Posts filed under ‘blogsherpa’

The Women of MCDT

By: Abhishesh Adhikari

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One of the Kiva partner MFIs that I am helping in Uganda is Micro Credit for Development and Transformation (MCDT.)  It is based in Kampala and provides financial services primarily to low-income women who come to Kampala from remote areas of Uganda. Even though the average loan size for a borrower at MCDT is only about $200, it is amazing how impactful the loans have been in helping these women become financially independent.

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8 July 2013 at 16:42

What Green Means in Mongolia

a massive silver statue of Chinggis Khan looms 40m high on a site where, as legend has it, he found his golden whip

a massive silver statue of Chinggis Khan looms 40m high on a snowy spring morning at Tsonjin Boldog, east of UB

Spring may have arrived in Mongolia, but for two Kiva staff who visited me in April, winter gave one last hurrah and dumped the largest snowfall I’ve seen since being here (a whopping 2 inches!).

If you’ve had a chance to read some of my past blog posts, you’ll already know that winter in Mongolia is a big deal—even for a Canuck like me. (more…)

31 May 2013 at 16:45

A Kiva Zip Entrepreneur in Chicago

By: Abhishesh Adhikari

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One of the best parts about my Kiva Fellowship has been the opportunity I get to meet and interact with entrepreneurs. During the 4 months that I spent in Kyrgyzstan, I helped Bai Tushum (Kiva’s partner MFI) launch a new Startup Loan Product and met a wide variety of entrepreneurs all across that country. After I got back from Kyrgyzstan in January, I have been working on a new Kiva project called Kiva Zip, trying to expand it here in Chicago.

Kiva Zip is a new initiative to make interest-free, small business loans to entrepreneurs in the United States. This new lending model is based on community relationships whereby entrepreneurs can request interest-free loans (up to $5000 for the first loan) based on endorsements from organizations or prominent individuals in their communities. Lenders can view the profiles of these entrepreneurs on Kiva Zip’s website, and lend $25 or more at a time.

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17 April 2013 at 03:24

Of Baby Animals and Borrowers in Selenge

Spring has arrived in Mongolia! That means warmer weather (afternoons creeping closer and closer to the double digits)… and, of course, baby animals!

I had the opportunity to travel to Selenge aimag (province) last week with XacBank, one of Kiva’s partners in Mongolia. (more…)

13 April 2013 at 04:33

What I Learned from Borrower Visits: 4 Dominican Experiences

by Rose Larsen | KF20 | Dominican Republic

One of my first tasks upon arriving in the Dominican Republic was to visit 10 borrowers, chosen at random from all of the borrowers with ASPIRE (Kiva’s partner MFI), to verify data and find out how they are doing on their loan. This was an exciting but challenging introduction to daily Dominican life, as I navigated Santo Domingo and the surrounding areas via shared taxis, public buses, motorcycles, the metro and my own feet. I traversed bustling neighborhoods in the center of Santo Domingo, small towns in the mountainous interior of the country and everywhere in between, seeking out 10 lucky individuals to interview for Kiva’s audit of ASPIRE.

One of ASPIRE's branch offices

One of ASPIRE’s branch offices

As a recent arrival in the country, it was a great experience to learn more about the Dominican Republic and what it’s really like to live here. Though each visit was uniquely interesting in its own right, four experiences stood out as having taught me a lot about what life is like for Kiva borrowers in the DR.

1. Dominicans have a very strong connection to the United States

I have often been surprised by the number of Dominicans who speak to me in near perfect English. Everyone seems to have a cousin or an uncle or a sibling in the States (mostly in New York and New Jersey), and many Dominicans that I’ve met have spent years living in the US as well. According to the census, in 2010 there were 1.5 million people of Dominican origin living in the US.

But what really drove that home to me was when I met my first Kiva borrower, Ramon, the owner of an internet center in the town of La Vega. He heard my accent when I spoke to him over the phone to arrange our meeting, and asked me where I was from. When I said the US, he told me he had lived there, all over – in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.

Ramón, owner of an internet center and Kiva borrower

Ramón, owner of an internet center and Kiva borrower

As we began our interview in his little computer center, I was surprised to hear him answer my questions in perfect English! After months in Colombia of struggling to understand Kiva borrowers’ difficult Costeño Spanish accents (the ends of all words seem to be cut off), this interview was a breeze!

Like many other Dominicans, Ramón moved to the US in search of a better life, and spent 20 years there. Unfortunately his wife preferred the Dominican Republic and he had to move back. He said that here in the DR, it was much harder to make enough money to live on, because here, inflation is high but wages and income streams remain low.

2. Dominican food is delicious, and Kiva borrowers sure know how to cook

I arrived in Villa Altragracia in the early afternoon, and the branch manager immediately rushed me into the lunch room to eat the Dominican lunch they had ordered for me. It was a plate of rice, soupy beans that are called “habichuelas,” salad, and stewed beef – this is the national dish of the Dominican Republic and is called “La Bandera Dominicana,” or “the Dominican Flag.” The bandera dominicana comes in many variations – sometimes the beans are red and sometimes they are black; the meat can be beef, chicken or pork; and it is often accompanied as well by plantains. The meal I was served in Villa Altragracia was simple but really tasty.

A classic Dominican lunch - white rice, red beans, beef, and carrot/potato salad

A classic Dominican lunch – white rice, red beans, beef, and carrot/potato salad

After eating a satisfying lunch I followed a loan officer down the street to a Kiva borrower’s restaurant. It was only after finishing the interview and leaving that I found out that the ASPIRE branch office had ordered my lunch from there! I only wished I could have thanked her for the delicious meal.

Liria, a Kiva borrower who runs a restaurant in Villa Altagracia

Liria, the Kiva borrower from Villa Altagracia who made my lunch!

3. Riding on the back of a motorcycle on a highway is terrifying, but loan officers do it daily

The second borrower I was scheduled to visit in Villa Altragracia was apparently not walking distance from the branch office. Since Villa Altragracia is a fairly small town, I agreed to get on the back of a loan officer’s motorcycle, so we set out motoring down the main road in search of Nailan.

I was very surprised when, 10 minutes later, I found myself merging onto Autopista Duarte, one of the main cross-country highways in the Dominican Republic. I clutched the waist of the extremely young-looking loan officer sitting in front of me who suddenly held my life in his hands. We stayed mostly on the shoulder, zooming by people selling snacks by the side of the road, and my heart leaped every time an enormous truck went by, going twice as fast as us.

20 minutes later I shakily stepped off of the motorcycle, and Nicolás, the loan officer, seemed surprised by how much the journey had scared me.

“I make this trip every day,” he said. “I used to have a car to do it, but the motorcycle is cheaper.” Gas prices are astronomical in the Dominican Republic – prices are currently at $5.25 per gallon! I had a renewed awe for the hard work that loan officers do to reach borrowers, even ones who are not very conveniently located.

Nicolás and I posing with his motorcycle

Nicolás and I posing with his motorcycle

4. Kiva Borrowers Span Many Economic Levels

My visits around the country were a great opportunity to see how normal Dominicans live – I visited their homes and businesses, met their families, and even shared meals with them. I was struck by how different each borrower’s life is – the pair of borrowers that I visited in the Santo Domingo neighborhood of Los Alcarrizos were the perfect example of these contrasts.

One borrower who left an impression on me was Papio. We found him spending the day at his parents’ home, a few kilometers down a dirt road outside of Los Alcarrizos, a working class neighborhood in Santo Domingo. He took out his loans to fund two of his businesses – a car and motorcycle repair shop, and a “colmado,” or corner store. He was spending the day overseeing construction on his parents’ land, where they raise chickens, bees and will soon rent out the new buildings they are currently working on. This was a man with multiple lucrative businesses – though perhaps the home was modest by US standards, he was clearly not struggling and in fact seemed to be flourishing, especially with the help of his Kiva loan! Though these borrowers are not what one normally thinks of when imagining a Kiva borrower, the money they borrow can go very far – Papio has multiple employees at his various businesses, all of whom depend on him doing well.

(clockwise from top) The new structures Papio was working on; Papio and his ASPIRE loan officer, Amarilis; the family's chickens; a hired worker digging a well

(clockwise from top) The new structures Papio was working on; Papio and his ASPIRE loan officer, Amarilis; the family’s chickens; a hired worker digging a well

I spent an hour exploring the extensive acreage owned by Papio’s parents, as he pointed out different types of trees and plants that they grow – besides bees and chickens, they also produced mangos and avocados. I even got to share a meal with them.

Another borrower lived nearby, in the same municipality as Papio. To get to Elisabel, we bumped along down a dirt road filled with potholes, passing rundown shacks that housed whole families. The only day Elisabel was available to meet was Saturday, as she works the rest of the week as a maid in someone’s home – she finished paying off her loan a few months ago and unfortunately is not currently running her own business anymore.

Her home was very basic – a small wooden construction with a tin roof, and a tiny yard out front where a few chickens scratched in the dirt. The difference between Papio’s parents’ acres of land and well-furnished home and Elisabel’s shack where she, her husband and their three children lived was huge – it was hard to believe they lived just a few miles from each other. The difference in the quality of their lives was even more obvious.

Elisabel's neighborhood in Los Alcarrizos

Elisabel’s neighborhood in Los Alcarrizos

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The local church in Elisabel’s neighborhood of Los Alcarrizos

Elisabel and Papio, though different, can both be helped by microfinance and the loans that ASPIRE and Kiva provide – though at very different levels. Elisabel’s loan was for $5000 pesos while Papio took out a $40,000 peso loan. The Dominican Republic has a lot of poverty, but as you can imagine, this poverty doesn’t always look the same, and it’s important to remember that Kiva borrowers don’t fit just one profile – they are as diverse in background as Kiva lenders!

Rose Larsen served with the 19th class of Kiva Fellows in Colombia and is now serving her second fellowship with KF20 in the Dominican Republic, with Kiva partner ASPIRE. Lend to one of ASPIRE’s borrowers today, or apply to be a Kiva Fellow!

11 April 2013 at 11:31 1 comment

A Glimpse of Microfinance and Urban Poverty in Ulaanbaatar

Kiva loans being promoted at Transcapital

Munkhbayar, the Kiva Coordinator, promoting Kiva loans at Transcapital

Last week I started visiting some of Kiva’s borrowers with Transcapital, one of Kiva’s field partners that I’m working with here in Mongolia. While it was really encouraging to see Transcapital’s enthusiasm for Kiva at the head office as well as its various branch offices around Ulaanbaatar (UB), the new insights I’ve gained on urban poverty—both from these visits as well as just day-to-day life here—have left me perplexed so far, with far more questions than answers.

A short term solution?

Narantuul market, the largest outdoor market in UB

Narantuul, the largest outdoor market in UB (above), and what you’ll find there (below)

vendors at Narantuul market

Our visits began with a stop at Narantuul market, the largest outdoor market in UB where a number of Transcapital’s clients have retail outlets. At a first glance, Narantuul is a colourful and vibrant marketplace where vendors sell everything from food and candy, to winter coats, scarves, belts, jeans, baseball caps, cardboard, and more. It’s the place where Mongolians often go to find cheaper wares, which makes sense considering some of the staggering prices I’ve seen at Ikh Delguur, the State Department Store. We spoke to Bayasgalan, the proud owner of a shop selling winter coats and clothes, a long time client of Transcapital’s, and a Kiva borrower.

Bayasgalan and her clothing shop

Bayasgalan and her clothing shop

Other vendors watched us with curiosity as we chatted with her, and the mood at the market was lively despite the cold. But my translator friend, whose family had sold candy there, explained to me as we left that pretty much all the vendors there need continual loans to in order to sustain their businesses. Without loans, they can’t operate; but even with loans, they struggle to get ahead… which is anything but encouraging.

