By Caree Edson, KF 14, Armenia
There were incredible stories of resiliency and the seizing of opportunity on the Kiva website that moved me to sacrifice my stable income, access to hot water and balanced nutrition, not to mention consistent contact with my friends and family back home for a few short months in pursuit of furthering my knowledge in the field of microfinance. In short, the reason I became a Kiva Fellow was to fulfill Kiva’s mission of “connecting people through lending to alleviate poverty”. I could think of nothing I’d rather be doing with my days than meeting farmers and small business owners on the other side of the world and sharing their stories with all of you. I informed a few borrowers last week that I journeyed all the way from the US to meet them and hear their stories, and I meant every word.
Last Friday, the staff from Nor Horizon once again welcomed me with open arms and a gift to include me in their 5th year anniversary celebration that I unfortunately could not attend but heard a lot about as I was introduced to another branch in Ijevan, Armenia. The anniversary party took place in Tsakghadzor (a beautiful town known for its skiing and winter landscapes). The staff stayed the weekend and spent their time reviewing what they had accomplished the previous year as well as their ambitions for this coming year. It was agreed that Nor Horizon would attempt to expand and include more farms and reach small villagers. This MFI is currently serving over 700 clients in the Sevan region alone and over 300 in Ijevan. Both branch offices have a staff of only four team members, but by appearances alone, they somehow manage to stay on top of all of their clients while offering exceptional services and a smile. In addition to microloans, Nor Horizon also offers training on the details and benefits of entrepreneurship in villages for anyone who is interested. They also rent out equipment to local farmers such as the electronic milker seen below. As part of a pilot program to attract more customers while also giving a helping hand to those dealing with unemployment, the Ijevan branch is also launching a program to lend 40,000AMD (approximately $106) to new customers with 0% interest and fees. They hope that this extension will empower more clients to start their own businesses and flourish as others in the region have.
By the end of a gorgeous day in the lush valley, I had met 3 grateful farmers, 4 business owners and their families. I learned all about a swine disease that wiped out one client’s entire pig farm (50 pigs died last year) as well as the hardships of living life along a conflict-ridden border. This client now has access to life saving vaccines for the piglets and purchased 16 with his loan (all have survived and are plump and ready to be sold).
I also had the privilege to meet amazing families and elderly parents that take an arduous trek to the mountains every year with cattle during the hot months. Two women had been in business for over 30 years and boasted a significant number of clients. I learned how business in the busy marketplace was great during the summer, but surviving all year long required a tremendous amount of savings and loans sometimes to get the season started again. I saw mini greenhouses where farmers grow crops to re-plant when they are bigger outside. One-by-one, each client reiterated the importance of their Kiva loans on their family’s business and survival- they simply could not have made it through the financial crisis without these loans and are eternally grateful to be able to keep their farms and businesses alive.
Before I came here, I had expectations of what microfinance looked like in my head and one family exemplified just this. Anahit Meliksetyan’s son returned from the military to unemployment in Ijevan. He set up a table outside his parents’ home in 1993 and sold cigarettes to passersby. As it turned out, his business was located on one of the busiest roads in town- connecting two villages and he did so well, that the shop continued to expand and eventually turned into a family-run convenience store that sells everything from nylons to soda and detergent. There was so much inventory that one cooler had to stand outside the shop. This is one of the most popular stores in Ijevan today because the owners are able to keep costs low while offering such a diverse selection of inventory. This was Anahit’s second interview with a Kiva Fellow and she beamed with pride as she showed us around her shop. The biggest challenge, she says, is inflation. It is beyond difficult to keep prices low and compete with other convenience stores when inflation is so high in Armenia. Her son showed us all around his property and the beautiful views of the valley below. He has a small farm in the backyard and pigs that he bought with the income from the store. He even planted a banana tree and is hopeful that it will survive in this climate and would like to start his own bee-keeping business in the future as well as expand the shop. His young daughters ran around showing off and will no-doubt be involved in the family business as they get older. I imagine what an impact the family business’s success will have on their futures.
It’s an incredible experience to witness firsthand the impact of these loans on the lives of borrowers and their families. I am grateful for the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with the hard workers at Nor Horizon that are out making the treks to villages in their 4x4s everyday to ensure that farmers and small business owners in Ijevan can gain access to credit and make it through the hard times.
Caree Edson is a Kiva Fellow serving in Armenia with both Nor Horizon and SEF International. Interested in becoming a Kiva Fellow? Click here for more information. To join Team Armenia and lend to entrepreneurs in Ijevan and beyond, click here.