products purchased on credit or supply costs have increased. By the same token, others do not. According to Adam, some clients just simply refuse to repay. While our sympathies tend to lean towards the client in these tough economic times, it is important to remember the middle man.
By way of contrast, the camaraderie between entrepreneur and loan officer is an undeniable constant. In my many visits to WAGES clients, I noticed how the officers are greeted in such a friendly manner; you would think they had been lifelong friends. Smiles dance across faces, hands are shaken, and friendly conversation is exchanged. Over the last 4 months, it has become quite clear that the relationship between entrepreneurs and their representing loan officers goes well beyond a “strictly business” relationship.
As a result, default not only reflects on the borrowers, but their loan officers as well. These MFI employees are single-handedly responsible for maintaining a smooth and regular repayment process for hundreds of clients. This is quite the burden to bear. They listen to countless excuses for not repaying: some understandable, others not. At the end of the day, their job is to ensure that that process of money flow from Kiva lenders to the MFI to the client and back again remains as flawless as possible.
I looked at the faded white posters lining the walls of the office “le crédit c’est la confiance.” Credit is confidence, credit is trust. It’s amazing how much the system depends on trust: Between Kiva and their partner MFIs, between lenders and borrowers, between loan officers and clients. And it is the loan officers who work everyday to ensure that this trust remains credible, intact, and maintained. Without them, the Kiva story would cease to exist. They are the glue that holds the whole book together.
Taylor Akin is finishing up her 16th and final week working with WAGES in Lomé, Togo. She is grateful to both WAGES and Kiva for making this experience one to remember, and looks forward to the perspective she will gain in the processing she is bound to do post-fellowship. She plans on writing one final blog post before returning home to her much missed family and friends in Toronto.