Harsh working conditions

Kharkhorin market (above) and some of the items for sale (below)

Kharkhorin market (above) and some of the items for sale (below)

vendors at Kharkhorin market

The next day, we visited Kharkhorin market, UB’s second largest outdoor market, located on the other side of the city. The wares there were slightly different: I saw lots of shoes, but also an eclectic collection of hardware parts, sinks, ropes, tools, and other random second-hand items.

Saranchimeg was busy selling her winter boots when we stopped by

Saranchimeg was busy selling her winter boots when we stopped by

We had trouble locating one of the two borrowers we had to meet, so we wandered around for some time looking for her. In the meantime we met and chatted with Saranchimeg, who had used her loan to increase her supply of winter boots. We had been outside for about 45 minutes by the time we finished chatting with her, and I thought my fingers and toes might fall off. It must have been around -25oC that day with the sharp wind whipping through the stalls. But my thoughts were with the market’s vendors who stand out there all day long, day in and day out. My translator friend assured me that, just because they’ve lived in Mongolia their whole lives, it doesn’t make the cold is any easier for them to bear. I was humbled by how hard they work.

The reality for taxi drivers

Batbileg, a taxi driver, in the car he purchased with the help of his loan

Batbileg, a taxi driver, in the car he purchased with the help of his loan

We also visited with some taxi drivers. While a male taxi driver may not be one of the sexiest loans on Kiva’s website, you should know how hard these people work to support their families, just like anyone else. And for what? Being a taxi driver is a tough way to make a living in UB: A one-kilometre ride will earn a driver about 1,500 Tugriks (or 1.07 USD).

I need a ride, someone... Anyone?

I need a ride, someone… Anyone?

Moreover, the competition is stiff. Since cars have become ubiquitous in Mongolia’s capital, everyone has become a taxi driver. It’s an overhang from the early days of capitalism, when cars were not that common and the city’s residents would help each other out by giving rides. Now, you see people on the streets with their hand out all the time, and it usually only takes a few minutes for a car to pull over.

Another borrower we met lived in one of the outer ger districts, the slums of the city which lack basic services like running water and sanitation. He was middle-aged and had taken out a housing loan, but he told us that he had been a driver under the socialist regime. He explained that he had had much difficulty in finding employment in his profession. Recently, though, he has started applying for driver jobs again. It’s a mystery to me how he has managed to make ends meet over the years.

Survival of the fittest?

an elderly lady I often see selling gum and candy on the street, even on the coldest winter days

an elderly lady I often see selling gum and candy on the street, even on the coldest winter days

It’s easy to think that people don’t work because they’re too lazy, or because they simply refuse to accept lower-paying positions. This may be true in some cases. But there may also be more to the issue than meets the eye. Mongolia had its Revolution and transition to a market economy in the early 1990s and it seems the transition was difficult for those who were brought up and educated in the socialist era: Many of their skills and experiences have not translated well in the new economy. While a lot of the leadership I’ve seen in white collar jobs are shockingly young—in their late 20s or early 30s—street and market vendors tend to be in their 50s or older. And for many of them, their wares include no more than a couple handfuls of gum and candy, which can’t possibly bring in that much at the end of the day.

some people sell fruit, others sell services such as the use of a telephone or a scale (like this lady here)

some people sell fruit, others sell services such as the use of a telephone or a scale (like this lady here)

Maybe skills training is needed to support these people… or maybe it’s not that simple. Imagine being in your 40s or 50s and getting trained (or competing for jobs) alongside people who are a whole generation younger than you. And the longer you stay out of the workforce, the less confidence you generally have to return to it. One colleague of mine surmised that perhaps self-employment is the way to go for these people.

The fork in the road

Of course, this reflects only one facet of urban poverty here. Another, and perhaps larger, driver is the massive migration of traditional nomadic herders to the capital, as zuuds—extremely harsh winters—have killed off the millions of animals on which they depend for their livelihoods.

Mongolia has gone through some incredible changes over the past several years, thanks to the discovery of the largest unexploited reserve of copper, gold and silver in the world. Roads have appeared where they previously didn’t exist; herders have disappeared from the streets of UB; shiny new buildings have gone up; inflation has gone through the roof. It’s poised to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2013.

There is immense potential for large-scale economic development and poverty alleviation in Mongolia. Microfinance is helping to tie things over, but how the country handles big issues such as corruption will ultimately determine whether the spoils will be shared by many. So far, everything I’ve taken in only seems to have raised more questions. I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of grasping the complex economic factors at work in this country, much less understanding the solutions.

28 March 2013 at 09:00

Carnaval de Barranquilla

Quien lo goza, lo vive! He who lives it, enjoys it!

by Rose Larsen | KF19 Colombia | KF20 Dominican Republic

Barranquilla goes through something of a transformation in the months leading up to Carnaval.

Carnaval is the one period of the year when Barranquilla becomes a tourist destination.  For four days each February or March, the city fills up with travelers eager to experience what is known as “the best Carnaval outside of Brazil.”

Barranquilla's flag during the Batalla of Flores parade (image from www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Barranquilla’s flag displayed during the Batalla of Flores parade (image from http://www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Pre-carnaval season officially starts a few weeks before Carnaval with an event in the central stadium, where the Carnaval king and queen are crowned, and the only rule of Carnaval is announced: party, dance and have fun until your body can’t take any more.

However, you can feel a subtle change come across the city long before this, as even in December the residents of Barranquilla begin to gear up for Carnaval season.

In every public plaza, groups of youngsters can be found practicing their dances and preparing for the parades that they will perform in. Seamstresses are busy sewing costumes, stands sprout up around the city selling colorful Carnaval gear, and restaurants prepare for the crowds to flow in.

Dancers in colorful costumes during the Gran Parada de la Tradición, one of many parades throughout Carnaval

Dancers in colorful costumes during the Gran Parada de Tradición, one of many parades during Carnaval

Not surprisingly, this is a busy time for Kiva’s local partner FMSD and other microloan providers – many clients take out loans to prepare and stock up for this busy season.

Carnaval itself consists of four days of music, dancing, drinking and general debauchery, as locals and tourists alike don wild costumes and release their inhibitions. It starts on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with a 6-hour parade featuring giant floats and hundreds of “comparsas”, or traditional groups of dancers. The “Batalla de Flores” is the most popular Carnaval event and tickets are upwards of $200 for the best seats. Other parades on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday feature fewer floats but more groups of dancers.

A float in the Batalla de Flores parade (photo from www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

A float in the Batalla de Flores parade (photo from http://www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Each night, revelers have endless parties to choose from. Both planned and spontaneous block parties are found throughout the city, nightly events are programmed in the main stadium, and the bars and discotecas are filled. Traditional Carnaval music fills the air and you can’t walk one block without seeing someone in a marimonda mask or a negrita costume – the whole city, from small children to old ladies, gets in on the fun.

The Characters of Barranquilla’s Carnaval

As I started perusing the Carnaval gear sold all around the city, I noticed that certain characters and costumes were prevalent. Colombian friends began to explain to me the different characters I would encounter throughout Carnaval, each with a different history and a different type of dance. To give you an idea of how diverse and unusual Barranquilla’s Carnaval is, I thought I’d introduce you to a few of them!

La Reina de Carnaval y el Rey Momo – The Queen and King of Carnaval

Each year a king and queen are chosen to preside over Carnaval. The Rey Momo, based on the Greek god Momus, god of satire, and the Reina of Carnaval attend each parade decked out in fabulous costumes. A Children’s King and Queen are also chosen, as well as queens for each neighborhood of Barranquilla, and even a Reina Gay. The Carnaval queen, the most important figure, is generally picked from the city’s elite class – this year’s queen was the daughter of a senator.

Daniela Cepeda Tarud, the Queen of Carnaval; José Llanos, the King Momo of Carnaval; Cristina Amortegui and Daniel Silguero, King and Queen of Children's Carnaval (all photos from www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Daniela Cepeda Tarud, the Queen of Carnaval; José Llanos, the King Momo of Carnaval; Cristina Amortegui and Daniel Silguero, King and Queen of Children’s Carnaval (all photos from http://www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Marimondas

Marimondas are the clowns of Carnaval. The costume originated with poorer Barranquilleros as a way to make fun of the fancy, expensive costumes that members of high society tend to wear. Marimondas wear sacks over their heads, have giant flapping elephant ears, phallic noses, pants worn backwards, colorful vests and ties. The marimonda is one of the few Carnaval characters with origins entirely from Barranquilla  - with his silly, unchoreographed dance, he represents the joking, rowdy typical Barranquillero.

Marimondas

Marimondas

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Cumbia

Cumbia, a popular type of music and dance, mixes the Spanish, indigenous and African cultures that collide in northern Colombia. The music features African drums and indigenous flutes, and a live band usually accompanies every comparsa.

Cumbia dancers and a cumbia band in one of the Carnaval parades.

Cumbia dancers and a cumbia band in one of the Carnaval parades.

The women wear long, full skirts and the men wear traditional striped costeño hats.  The dance is a flirtatious one, as pairs of men and women dance back and forth, the women moving only their feet and hips, keeping their upper bodies still – some even dance with bottles of alcohol balanced on their heads! A popular Carnaval activity is a “rueda de cumbia,” where revelers join a chaotic group of dancers circling a cumbia band.

El Garabato

The Dance of the Garabato is a dance representing the battle between life and death, and originated in Spain. A garabato is the traditional stick used by the Costeño farmer. For this costume, men wear black pants, a yellow shirt, and a red cape adorned with colorful sequins and designs, and have their faces painted white and red. They use the garabato to do battle with Death, usually represented by someone dressed as a skeleton. Women wear beautiful black dresses with red, yellow and green features, the colors of Barranquilla. Though this costume was close to disappearing at one point, a group of locals brought it back and each year, one of the first pre-Carnaval events is the Parade of the Garabato, which takes place on a Friday evening a few weeks before Carnaval.

Dance of the Garabato

Dance of the Garabato

El Son de Negro

The Son de Negro costume and dance derives from the African influence in the Caribbean coast. Africans were first brought to Colombia as slaves – the nearby colonial city of Cartagena was a center of the slave trade. This dance has its origins in the region near Cartagena on the banks of the Canal del Dique, a canal that connects Cartagena Bay with Barranquilla’s Magdalena River, where there are many Afro-Colombian communities. For this costume, boys paint their entire bodies and faces black, with their lips and tongues painted a bright red. They wear colorful flower hats and use their bright red mouths to make funny faces, imitating and making fun of the way slaves used to act towards their masters. Though my politically-correct San Francisco upbringing made me slightly uncomfortable around these costumes, ultimately I always had to laugh at the ridiculous faces that they pulled.

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Feb 22, 20132

El Congo

The Congo is one of the oldest of the Barranquilla Carnaval characters. This warlike dance was first performed in Cartagena by slaves with origins from, as its name suggests, the African Congo, and soon became a part of Carnaval as well. The men wear bright satin clothes including colorful capes, but the most noticeable component of the costume is the tall headdress covered in fake flowers of every color. A long train trails down from the back of the headdress nearly to the ground. They also wear sunglasses and carry wooden machetes that they use during the dance.

Feb 22, 20133

Negritas Puloy

This costume has one of the funniest origins – it first became popular in the 1960s after an advertisement for a Venezuelan brand of detergent called Puloy featured these coquettish women. They wear curly black wigs and cute red dresses with white polka dots, along with matching headbands. The headbands and other accessories are big favorites among the women who watch the parades.

Negrita Puloy (photo from www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Negrita Puloy (photo from http://www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Joselito de Carnaval & his widows

On the last day of Carnaval, a few new characters emerge. Joselito is a representation of Carnaval, and on the final day, Tuesday, he is found dead from too much drinking and partying! Open coffins with a dead Joselito lying inside are featured in the parades on Tuesday, though Joselito often rises from the dead to salute the crowd. Apparently this character is based on a true story of a man who disappeared during Carnaval and was found unconscious on the street. His family organized a funeral for him, but during the funeral procession he woke up and sat up in the coffin!

Joselito and some of his widows (photo from www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Joselito and some of his widows (photo from http://www.carnavaldebarranquilla.org)

Joselito’s counterparts are his viudas, or widows, men and women alike who don fancy black dresses, lace and high heels (and fake breasts in the case of the men!), and sob wildly, mourning his death, stopping only to pose for pictures! With the death of Joselito comes the death of Carnaval…at least until next year! See you all at Carnaval 2014?

12 March 2013 at 09:08

Mongolia Through the Senses

driving in the countryside

It’s been just over two weeks since I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and there’s been much to take in. I’ve never been anywhere quite so foreign to me, where nothing about the culture, the food, the people, or the language is familiar. Chances are, these things aren’t familiar for many of this blog’s readers either. So for my first post from Mongolia, I’ve decided to take you through my new world through the senses, so you can get an idea of what it’s been like walking around in my shoes (or rather, my heavy winter boots).

The sights

I’ve been walking to work to my three microfinance partners in Ulaanbaatar (UB). Once in a while when I glance up, I’ll catch a glimpse of the beautiful mountains looming just beyond the borders of the city. UB, a sprawling city of 1.2 million, is nestled in the Khan Khentii mountain range. The mountains are covered in snow, although snowfalls are occasional and light throughout the country’s long and chilly winter. Despite the cold, one of the things I’ve loved so far here is how sunny it’s been: Mongolia averages 260 days of sun every year.

walking down Seoul Avenue with Sky Tower ahead

walking down Seoul Avenue with the Blue Sky Tower ahead

UB is a place where old meets new. For example, the Choijin Lama monastery (now museum), built at the turn of the last century, is just a stone’s throw away from the modern Blue Sky Tower. On a visit to the Gandan Monastery one day, one monk interrupted his prayers to answer a call on his cell phone. Throughout the city, old Soviet-style buildings are increasingly becoming flanked by new houses, condominiums, offices, and hotels. Some buildings can be deceiving, though: One apartment I saw had been built only a few short months ago, but resembled a dusty relic from the Cold War era.

inside Gandan Monastery

inside Gandan Monastery

In Mongolia, or at least its capital, status matters. Walking across Sukhbaatar Square in the centre of the city, I see multiple women sporting their Luis Vuitton bags. A glance to the east of the Square will reveal an Emporio Armani and a Burberry store. As I cross the street, I try to avoid colliding with a Hummer or a Lexus SUV.

walking across Sukhbaatar Square toward Parliament House

walking across Sukhbaatar Square toward Parliament House

But perhaps the most striking image for foreigners arriving in the city is the ger districts. Gers are felt-lined tents traditionally inhabited by Mongolian herders in the countryside, but today they are a common sight in the city as well. While gers may have a surprising amount of furniture and modern appliances inside, they also lack basic infrastructure such as running water and sanitation.

outside of a ger

outside of a ger

inside a ger used by vacationers in the countryside

inside a ger used by vacationers in the countryside

The smells

The coal stoves used to heat gers are one of the main contributing factors to UB’s notoriety as one of the world’s most polluted cities. The coal power plants that fuel the city are also a culprit. As I walk through the city, I’m reminded of the scent of campfire, and a whiff of it usually follows me indoors as well. The air is the heaviest in the mornings, although by midday it generally clears up.

The smokiness has also come from cigarettes, although that’s set to change now. Until March 1st, smoking was permitted in public places, including restaurants and bars. It’s something I wasn’t accustomed to, so it was a bit of an adjustment. Starting this month, however, a new smoking law took effect. Smoking is now banned in all public places, including outdoors, with private homes or specially designated ‘smoking centres’ being the only acceptable places to light up. It will be interesting to see how people respond to being made to stop their habit cold turkey—or whether the law will be enforced.

Mongolians often escape to the countryside on weekends to enjoy the pristine air

Mongolians often escape to the countryside on weekends to enjoy the pristine air

The tastes

Speaking of smells, the scent of cooking mutton is one that has quickly become familiar in restaurants and apartment buildings alike. There are an estimated 14 million sheep in Mongolia. It’s an impressive sheep-to-human ratio, given the country’s population of about 2.8 million.

Mongolian soup with mutton and mutton dumplings

Mongolian soup with mutton and mutton dumplings

a typical Mongolian lunch - with a more generous salad portion than usual

a typical Mongolian lunch – with a more generous salad portion than usual

Needless to say, mutton is a staple in the Mongolian diet, and a meal without meat is generally unthinkable here. At most restaurants, veggies are an afterthought—they often come in the form of a small carrot or cabbage salad. But produce is available in supermarkets, and thank goodness I’ve discovered Merkuri market. It not only features a separate section where veggies are piled high, it is also known for its wide variety of imported foreign foods.

Merkuri market, with its eclectic mix of imported foods

Merkuri market, with its eclectic mix of imported foods

the produce section at Merkuri market

the vegetable section at Merkuri market

As tasty as buuz and khuushuur have been, the culinary experience hasn’t been limited to local foods. In particular, Korean and Japanese restaurants are quite popular, and I’ve even sampled good Sri Lankan cuisine since I’ve been here.

khuushuur - Mongolian fried dumpling with mutton inside

khuushuur – Mongolian fried dumpling with mutton inside

The sounds

So, what does one hear when walking around UB? It turns out that Mongolian drivers are just as communicative as their counterparts in Costa Rica, if not more so. (I’m listening to a chorus of angry beeeeps as I write.) Apparently there’s a law against using car horns in residential areas, but good luck with that! Mongolia’s capital is very much alive; the traffic is heavy, and the drivers impatient.

Traffic is a little crazy in UB. Cars and pedestrians alike behave like water: They follow the path of least resistance. Lanes don’t matter; cars squeeze into whatever space they can fill. Double turning lanes form spontaneously as cars race to get ahead of each other. At intersections, the traffic is like a leaky faucet, continuing to flow long after the light has changed. In response, pedestrians cross where and when they can. I refused to at first, and found myself standing alone at the red light with a little girl. (OK, so I’m a wimp.)

traffic is a bit crazy in UB, but the drivers are very skilled

traffic is a bit crazy in UB, but the drivers are very skilled

The other striking sound to me is the Mongolian language. I’ve been picking up a few phrases here and there, but so far I’ve been largely immune to the conversations around me. And saying mit ku (I don’t know) to someone who tries to speak to me only adds to the confusion, since most people here mistake me for being a local. As for signs, the majority of them are written in Cyrillic, which I can’t yet decipher. Luckily, there are just enough people who speak English here to make life a little easier, and there’s no shortage of friendly and helpful people.

most signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, although occasionally the old Mongolian script is used

most signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, although occasionally the old Mongolian script is used

Mongolians tend to take an active interest in foreigners, which has helped me feel really welcome here. Many Mongolians speak a second or a third language, even if it’s not English (Russian is common). And the people that I’ve met so far have been wonderful. Ladies I barely know will take me by the arm and help me cross the street—and I’m pretty sure they’re not just using me as a shield against those massive Hummers.

That sweet numb feeling

So finally, how does one feel physically when arriving in UB in the middle of February? Not much, I can tell you, because I’ve gone numb from head to toe.

Icy. Frosty. Glacial. Call it what you will.

Icy. Frosty. Glacial. Call it what you will.

It’s not actually that bad. OK, so it was in the beginning. My first full day here, the temperature was -35oC and that wasn’t easy. Weather forecasts generally describe the days as ‘Cold. Frigid.’ which I think is a very fair description. But you get used to it, and with the right combination of thermal underwear and layering, you can conquer the cold.

snow football (above) and snow football (below) - two ways to make the most of a Mongolian winter

snow football (above) and snow sumo (below): two ways to make the most of a Mongolian winter

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UB has the dubious honour of being the coldest capital in the world, and average temperatures stay below freezing for a good six months of the year. But that’s funny, because I lived in Ottawa, Canada before starting my fellowships with Kiva and I could have sworn that IT was the coldest capital in the world. Some days are not that different here from what they are back home.

But timing has something to do with it as well. It seems I may have caught the tail end of winter this year. Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s Lunar New Year, was celebrated on February 11th and marks the beginning of spring. And although spring weather is known to be highly variable, it’s hard not to feel uplifted when the sun is shining and the temperature is soaring all the way up to -1oC. Sometimes cold weather can be immiserating, but my experiences in Mongolia so far couldn’t be further from that.

7 March 2013 at 01:28 1 comment

Following a Kiva loan from Calgary to Dar es Salaam!

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania

Marion_1

I’m on a quest to follow a Kiva loan from lender to borrower! How often have I dreamed of this whilst browsing my loans on a frosty winter weekend in Canada?  Now I have an ideal opportunity to do so as the Kiva Fellow in Tanzania, so I’ll take you along for the ride!

My directions are set when a friend emails from Calgary: “I donated to the Jaguar Group.  They’re asking for a loan in support of their beauty salon. I chose that one in honor of you – I figure you might want a haircut or a color given you are there for months!”  Too true; I’ve been in Tanzania since September and this Kiva fellowship has been rich and rewarding, but also tough, so I’m looking a little ragged…  And salons here offer beautifully intricate braids – why not give them a try?

I love the idea of making the personal connection between a Kiva lender in my hometown of Calgary, and a Kiva borrower here in Dar es Salaam!  I had the dubious distinction in KF19 Fellows’ class of traveling furthest to my placement, so this will be an opportunity to reel in some of that distance.  And what fun to report back to my friend on how his loan is working out here on the ground!  I immediately start making arrangements to meet Juliet, the featured borrower of Jaguar Group…

Lender’s city; borrower’s city

You may already be familiar with Calgary – prosperous modern city buoyed by oil wealth; 5th largest metropolitan center in Canada; enviable location at the foot of the Rocky Mountains; renowned for its volunteer spirit; host city of the ’88 Winter Olympics (remember The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team?); 9th largest lender city on Kiva in 2011 (way to go Calgary)!  In short: it’s a privileged city with a lot of heart!

What can I tell you about Dar es Salaam?  The name conjures up exotic images of centuries old sea-trade, sultry summer evenings, and short ferry rides to magical Zanzibar island!

Container ship and fishing boats juxtaposed at the mouth of Dar es Salaam’s famous harbor.

Container ship and fishing boats juxtaposed at the mouth of Dar es Salaam’s famous harbor.

But the reality of daily life is far from tropical paradise for most of Dar’s 3 – 4 million inhabitants; believe me, this is one grindingly hard city in which to eke out a living…  Still, people keep coming, lured by hopes of a better economic future than they face in their hometowns or villages.  Dar is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  It’s a statistic with unenviable consequences: Dar’s infrastructure is clearly not keeping pace with the burgeoning population.  Unrelenting heat and humidity are exacerbated by almost daily power cuts that mean no fans or air conditioning (in the words of my office-mate: “We are practicing for the fires of heaven!”), and no reliable refrigeration for foodstuff (where do maggots come from anyway?)

It's fitting that the Flame Trees are in bloom!

It’s fitting that the Flame Trees are in bloom!

The dala-dala (bus) system is extensive and was genuinely well designed at inception – but now it’s inadequate and the overcrowding is epic!  Likewise, unremitting traffic on overwhelmed roadways morphs the “5 p.m. rush hour” into the “2 – 8 p.m. standstill”.  (Can traffic officers judge precisely when 64 passengers crammed in a sweltering dala with seating for 32 will finally reach breaking point?  Only then do they signal us through the intersection!)  Admittedly construction is underway to address transportation issues, but I regret the almost imperceptible progress in the 5 months I’ve been here.

Dala-dala: Never thought I’d be the one riding precariously on the bottom step, clinging tightly to the handrail because the door can’t close…

Dala-dala: Never thought I’d be the one riding precariously on the bottom step, clinging tightly to the handrail because the door can’t close…

Yet, in the face of wretched infrastructure challenges and the fact that formal employment is not keeping pace with population pressures either, the people of Dar find ways to get by – they have to.  So the informal economy is bustling and every hot and dusty road is lined with shops and stalls; every opportune space is claimed.  (Note to self: “That’s why Kiva loans to entrepreneurs are so relevant in Dar!”)

Ali, who brightens my walk to work each day with his greetings!

Ali, who brightens my walk to work each day with his greetings!

Dresses for the two-dimensional!

Dresses for the two-dimensional!

And if half of all Tanzanians are getting by on $2 per day per Kiva’s country statistics, it’s surely not from want of trying: it’s common to work long hours here in Dar.

No two ways about it – it’s a hardscrabble life here. But there’s a side to this city that defies all expectations: people in Dar (as in all Tanzania, in fact) are extraordinarily friendly, and helpful, and tolerant!  I know it sounds cliched, but this is truly friendliness, and willingness to help, and tolerance, on a scale I’ve seldom encountered in my travels on any continent. It occurs to me this is the real key to living in Dar!

The expedition across town

Of course you realize Kiva borrowers don’t work in downtown office towers, but still you might be surprised by the widespread locations of their businesses (such as Juliet’s salon).  Greater Dar es Salaam area is extensive, and many Kiva borrowers live and work on the outer fringes – perhaps 50 km away from my base at the main branch of Kiva’s partner MFI, Tujijenge Tanzania.

The road I walk to the office, just outside the downtown core.  Main roads are paved; most others not.

The road I walk to the office, just outside the downtown core. Main roads are paved; most others not.

Off to see a Kiva borrower’s business on the outskirts of greater Dar…

Off to see a Kiva borrower’s business on the outskirts of greater Dar…

I had no concept of the stamina it would require before I started visiting borrowers last September!  My mind boggles when I consider that loan officers from Tujijenge routinely travel across Dar to attend borrower group meetings every week…  (The numerous challenges MFIs such as Tujijenge face in delivering services here in Dar are daunting.  That’s why I admire MFIs for working here - where the need for microfinance is great, where it can make a significant impact on the lives of borrowers, but where it is not easy.)  The loan officers are all busy as bees so I enlist Rita, the star Kiva Coordinator at Tujijenge, to join me on this visit to Juliet.  We set off together, as always.

Rita: Kiva Coordinator, and my invaluable helpmate and friend for the last 4 months.  I couldn’t have made it in Dar without her!

Rita: Kiva Coordinator, and my invaluable helpmate and friend for the last 4 months. I couldn’t have made it in Dar without her!

I use my favorite strategy:  Start early in the morning.  Take a series of “city-bus” dalas to the furthest point at which bajajis (auto rickshaws, named for the pricipal company that makes them) are available.  Cover the final stretch to the borrower by bajaji, because the alternative of switching first to a “mini-bus” dala then risking life and limb on a piki-piki (motorbike taxi) is no fun at all.  Persuade the bajaji driver to wait whilst we visit the borrower. Then do the trip in reverse.  And hope to get home before dark…

Trio of blue bajajis - the fiery decal more indicative of spirit than speed!

Trio of blue bajajis – the fiery decal more indicative of spirit than speed!

(Rita scolds me for excessive expenditure on bajajis, but I can’t help it: I love everything about them!  Bajaji drivers are fearless; they are consummate alternate-route-finders in the face of traffic jams; they are willing to tackle any road.  Bajajis can negotiate all terrains successfully, or at least are light enough for this Kiva Fellow to push out of the sand when stuck…  The open-air design provides sweet relief from the heat (even if the air I’m breathing is laden with diesel fumes, and bugs impale themselves on my camera lens), and I can choose how many of us are on board.  I bet you’d take a bajaji too, if you had the chance!)

On today’s trip to see Juliet, a second bajaji driver dashes up just as we finish negotiating our fare with the first.  “Mama,” he calls to Rita, “you gave me my loan at Tujijenge!”  It means he has a Kiva loan!  “Oh, I wish we could go with you then,” Rita responds.  “It’s alright, you can go with him – he’s my friend,” says the Kiva guy, with characteristic Tanzanian friendliness.  (What a great coincidence!  I told you I love bajajis!)

Meeting the borrower

Turns out my meeting with Juliet is not happening after all…  Instead of Juliet, Prisca is waiting for me at the roadside.  Prisca is Chairman of Jaguar Group, and she tells me Juliet has bowed out today.  Of course I’m disappointed, but I try to imagine myself in Juliet’s position as a borrower.  Is she simply too shy?  Battling a family or business crisis she’d rather not discuss?  Scared because she’s behind on a repayment (even though she’s paid off 5 previous Tujijenge loans successfully)?  Unwilling to have nosy neighbors learn from my obvious presence that she has a loan (out of financial privacy concerns, or because they may press for a share of the cash)?  Unwilling to have her husband learn she has a loan (and thus jeopardize her personal financial stability)?  Or is it something else entirely?  I don’t know, but I’d far rather Juliet refuses than indulges me at her own expense – my visit is purely whimsical and not business related.  It’s an apt reminder that a borrower’s loan is a significant business contract that is not undertaken lightly; it must be managed and paid back in the context of real-life complexities.

Meeting the borrower (Take 2)

Prisca saves the day by inviting me back to her store.  I’m very happy to accept because, after all, the Kiva loan covers Jaguar Group, not Juliet alone.  (Group loans are a mainstay of microfinance.  You can read about their many benefits in Dar in my earlier Kiva post: Group Loans – Filling a Particular Niche.)  Prisca hops aboard our bajaji and we’re off on a roller-coaster ride!

Prisca in her store.

Prisca in her store.

Prisca owns an impressively well-maintained store selling sodas (pop) and beer.  There’s a shady seating area too, so Rita, the Bajaji driver, Prisca, and I settle down to enjoy a cold soda (bonus – Prisca has a fridge!) and a chat.  I show Prisca her Jaguar Group’s loan on Kiva, and she breaks into a wide smile as she sees herself in the photo!  She quickly points out Juliet, as well as Judith who was featured in Jaguar’s previous Kiva loan.  She’s somewhat incredulous when I point out my friend from Calgary in the Lender section…

I ask Prisca about herself.  She’s married, has a young son and daughter, and has always lived in this area of Dar.  Her store used to stock a wide variety of goods but in 2011 thieves broke in and stole pretty much everything, including the scale for weighing goods like rice and dried beans.  It was a cruel setback. That’s when Prisca joined Jaguar Group and started taking loans from Tujijenge to try to get back on her feet.  Yes, the series of loans have helped restore her business – injections of cash every few months are invaluable in buying bulk stock at cheaper prices, and purchasing items like the fridge to draw customers.  Some of the extra profit that is generated helps with household expenses (think school fees) too.  But there’s still a way to go…  That’s why Prisca has stayed with Jaguar Group, and recently become group Chairman.

Closing the circle

I’ve done what I’ve always dreamed of doing: followed a Kiva loan from lender to borrower!  Now I know the people on both sides of the contract, and I’m totally delighted.

I report back to Calgary: “The bajaji ride was one of the best yet!  The rest of things didn’t quite go to plan, but still they ended well.  I met Prisca, not Juliet.  I got a soda, not braids…   Prisca was amazed to see you!  Her business is coming along, and she says the loan is helping.  Here’s the postcard I made you – it was a brilliant day, thank you!  M.”

Marion12

Click here to lend to a Kiva borrower in Dar es Salaam. (Please check back at the start of next month if all Tujijenge Tanzanian loans are currently funded!)

See more of the daily sights I’ve enjoyed in and around Dar in The Illustrated Guide to Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner! (Tanzania Edition).  Or see the complete antithesis in On the Road Less Travelled: Kagera Region in Tanzania.

24 February 2013 at 07:00 2 comments

A Day in the Life of a Loan Officer: Comparing Honduras, Colombia and the United States

By Rose Larsen, KF19 Colombia, with excerpts provided by Wesley Schrock, KF19 Honduras, and Luan Nio, KF18 Nicaragua/KF19 United States

Loan officers are the hidden heroes behind the Kiva model.

Lenders, borrowers, Kiva staff and Kiva fellows all show their beautiful faces somewhere on Kiva.org, and while Kiva’s field partners have profiles of their own, there is little explanation or clarity behind who actually, physically, goes to the clients’ businesses, evaluates their requests, delivers loans and picks up repayments (hint: it’s loan officers!). Likewise, loan officers have varying degrees of knowledge about (or interest in) what Kiva is – some are enthusiastic supporters, while others are just doing their job, the photos and borrower profile information just one extra step as they navigate the hundreds of borrowers that they work with.

Yet in my experience, no matter what their attitude is towards Kiva, these loan officers care deeply about their clients, are well known in their sector or neighborhood, and work long hours to ensure that anyone who wants a loan has the chance to apply for one.

I got to know quite a few while here in Colombia, as I accompanied a different loan officer on each trip to the field. Loan officers are often a Kiva Fellow’s best friend in the field, so I asked a few other fellows what their experiences with loan officers was like.

Unsurprisingly, just as all of our field partners vary immensely, the jobs and lives of the loan officers vary across different regions. To give you a better idea of what a somewhat hidden yet key part of the Kiva process looks like, we’ll travel around the world visiting three different microfinance institutions and getting to know three different loan officers, learning about why they do the work that they do, and seeing a little bit of their daily routine.

Loan Officer #1: Jarling, Loan Officer with COMIXMUL, Honduras

Kiva Fellow: Wesley Schrock, KF19 Honduras

MFI Background:  COMIXMUL is a savings and loan cooperative exclusively for women in Honduras. They are a new Kiva field partner and have yet to post a loan to the site (although they might have a few up by the time this blog is posted).   COMIXMUL hopes to fund three specific products on Kiva: agriculture loans, youth entrepreneurship loans and solar panel loans – all products for which traditional funding is limited.

Personal Background:  Jarling, who has worked as COMIXMUL loan officer for 3 years, is 30 years old, married, and has 2 children.  Previously, he worked as a sales representative for a drinking water company.   This sales and customer service experience made him an ideal candidate for COMIXMUL’s loan officer training program.  After successfully completing 2 months of training, Jarling was a full-fledged loan officer, responsible for building and maintaining his own loan portfolio.  Unlike his previous employer, COMIXMUL offers a competitive salary, a benefits package, and the opportunity for career advancement.

In the Office:  Loan officers work Monday through Friday from 8AM – 5PM and Saturday from 8AM – 12PM.  The day begins and ends in the office, which Jarling walks to and from.  Administrative duties, like making sure a client’s loan application materials are in order, require an hour or two at the start and end of each day.  Jarling works out of a shared office, but has his own small desk with a desktop computer.   While clients do not use email, all clients have mobile phones.  Hence, all client communication is done in person or over the phone.

In the Field:  The majority of the day is spent riding around on a COMIXMUL-owned motorcycle visiting existing clients or promoting the cooperative in an effort to gain new members.  Jarling might visit an existing client simply as a courtesy, but more likely because the client is delinquent, or wants to refinance an existing loan, or is seeking a new loan.  He manages a portfolio of 110 clients whose businesses include convenience stores, food stands or restaurants, new and used clothing stores, bakeries, and pastry shops.  The day’s schedule permitting, lunch is taken at home; however, he often has to lunch in restaurants or food stands.

*In the video, Jarling is meeting with a client, Maria, who runs two clothing stores.  COMIXMUL has helped her to expand her business; when she started with the cooperative 3 years ago, she had only 1 store.  Jarling paid Maria a visit because she was over a week late in making her December loan payment.  Given Maria’s excellent repayment history, the tone of the visit was friendly; Jarling just wanted to find out the reason for the delinquency.  Maria explained that she had extra holiday expenses, but promised to make the repayment the following week.  Taking her for her word, Jarling amicably departed.

Implementing Kiva:  Jarling has moved up the ladder at COMIXMUL: as a veteran loan officer he now serves an exclusively urban clientele.  His initial territory was a rural area, in which agricultural loans predominate.  From a loan officer perspective, an urban clientele is more desirable because urban areas are easier to serve – distances are shorter, mobile phone reception is better, and the routes are safer.   Given his territory, Jarling will only be working with one Kiva product, youth entrepreneurship loans.  COMIXMUL’s established processes mimic the Kiva model: loan officers are accustomed to taking client photos, writing client biographies, and tracking client progress.  Hence, he doesn’t anticipate that implementing Kiva will pose significant challenges.

Loan Officer #2: Mario, Loan Officer with Fundación Mario Santo Domingo, Colombia

Kiva Fellow: Rose Larsen, KF19 Colombia

MFI Background: Fundación Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD) has been with Kiva for over three years, and has been working in the microfinance sector for more than 30 years. They work primarily with borrowers on the Caribbean coast, in the cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena. Most of their loans are for traditional urban businesses like beauty salons, corner stores and fruit stands. They also have many other social projects, including trainings for entrepreneurs, affordable housing projects, and even an ecological high school for poor children on Isla Baru.

Personal Background: Mario has been a loan officer for FMSD for almost 21 years. He studied accounting and financial administration at a local university, and says that he never imagined working as a loan officer. However, one of his professors was also a director at FMSD and encouraged him to take the exam to become a loan officer. Mario lives in a northern neighborhood in Barranquilla with his wife and two children, and has been assigned a variety of neighborhoods in the southern sectors to work in. FMSD helped him buy a car through loans, so now he is easily able to cover the wide swath of city he has been assigned. Though it is challenging to deal with so many clients, and to often have to sort through difficult situations, Mario loves that his job allows him to work with people, and seeing people improve their lives through microloans makes it all worth it to him.

In the Office: Mario generally spends mornings in the office, working from 8 to 12:30 processing paperwork, organizing clients’ loan applications, and calling clients. His phone is constantly ringing with calls from both current and potential clients. He also attends weekly credit committee meetings with other loan officers and his boss, to discuss new clients and determine whether or not they will receive loans.

In the Field: Mario’s afternoons are spent in the field, visiting clients all over Barranquilla. After stopping home for lunch, he heads out in his car to visit new clients, check in on current clients and follow up with clients who have finished their loans. Mario currently manages 260 clients, visiting 4 or 5 per day when he needs new information from them, or up to 9 when he’s just checking in to see how they are doing. Another important part of an FMSD loan officer’s job is promotions, or attracting new clients – Mario is constantly looking around for new businesses near his current clients to offer loans to.

On the day I spent with Mario, we spent time with 3 clients and stopped in to say hello to 2 more. One visit was with a seamstress who was asking for a non-Kiva loan (any loan over $1500 is provided with FMSD’s other funding source, although it has a higher interest rate), another visit was with a new Kiva client, a woman selling lotions and perfumes out of her home, and the final visit was to check in on a client who wanted a new loan but couldn’t find a co-signer to back the loan.

Implementing Kiva: Mario is a great believer in Kiva, even though taking photos of clients and filling out Kiva forms adds some extra time to his work. Though there are many other banks and NGOs providing loans in Barranquilla, Mario says that working with Kiva distinguishes FMSD from the rest.

Making a difference: There is no doubt that the loan officer job is very difficult. Mario struggles to maintain positive relationships even with clients who are constantly late with repayments. But he knows that he is making a difference not only in the lives of individual clients, but in Colombia as a whole. When FMSD first started giving out loans in 1984, it was the only player in the field. Now, many commercial banks and other organizations are giving out loans too, and Colombia is becoming more developed. He notes that by offering his clients, many of whom are very poor, access to financial services, he is giving them more confidence in themselves. They see that someone trusts them to take out a loan and this encourages them to follow their dreams and work hard to improve their lives.

But don’t take my word for it, check out what Mario has to say about whether a loan officer’s job is fulfilling or not:

Loan Officer #3: Nick, Loan Officer with ACCION San Diego, USA

Kiva Fellow: Luan Nio, KF19 United States

MFI Background: ACCION San Diego is one branch of a microfinance institution that operates all across the US as well as internationally. They are new to Kiva, with just four months on Kiva’s site and 23 loans so far. They help small business owners and entrepreneurs in the San Diego area get funding, which can be complicated for new businesses in the US, and also offer business training and workshops on important subjects like marketing, finance, and legal issues.

Differences between US partners and international partners: Luan is unique in that she worked with a partner in Nicaragua as a member of KF18, and now is serving in the US in KF19. She offers some perspective on the differences in loan officers’ roles in the US versus a less developed country:

Based on my experience between Nicaragua and the US, the main differences I can see are as follows:

  • More use of technology here, especially when communicating with clients. Loan officers here are more often in the office than in the field because they use e-mail and phone more, and they have fast cars and highways so site visits don’t require much time. Everyone here has internet and some people (including loan officer Nick) have 2 computer screens.
  • Both clients and loan officers here fully grasp the idea of Kiva and are able to exploit it to the fullest. ACCION SD, for example, aims to do mostly videos for both new borrower profiles as well as for journals. Kiva clients here may use their Kiva profile for marketing, though we haven’t seen this yet since ACCION SD is just getting started with Kiva.
  • Here, Kiva lenders and Kiva borrowers often live in the same country, so the borrower-lender connection might be stronger. You can actually visit the business you lent to in person here. It is therefore easier for loan officers to “sell” Kiva to clients.

Conclusion

As the three profiles show, while the main functions of loan officers’ jobs around the world are the same, their lives can vary immensely.

Their jobs are divided between time in the office and time in the field, but the amount of time spent in each depends on a variety of conditions:

  • Where their borrowers are located – loan officers with borrowers who are more spread out or in rural areas with bad roads spend more time in the field. All three loan officers profiled spend less time in the field than some of their counterparts, because they work mainly in urban areas.
  • Levels of technological development in the country – in Honduras and Colombia, mobile phones are widespread, cutting down on some visits as loan officers can call most of their clients for quick questions, and are also able to schedule appointments in advance. In less developed areas with little access to phones, loan officers must visit clients every time they have a question, and may arrive at the client’s house when the client isn’t home. In the US, even fewer visits are required as many items of business can be taken care of via phone and email, which most borrowers have access to. Also, roads are better so trips to the field don’t take as long.
  • Microfinance Institution (MFI) policies – Because FMSD clients repay their loans by going to a bank and transferring the money to FMSD, loan officers don’t have to visit clients for repayments. ACCION San Diego clients also mail checks into the MFI. This means much less time in the field than organizations that require loan officers to pick up repayments (even when it’s just a few dollars a week).

Still, in the end, these loan officers in North, Central and South America do have a lot in common – they are all dedicated to their clients, which means that even if following Kiva’s extra rules and procedures (filling out extra paperwork and taking photos of their clients) adds some time to their day, they are each happy to put in the extra work so that clients who normally wouldn’t get a loan finally have access to credit. There are hundreds or perhaps thousands of loan officers around the world who work with Kiva clients, and from what I’ve heard from other fellows, it’s safe to say that Jarling, Mario and Nick are not atypical in their commitment to their clients.

So the next time you read a detailed borrower profile, spot an especially well-framed photo or receive an interesting journal update, think about all the work put in behind the scenes by a hardworking loan officer!

Special thanks to Jarling Ramírez, Mario Moreno and Nick Miluso for agreeing to let a Kiva Fellow follow them around all day, even though they are all incredibly busy!

Support these loan officers and the organizations they work for by making a loan to a borrower from COMIXMUL, FMSD or ACCION San Diego. Want to meet some loan officers in person? Read more about the Kiva Fellows Program, and then apply to be a Fellow!

6 February 2013 at 08:00 1 comment

Kiva Zip and Job Creation: Profile of a Kiva Zip Trustee

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By Rachel Davis | KF19 | Denver, Colorado

For the past four months, I have been serving as a Kiva Zip Fellow in Denver, Colorado.  As a fellow in the US I was required to work independently without the comfort of a home office or co-workers.  The Zip fellowship is in and of itself, very entrepreneurial.  First came research, then networking, then meetings, then events, then more networking.  I’ve met so many fascinating people and have come to know so many amazing organizations doing crucial work in my own backyard.

The work of one organization in particular has really resonated with me, that of Mi Casa Resource Center.  Mi Casa was founded in 1976 and has been providing support to ensure the economic success of Latino families in the Denver Metro area.  Mi Casa provides after school programs, business classes, as well as other resources.  The program that Kiva Zip has been working with is an entrepreneurial training program taught in both English and Spanish.  Students are required to graduate from the program, they then become eligible for a Zip loan.

We have lent to three borrowers endorsed by Mi Casa, all of which are starting their own businesses.  One is starting a catering and food cart business, one is opening her own hair studio, and one has launched his own construction company.  These borrowers are self-employed entrepreneurs with skills that provide new opportunity for minorities. With the help of Mi Casa and Kiva Zip they have created readily available jobs to people in their communities.  Instead of a top down approach to job creation, these borrowers are creating jobs from the bottom up.  Jobs with dignity that require specialized skills, jobs that they can be proud of.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of attending one of the classes at Mi Casa.   The classes are held in the evening and every week one of the students provides refreshments for everyone.  I can’t describe how humbling it was to sit in that room.  Every student was attentive and asking questions, participating, eagerly scribbling notes as if the information was about to just slip away and be lost forever.  It was quite the departure from what I experienced at my traditional four-year public university.  For these people, it was real – at the end of the program they will launch their businesses and it’s sink or swim.

Job creation is such a hot button issue these days and there is no universal solution.  But seeing the Zip borrowers in person, seeing their drive and their passion to aim higher is encouraging if nothing else.  With the right resources and bit of direction, creating a job for yourself and those around you is within reach.  I can say confidently that Kiva Zip is giving entrepreneurs in the United States a chance to follow their dreams and it’s giving people an opportunity to find dignity and acceptance among our lenders.  I’m passionate about this work and I am excited to see what the future holds for Kiva Zip and Mi Casa Resource Center.

You can visit Mi Casa’s trustee page at:  https://zip.kiva.org/trustees/136

27 January 2013 at 08:00

The Happiest Country on Earth

Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia

After traveling for almost a month over Christmas holidays, I was struggling to figure out why I was so happy to be back “home” in Barranquilla, the hot, humid, chaotic city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia that I’ve been living in for the past 4 months. I had just visited places of incredible beauty like:

Montezuma, Costa Rica

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Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua

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and Medellin, Colombia.

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But as much fun as I had, none of these places measured up.

Then I read the news and everything made sense.

According to the Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness, Colombia is the happiest country on earth and Barranquilla is the happiest region in this happiest of countries.

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Though a study of just 54 countries defining an entire population by one overly simplified emotion should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, this is good news for a country that is still overwhelmingly known for kidnappings, guerillas and Pablo Escobar. The most common reaction when I tell people I’m living in Colombia is, “Isn’t it dangerous?!” – and this from people who have traveled through Honduras and El Salvador, countries #1 and #2 on the list of homicide rates by firearm.

But while stereotypes about Colombia are exaggerated, the country is far from perfect, and its notorious history will never be completely erased.

So that leaves me wondering, why is a country with 37% living below the poverty line, between 3.9 and 5.5 million internally displaced people, and the world’s leading coca cultivator (source) so happy?

Most Colombians remember when they couldn’t leave their town or city because so much of the country was controlled by guerillas or paramilitary forces. There are still parts of the country out of government control. And I’ve seen for myself that many live in makeshift homes, slums and even on the streets.

Still, right from the start, I noticed how cheerful and happy Colombians tend to be. Life here, particularly on the coast, is colorful and warm. Happy, upbeat music like the local vallenato or more regionally popular salsa blares from parked cars, shops and homes; traffic is a mess but there is very little road rage; and the people dress mainly in bright colors.

Colombians are huge partiers – every weekend of the year you can find at least one city or region celebrating some kind of festival. Particularly famous is the Feria de las Flores in Medellin, the annual national beauty contest in Cartagena and of course, Barranquilla’s Carnaval!

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A parade during Cartagena’s 11 de Noviembre celebration

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Dancers in a parade for Manizales’ Feria de Cafe

Most significant has been how warmly I’ve been welcomed into this culture. I never worry about getting lost or not knowing when to get off the bus – the moment I ask for help people scramble over each other to give me advice and make sure I get where I’m going. Neighbors, colleagues and new friends have been so welcoming, and the Kiva borrowers I’ve met have been smiling and friendly, happily posing for the pictures and videos I’ve taken and sharing stories about their lives and businesses.

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Kiva borrowers in Cartagena

Kiva borrowers in San Juan Nepomuceno

Kiva borrowers in San Juan Nepomuceno

I have no answers as to why Colombia is so happy, but I have some hypotheses.

One is that Colombians have been through A LOT in the past 50 years, dealing with the FARC, drug cartels, paramilitary forces and the seemingly uncountable murders and kidnappings that accompanied them. Colombians had to stay positive to get through such tough years, and now as violence is decreasing, the economy is growing and tourism is booming, there is a lot to be happy about. Unlike Americans, Europeans, and residents of many other parts of the world currently experiencing economic downturns, Colombia’s future looks bright!

Another possible reason for such high levels of happiness is the strong culture of family that is prevalent across all of Latin America. That could also explain why Latin America has the highest level of happiness of all regions of the world, almost twice as high as the runner up. Colombians are very family centric, celebrating holidays with huge family gatherings and depending on their families to help them out in rough times.

Then, of course, there is the natural beauty that surrounds Colombians at all times. Colombia is home to mountain ranges, Amazon rainforest, tropical Caribbean beaches, and fertile valleys. The cities are vibrant and varied, with an increasing level of culture as Colombia’s economy and international investment grows. From the farms of the coffee region to the clubs of hip Medellin to the beaches of Parque Tayrona, Colombia is filled with breathtaking spots.

Parque Tayrona, Caribbean coast

Parque Tayrona, Caribbean coast

Valle de Cocora, Salento, Coffee Region

Valle de Cocora, Salento, Coffee Region

Or maybe it’s more simple than all of that – Colombia’s soccer team was in fifth place in the World Cup rankings for 2012!

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Whatever the reason may be, living in Colombia has taught me to relax, see the bright side of things, and be more friendly and open. I think all of us in less happy nations such as the United States (#31 out of 54), Italy (#45) or the United Kingdom (#38) have a lot to learn from Colombians.

 

From left to right: Rose Larsen, KF19/20; Colombian clown; Kiyomi Beach, KF 17/18

From left to right: Rose Larsen, KF19/20; Colombian clown; Kiyomi Beach, KF 17/18

22 January 2013 at 08:00 1 comment

Kiva’s Investment in Non-Traditional Loan Products

Water and Sanitation may not be the first issue that people associate with Kiva.

Continue Reading 27 December 2012 at 09:37 1 comment

Twelve Days of Christmas from Kiva Fellows

By Kiva Fellows | KF19 | All Over the World

A Happy Holidays to the Kiva family everywhere!  May your celebrations be filled with foods and flavor, smiling faces, natural beauty, light and memories… here are some gifts from around the world courtesy of the Kiva Fellows 19th class:

On the Twelve Days of Christmas my Kiva Fellow gave to me…

Day 1: A Turtle Heading Out to Sea!
Marion Walls | Tujijenge and Barefoot Power | Tanzania

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Watching Green Turtles hatch on a beach near Mafia Island in Tanzania was magical, and heartbreaking, because they looked so vulnerable. They’re tiny little things – no bigger than the palm of my hand – so the 15m of beach is an epic journey but they scramble forward determinedly despite the obstacles.  I was thrilled to see this little guy heading out into the world!

Day 2: Two Washington War Memorials
Christina Reif | Kiva Zip (Washington D.C.) | United States

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The Korean War Memorial (left): Nestled between juniper bushes which represent the rugged terrain of Korea, 7ft tall statues of soldiers – wary of a suspected ambush – give the visitor a haunting feel of the a soldier’s reality.

The Vietnam Memorial (right): As I stood taking the picture I overheard the veteran say: there were 18 of us and only 9 came back. It was said matter of factly, a story told many times before, a piece of history that never loses its emotional impact.

Day 3: Three Colorado Microbrews
Rachel Davis | Kiva Zip (Denver) | United States

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Here are three beers from three Colorado breweries, enjoy!

Day 4: Four Kuki Carolers
Eileen Flannigan | WSDS-Initiate | India

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What are these Kuki’s most excited about this holiday?  “The caroling bus!”  This tradition only happens every two years because of the cost of renting the buses, which each family in the village (200+) contributes to all year.  On Christmas Eve the buses tour all the neighboring villages as a symbol of peace, unity and good old fashion fun!  At midnight, the elders go home and the youths visit each house in the village to “offer them a song”, which include tribal songs, classic Christmas songs and even Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe”.

When I asked them what they would like to say to Kiva lenders around the world, they joyfully said they wanted to “offer a song of thanksgiving”.   Through giggles and jolly spirits, these Kiva borrowers sing “Joy to the World”, dressed in their holiday best, which is all weaved from their own hands.   They graciously wrap me in these special threads and awake my heart with the “Christmas spirit”.

Day 5: Five Gorgeous Costa Rican Birds
Jane Imai | EDESA and FUNDECOCA | Costa Rica

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What speaks of Costa Rica more than a bunch of beautiful, tropical birds? Costa Rica boasts a huge biodiversity when it comes to wildlife, including almost 900 species of birds. Here are some of ones I was able to see while I was here:

  • Blue macaw (wild, La Fortuna)
  • Scarlet macaws (wild, en route to Monteverde)
  • Violet sabrewing (wildlife refuge, La Paz Waterfall Gardens)
  • Yellow-naped parrots (free roaming pets known as Lola and Paco, San Jose)
  • Keel-billed toucan (wildlife refuge, La Paz Waterfall Gardens)

Day 6: Six Delicious Dishes from Kyrgyzstan
Abhishesh Adhikari | Bai Tushum & Partners | Kyrgyzstan

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  1. Lagman: Noodle dish with beef and pepper
  2. Mante: Dumplings filled with ground beef and onions
  3. Turkish Kebab
  4. Russian style roast duck with apples
  5. Plov: Fried rice mixed with meat and carrots
  6. Traditional Kyrgyz soup with meat and potatoes

Day 7: Seven Candles for Día de las Velitas
Rose Larsen | Fundación Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD) | Colombia

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Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles) is a holiday in Colombia honoring the Immaculate Conception.  Every year, on the 8th of December, at 3AM, Colombians light candles and put them in colorful lanterns outside their homes. This day is also the (unofficial) launch of the Christmas season.

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Day 8: Eight Filipino Christmas Lights and Festive Faces
Keith Baillie | Roaming Mindanao | Philippines

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Christmas preparations start early in the Philippines. Since November, carols are played on the radio and offices and homes have put up Christmas decorations. Groups of children roam around singing carols, hoping for a handout. Here are some pics of Dipolog’s tree lighting festival – with monsters for kids, sculpted and living angels, fireworks and popular bands.

Maayong Pasco! (Bisayan for Merry Christmas!)

Day 9: Nine Jordanian Herbs
Taline Khansa | Tamweelcom | Jordan

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One of the most exciting and lively areas in Jordan is the downtown Amman “Balad” region. The streets are filled with a multitude of elements that stimulate the senses from perfumeries making custom concoctions to falafel hole-in-the-wall restaurants. My favorite places are the small shops selling bulk herbs and spices (for super cheap!), some of which I recognize and others I’ve never heard of. The merchants will often allow you to smell or taste the products and may offer some advice on use and preparation techniques.

The nine bulk herbs in this picture are: Two kinds of sage, Melissa, Rosemary, Artemisia, Rose, Guava Leaves, Marjoram, and Hibiscus… Happy Holidays from the Middle East!

Day 10: Ten Bags-a-Brimming With Honduran Coffee
Wesley Schrock | Roaming Fellow | Honduras

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Kiva borrower Miguel, a coffee farmer from Trojes in Honduras, stands in front of a wet processing station.  In the lower left-hand corner note his ten bags of pulped, fermented, and dried coffee beans ready for roasting.

Day 11: Eleven Indian Ingredients and Spices
Irene Fung | People’s Forum and Mahashakti Foundation | India

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Having spent close to three months in India, I must say I have not had one bad meal.  The food is always flavorful and delicious.  While working at Mahashakti, I have been fortunate to have lunch with the staff every day, prepared by the office caretaker, Radha Kanta, or just Rahda for short.  Since many of the staff travel from branch to branch at a regular basis, they stay at the office overnight.  Radha prepares meals for the traveling staff and me.

One day I learned to make a traditional Odisha dish – Simba Rai – from the following ingredients (pictured from left to right): Garlic, Turmeric, Radha in action, Ginger, Masala paste and powder, Green Chili, Potatoes, Green beans (Simba), Chili powder, Mustard seeds, Tomatoes, Shallots, and we’re ready to eat!

Day 12: Twelve Bright African Futures
Holly Sarkissian | Alidé in Benin and WAGES in Togo

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The smiling faces of twelve bright futures for the children of Kiva borrowers in Togo and Benin!

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS

FROM THE KIVA FELLOWS!

20 December 2012 at 08:00

Dancing in the New Year

By Holly Sarkissian, KF 19,  Benin & Togo

In Benin, New Year’s Eve is a BIG HOLIDAY. I recently spoke with two Kiva borrowers about their plans to celebrate. Meet Flaure:
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Flaure is currently saving money to celebrate the New Year. She plans to buy pagne (or colorful fabric) to make a new outfit for each member of the family. She will also celebrate by cooking a special meal and dancing with her friends and family.

Meet Romance of the Dieu Est Grand Group (God is Big Group):
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Romance is looking forward to celebrating Christmas and the New Year. She plans to sell pre-made New Year’s outfits for children in order to earn additional income. During the festivities each member of her family will wear a new outfit made of pagne or colorful local fabric. They will also celebrate by eating and dancing together.  Romance’s favorite dance is Zouk which originates from the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and has gained popularity in francophone  Africa .

In addition to Zouk, there are several other dances popular in the region. Many of the kiva borrowers in Ghana, Togo, and Benin will be celebrating the holidays with the following dances:

1. Cool Catché is a dance with origins in Togo that is very popular throughout West Africa. This dance is done by lifting one’s hand or foot in front of the body and alternating right and left to the beat of the music. There is also a version of this dance called Cool Catche Mama which involves moving the head and neck back and forth to the beat of the music. You can see both versions in this popular Togolese music video LA GRIPPE CC.

2. Azonto originates from Ghana and Nigeria and is also very popular throughout the region. It involves knee bending, hip movements, and alternating pulses of ones hand in front of the body between the legs and then up to the sky.  It is said that Azonto is the dance of the spirits so in many popular versions of the dance, the dancers will wear masks to enhance the dance’s cryptic element. You can see it in this two popular songs:

  1. Sokodé or the Azonto Song
  2. Afro Mask

3. Cutata originates from Togo and Cote d’Ivoire . This is the dance for booty dancing lovers everywhere. It involves shaking ones behind up and down very quickly. You can see some starting at minute 1:52 in this popular Togolese music video, Fo Mapelé.

4. Agbadja  is a traditional rhythm originating from the Mina and Ewe ethnic groups. It comes from the southern region of Togo and the southwest region of Benin. You can see Agbadja in this video.

5. Simpa comes from the central region of Togo, originating from the Kotokoli ethnic group. You can see a performance of Simpa in this video taken in Sokodé, Togo.

6. Kamou comes from the North of Togo, originating from the Kabiyè ethinic group. You can see an example of this dance performed by the group The Seeds in their music video Lidaw.

Now you too can celebrate the New Year by dancing like a West African Kiva Borrower.

Happy Holidays!

Holly is a Kiva Fellow currently dancing with Kiva Borrowers in Togo & Benin. Find a borrower in Togo or Benin and lend today!

19 December 2012 at 14:10

VIDEO BLOG: Sewing, Weaving and Shoemaking in Small-Town Colombia

Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia

San Jacinto de Bolivar, San Juan Nepomuceno and El Carmen de Bolivar are three tiny towns located in the same department of Colombia as Cartagena, though they are almost entirely ignored by the hordes of tourists who descend upon the “jewel of the Caribbean” each year.

The streets of San Jacinto de Bolivar

The streets of San Jacinto de Bolivar

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San Juan Nepomuceno’s church

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Just outside of town, San Juan Nepomuceno

Characterized by unpaved roads, lovely churches and way too many “motos,” these towns are also home to some of the most interesting Kiva borrowers I’ve had the chance to meet. Most of FMSD’s clients are city-dwellers who make their living selling catalog products to friends and neighbors, running beauty salons, or manning small general stores, and while these livings are just as viable and important to fund, my trip to the Bolivar district allowed me to meet many fascinating women who specialize in the production of handicrafts or handmade items, depending on their own artistry and hands to make their living. Their deftness with their craft impressed me, so I thought I’d share what I saw with all of you!

Mochilas y bolsos (the Purse-maker of San Jacinto)

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How to Make a Hammock: Two Visits in San Jacinto

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A Couple of Shoemakers from San Juan Nepomuceno

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Though each business was very different, I saw some similarities across all three.

- All were run by women, though husbands would sometimes help out with part of the business.

- Each woman depended on her own hands to work her product, and had learned technical skills in her craft. Most of these skills are passed down from mother to daughter.

- All three women emphasized that the rest of their town was helped by the injection of capital that came from the Kiva loan. While the loan helped each woman directly by allowing her to grow her business, it went even further. In Nellys’ case, she was able to buy more fabrics from her aunt, who ran a weaving business, and also supplied more products to her husband and other vendors to resell. Rosiris talked about saving up enough to pay an assistant, since weaving hammocks is time consuming work. And Fanny already employed a few assistants as well as 12 resellers who would hawk her shoes in town.

In fact, after hearing all these stories and seeing FMSD’s local loan officers greet passersby, it was clear that these towns were as tightly knit as the weave in Rosiris’ hammock!

Rose Larsen is a member of the 19th class of Kiva Fellows, serving in Barranquilla, Colombia with Fundación Mario Santo Domingo. Become a member of FMSD’s lending teamlend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow!

18 December 2012 at 08:00

The Ticos Who Touched My Heart

just some of the lovely Ticos I met during my fellowship

just some of the lovely Ticos I met during my fellowship

It never ceases to amaze me how you can connect with people who are completely different from you. Maybe you don’t speak the same first language. Maybe you grew up on opposite sides of the world, or you were born in different decades. But somehow, despite all your differences—and perhaps against all odds—you find commonalities. And what’s more, sometimes you realize that below the surface, maybe you’re not actually all that different after all.

Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending. That happens every day through its online lending platform, http://www.kiva.org. But as Kiva Fellows, we have the opportunity to carry out this mission in the field. Sometimes we get to meet with borrowers, but all of us get to connect with the local people where we work and live. We learn about who they are and how they live, and we share a little bit about ourselves as well. And when you find yourself having a good laugh with them, it’s a pretty amazing thing.

the FUNDECOCA crew

the FUNDECOCA crew

So, the three months of my fellowship are drawing to a close. It’s hard not to get sentimental when I think about leaving behind this beautiful country and the warm, generous people who welcomed me into their homes, their families, and their lives. Some took the time to get to know me, others took the time to share their stories, and others still simply made me feel at home, wherever I was. Many went out of their way to make sure I had a fantastic experience here. Pictured in this blog entry are just some of the wonderful Ticos that I met in Costa Rica.

the folks at EDESA

the folks at EDESA

My time here has been full of adventures, sightseeing, and some notable firsts. Among those have been:

First time seeing toucans. They are too cute for words!

First time riding on a moto, or motorbike, ever. (I think I’ve gained some street cred in Uganda).

First time seeing dressage. One weekend, I chanced upon a big street party that was complete with cowboys and horses getting their horse ballet on. I thought that was pretty fortuitous, since I had recently learned what this sport was all about (courtesy of Stephen Colbert).

First time eating rice and beans for 90 days straight. I’m talking about the famous typical Costa Rican dish, gallo pinto, which is pretty much what everyone here eats every day for breakfast—and sometimes lunch and dinner, too. OK, so maybe I didn’t eat it for all 90 days, but I tell you it was pretty darn close. It’s a good thing I like rice and beans!

First time trying sopilote (vulture meat). Ooops, wait! That was chicken and a couple of colleagues trying to trick me.

First time watching the entire Twilight saga. Oh yes I did! (It made for a fun bonding experience, OK?)

Alejandra and Bryan (and their wonderful families in Pital)

Alejandra and Bryan (and their families in Pital)

But in any new experience, it’s always the people you meet who make all the difference. While I love to travel and see new places, I also love the very different experience of living abroad, because that’s when you really get to know the locals.

People asked me why I wanted to come to Costa Rica for my fellowship. In fact, it’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a long time. I have always been intrigued by this country that constitutionally abolished its army in 1949, thus diverting resources towards health and education for the general population. I was curious about the nation with a long history of ecotourism that today remains one of the world’s leaders in environmental protection. I wanted to meet the people who lived in the country that was ranked #1 in the 2012 Happy Planet Index.

Don Manuel and his full house

home sweet home – Manuel and his full house

So here are some things I’ve learned:

Ticos are proud of their country and have a strong sense of national identity. The expression Pura Vida (Pure Life) says it all. It’s something of a national motto here, but it’s more than just words; it’s a way of life. It’s used here in greetings, as an expression of gratitude or satisfaction, and also to describe something or someone who’s generally pretty awesome.

Ticos love to toot their horn. I’m not talking about national pride anymore. I’m talking about the constant beep-beep you will hear as you walk along any road or highway. The pitos (horns) are how Tico drivers communicate, and the beeps can mean very different things. Here’s a little guide to help you decipher the various meanings, should you be traveling to Costa Rica anytime soon:

Beep! Hello!

Beep! Hellooooo there, baby.

Beep! Coming through!

Beep beep! You go first!

Beep! Thanks dude!

Beeeeeeeep! I’m stuck in traffic and mildly annoyed.

Beep! I’m bored and tooting my horn is fun!

Beep! Beep! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!……………….

Ticos love their coffee. As they rightly should: Costa Rican coffee is really good! Even for someone who’s more of a tea-aholic, two coffee breaks a day will get you hooked in no time. If you search long and hard, though, you will find some tea aficionados, and you might even chance upon a tea store if you’re lucky.

Ticos are incredibly tolerant of rain. I’ve never seen so much rain in my life! It’s true I’ve been here during the rainy season, but I never thought this kind of rain was possible—where a heavy downpour can last 5 hours, or sometimes even two days. But nobody complains. (The cold is another thing, but it’s totally fair game to complain when it’s 12oC and windy, given that buildings are not insulated here.)

Costa Rica is largely rural. Like the diminutive Tico suggests, things here are small-scale. Even the bigger city centres are more like large towns. Many Ticos live in rural areas or have some connection to rural life. For example, quite a few people who work in the city commute some distance from a more rural area, or their family might own a finca (a property in the countryside).

And many Ticos and tourists alike are averse to San José, whose metropolitan area has some 2.3 million people. While it may not be the world’s most attractive city, the Ticos’ dislike for it stems more from the fact that it is a city. I am going to make a bold statement: I like San José. That may be attributed to the great people I met while I was living here, though.

traipsing the country with Carlos and his family

traipsing the country with Carlos and his family

Ticos are quite devout. Costa Rica is fairly homogenous and its population is made up of 70% Catholics and 14% Evangelical Christians. It was interesting trying to explain that my family’s roots are Buddhist, since Buddhism, like many other religions, has had limited exposure in Costa Rica.

It was also interesting being introduced as Canadian to new Ticos. Their eyes always said the same thing: You can’t fool me. A further explanation of my parents’ Japanese origins brought a sort of relief to their faces and often facilitated the conversation that ensued. I was, without a doubt, something of an anomaly to them, although that humoured me more than anything.

The word china means many things in Costa Rica, as it does in other Spanish speaking countries. Hmm… seems like not a lot of thought has gone into the nuances of its meanings. For example:

  • China = the country
  • china = the language
  • china = a Chinese person
  • china = any other Asian-looking person

In addition, there is a type of flower called china and porcelain plates are also called china. To add some variety, I tried to make up my own word, chinesa, to describe the language, but I was corrected. Por favor. It’s china.

That being said, China (the country) has become Costa Rica’s most important ally after the US, as evidenced by the generous gift they sent last year. (A symbol of its former relationship with Taiwan can also be found firmly planted in northern Costa Rica.) So maybe it’s good that, as long as they’re going to use one generic word to capture all these meanings, that the word be china.

Romano and Hannia

Romano and Hannia

Ticos work hard to get ahead, but that’s not always easy. They could use a break. That’s why lending through Kiva’s partners like EDESA and FUNDECOCA can go a long way. (Stay tuned for FUNDECOCA on www.kiva.org—they’re a new partner so their partner page is forthcoming!)

These MFIs are doing a great job of providing opportunities to people in rural areas, where the poverty is often striking, but urban poverty is rampant as well, and sometimes microfinance can overlook this. One of my colleagues pointed out that a person is probably better off being poor in a rural area of Costa Rica, because at least then they can still produce their own food. In the city, on the other hand, if you don’t have money you can’t survive.

Recently, I had the opportunity to get to know a lady here in a similar situation. While she had a job in the city that gave her enough income to support her family, she was in a position where she could not access credit from the regular banks. As such, her daughters would never have the chance to pursue a better education so that they might someday be able to get ahead. As we chatted, I realized that rarely had I met someone so wise and open-minded. She had a lively curiosity, and she had come to grips with her situation in life with laughter and a positive attitude. She left me with a feeling of admiration mixed with heartache.

Rosi and her family

Rosi and her family

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the fortune to live and work in 7 different countries, and travel to countless others. Throughout those experiences, I’ve met friends who come from over 70 countries, and I’ve come to understand so much about the world thanks to them. Ticos, I’ve learned, are totally pura vida. And hopefully, they’ve learned something about me, too, so that the next time they meet someone really different from them, the differences won’t be as striking as the similarities are.

13 December 2012 at 21:04

Magical Moments with Kiva Borrowers in Bolivia

PeterKF19-06-00-Hdr

Any Kiva Fellow will tell you that visiting Kiva borrowers is one of the most satisfying parts of our experience. This is our moment to go beyond the borrower photographs and short biographies on the Kiva website. We greet borrowers by shaking hands and kissing cheeks, we sit in their homes, we walk through their fields, we touch the garments they sew and taste the baked goods from their ovens, we learn the names of their cows, and we try to make their children smile.

These are moments when we transcend the digital world and our Kiva connections become human.

Señor René, Vegetable Farmer, Cochabamba (CIDRE)

With Señor René in his bean field

With Señor René in his bean field

Señor René lives in a high-altitude farming community a couple of hours from Cochabamba. His several small parcels of land are perched on the slopes of the Bolivian Andes that reach eastwards. The views of the surrounding peaks, the nearby farms and the valley below are simply magnificent.

René’s daughter with the family puppy “Shadow”

René’s daughter with the family puppy “Shadow”

He lives in a one-room adobe home with his wife and four children. The Kiva loan helped pay his one-time share in the community irrigation system which allows him to double his agriculture production since he can now grow crops after the rainy season.

René and his family received me and my CIDRE colleagues with extreme generosity. We were served a tasty and healthy almuerzo (the sustaining midday meal) of home-made cheese and hot salsa, fresh steamed broad beans and boiled potatoes that were harvested from their garden that morning.

Enjoying a meal in René's home: fresh beans and potatoes, home-made cheese and hot salsa, yum!

Enjoying a meal in René’s home: fresh beans and potatoes, home-made cheese and hot salsa, yum!

During the meal we talked about his farming. He is genuinely grateful for the Kiva-funded loan and the low interest rate — this goes a long way in helping support his young family.

As we were leaving he surprised us with a fat bag of fresh-picked beans. It was a large gesture that the CIDRE loan officers especially appreciated. He thanked me personally for coming all the way from the United States to spend time with him.

René's thoughtful gift to CIDRE loan officers of fresh beans from his farm

René’s thoughtful gift to CIDRE loan officers of fresh beans from his farm

Pointing over the distant mountain peaks, René asked me to pass along his greetings and thanks to everyone at “home.” I smiled, looking over those mountains knowing that everywhere is home to the Kiva family.

Building Bridges: With Rene’s family and my CIDRE colleagues on a new bridge built recently near his farm

Building Bridges: With Rene’s family and my CIDRE colleagues on a new bridge built recently near his farm

Señora Yelica, Baker, Santa Cruz (Emprender)

Señora Yélica at home with her Kiva-funded oven

Señora Yélica at home with her Kiva-funded oven

The heat of eastern Bolivia can be intense. As soon I reached the shade of Señora Yélica’s backyard she handed me a cold glass of Coca Colla, Bolivia’s coca-leaf enhanced “real thing” soft drink.

Her property on the outskirts of Santa Cruz is filled with flowering fruit trees: orange, mango, papaya, avocado, pomegranate and fig. This is tropical Bolivia and she takes full advantage of the sun, warmth and rich soil to supplement her family’s diet with fresh fruit right from her backyard.

Emprender loan officers admire the mango and pomegranate trees that adorn Yélica's backyard

Emprender loan officers admire the mango and pomegranate trees that adorn Yélica’s backyard

Rising early seven days a week, Yélica bakes dozens of pan de arroz (a bread of yucca meal, rice flour and cheese encased in banana leaves) and cheese empanadas. She sells these to neighbors but with her Kiva-funded larger oven she can now sell in the markets for more income.

"Homemade Bread" sign and baked goods on display at Yélica's home

“Homemade Bread” sign and baked goods on display at Yélica’s home

She offered me samples of all her baked goods, covered with cotton towels to keep them warm. She introduced me to her smiling grandmother who listened intently to our discussion and enjoyed watching this visiting foreigner trying his best to keep the sweat from rolling down his brow. We laughed about her lazy pets, a sleeping puppy in the shade beneath a wheelbarrow and a curled-up kitten.

Yélica's slothful four-legged friends, she's glad they aren't on the payroll!

Yélica’s slothful four-legged friends, she’s glad they aren’t on the payroll!

It was a sublimely pleasant visit. Graciously welcomed by outgoing hosts amid a lush paradise, my thoughts lingered on the joys of being a Kiva Fellow at times like this.

Señor Gustavo, Magician, La Paz (CIDRE)

Señor Gustavo eagerly shows off his Kiva-funded magic kits

Señor Gustavo eagerly shows off his Kiva-funded magic kits

As soon as I stepped into Señor Gustavo’s home workshop, I knew this would be like no other borrower visit. I was surrounded by stacks of boxes, cardboard, playing cards, coins, yarn and CD’s – there were enough Kiva-funded materials to assemble 1,000 Maletines de Magia, the magic kits he sells at fairs throughout Bolivia.

He welcomed me with a huge smile and immediately the show began. He jumped right into performing tricks, explaining the design and manufacturing process, and how he sells these at fairs. Gustavo is a seriously committed to his business. A fan of magic as a child, he has now made it his livelihood. He designs his magic kits to be especially didactic for children, helping them develop cognitive abilities, such as basic math, counting, probability logic and pattern recognition.

As I sat back in my seat, I was amused and awestruck by his magic… and equally impressed at how simple the tricks are once he explained them.

After half an hour of the “Don Gustavo Show” I had to get down to business and verify some key details of his loan. He answered my questions but his mind was clearly on his next Kiva-funded loan as he quickly dove into an enthusiastic pitch of his next “Magic Kit” project.

The CIDRE loan officer wryly explained that he’d still need to stop by the office to fill out the paperwork. He grinned broadly as she told him that Kiva funds can’t simply be pulled from a hat.

Some truly magic moments with Kiva borrowers!

Peter Soley is a Kiva Fellow (Class 19) serving in Bolivia (La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz) with CIDRE and Emprender. Become a member of their lending teams (CIDRE, Emprender), lend to one of their borrowers today (CIDRE, Emprender), or apply to be a Fellow!

12 December 2012 at 08:00 1 comment

0% Interest student loans! YSBS – Indonesia

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Dewi, pictured here in her grandmother’s shop, is studying accounting but wants to be a novelist. I say do BOTH!

Amazing things are happening at Yayasan Sosial Bina Sejahtera (YSBS,) a very new member to the Kiva partner family. First, I’ll give you a little background on the organization.  YSBS has been around since 1976, and their main activity is assistance to educate young people at all levels and ages.  They believe that education is a major key to lifting future generations out of poverty.  Kiva is instrumental in allowing YSBS to expand their Vocational School loan program allowing students who most likely would have dropped out of school, to stay in and get better jobs after graduation.

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Arda is on the bike with me, the tall white guy, with Titiek on her own bike.

The founder of YSBS, Father Charlie, is an older, but very energetic, Irish priest who has dedicated his life to working with the people of Cilicap for almost 40 years!  Speaking with him is nothing short of inspirational, and seeing the fruits of his labour is truly humbling.

This program that YSBS wants to expand – with Kiva’s help – is Vocational School student loans.  Father Charlie has data showing that currently 30,000 students finish Junior High, but only 14,000 of those finish Senior High in the local, Cilacap area.  And sadly, it is the small fees for education that keep these 16,000 students out of a chance for a better paying job and a hand up out of poverty.

How it works is that a loan for one of these students is posted to the Kiva website and when funded the money gets sent to YSBS.  But, YSBS has designed a system that allows the student to pay 0% interest.  The full amount of 11,000,000 IDR (about $1,175 USD) goes to pay for 3 years of uniforms, tests, books and school fees in every form.  This 11,000,000 IDR pays for school fees and the interest earned (right now secured at 8%!) goes to repaying the loan back for the student.  The money is working for the student to assist them in paying back to full loan amount!

We are still ironing out all the intricacies of this system but at YSBS it is clear that the ultimate benefit to the student is paramount.  Currently there are no loans fundraising for YSBS but stay tuned for more loans from this exciting new partner!

Jon Hiebert is a 3rd term Kiva fellow who has worked with Kiva in Mongolia, Uganda and now in Indonesia.  YSBS is the current organization he is assisting, where the staff is so friendly and passionate about what they do.  When he’s not working, you may see him on his quest to find the best Gado-Gado in town! (traditional Indonesian dish of steamed veggies and white bean hashbrowns smothered in peanut sauce.) 

11 December 2012 at 08:00 1 comment

On the road less traveled: Kagera region in Tanzania.

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania

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If you prefer the road less traveled, then I have just the place for you: the Kagera region of Tanzania!

You may not have heard of Kagera – even though it’s exceptionally beautiful, and the people here are especially friendly – as it’s not part of the Tanzanian tourist circuit.  And that’s precisely what makes it ideal for those of us who prefer to explore places off the beaten track!  Kagera is tucked away on the western side of Lake Victoria.  The region is bordered by Uganda to the north, and Rwanda and Burundi to the west, and it takes a 20+ hour bus ride (or two flights) to get here from Dar es Salaam.  I’ve come here in my capacity as a Fellow to visit Kiva borrower Gration and his project partner Daeni in the town of Muleba, as well as Andy in the town of Ngara.  They both obtained Kiva loans earlier this year to purchase solar power products from Kiva’s partner, Barefoot Power. The time I’ve spent with them and their Wata na Nuru (Light for the People) teams, resellers, and solar clients has been truly remarkable.   You see, I am here to work!
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I’ve long been fascinated by solar power, so I’m thrilled by the opportunity this Kiva fellowship has afforded to see firsthand the impacts and challenges of providing solar lighting in rural Tanzania.   And I’m looking forward to sharing these Barefoot Power updates with you when I get back to an area with sufficient internet speed to upload the blogs…  Meanwhile, here’s a photo journal of my favorite (non-work) experiences in Kagera over the past two weeks:

1. The dawn chorus of songbirds in a beautiful garden in Bukoba. The birdlife is prolific here; the garden in this video reminds me of the home where I grew up in Zimbabwe; and Bukoba (Tanzania’s second-largest port on Lake Victoria) is a breath of fresh air after my last nine hot and sweaty weeks in Dar es Salaam.  What an uplifting way to start the day!
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2.  Expansive views of Lake Victoria.  It’s called Lweru (The Big White) by the Haya people of this area, and as soon as I saw the lake I knew why.  This is an area of vast panoramas and glorious open skies!  The shoreline of the lake is dotted with granite outcrops, and the surrounding landscape is lush with green grass (good grazing for the heavy-horned cattle in this video!) and trees, thanks to plentiful rainfall and the rich red soil.
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3.  A frenzy of activity as 450 donated bikes – recently arrived in a container from Switzerland – are reassembled and prepped for sale. Daeni is involved at this bicycle center in remote Nshamba, where youngsters learn the skills of a bicycle fundi (expert).  I’m delighted to see the Tanzanian side of this project, because I’m familiar with the donor side of a similar project in my hometown in Canada.
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4. Kagera isn’t called the banana capital of Tanzania for nothing…   Banana plants grow everywhere!  Matoke (plantains, or cooking bananas) are the staple food here, usually eaten with maharage (beans).  The bananas we eat start growing from tiny yellow flowers – initially the size of your thumb nail – hidden under the dark reddish bracts of a large inflorescence known as the banana heart.
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5.  My hilarious bus ride from Muleba to Ngara!  It rains.  The bus leaks.  I am drenched from head to foot!  I balance my little daypack on my knee as water pours down upon me for several hours, relieved that my laptop and camera – the tools of my trade these days – are sealed in a waterproof bag.  I’m sorry when the kid sitting snugly next to me gets off at his stop; I was grateful for his warmth…  And just for the record: I’m beginning to think a ticket agents’ assessment that “it will take 3 hours” is an optimistic way of saying “a long time, maybe even 6 hours”!
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6.  Wandering for hours along a ridge at Murgwanza that overlooks the Tanzanian border with Rwanda.  I’m drawn onward by the tantalizing views from the next rocky outcrop, and the possibility of finding another flame lily swaying in the breeze.  The sounds of distant voices, wood chopping, and the occasional cock-crow drift up to me from the valley below, and mingle with the low buzz of insects and melodious bursts of birdsong.  The African bush is so alive!  Goat herders on the next hillside call mzungu! (the friendly Kiswahili term for foreigner) to catch my attention, and wave.  Could I be any happier?
Ngara view collage7

7.  The harmonious singing voices of a church congregation in Murgwanza stop me in my tracks as I’m passing by.  (The picture quality in this video is poor, so just close your eyes and listen, and you’ll hear birds trilling joyfully too!)

8.  A vibrant market operates under cover of huge white UNHCR tents that have been repurposed in downtown Ngara.  The tents are remnants of the refugee crisis in Kagera that was caused by the Rwanda genocide in 1994.  It’s impossible for me to reconcile the idea of such horror with the normal daily life and tranquility I see around me now.
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9.  My 9-hour bus ride through Karagwe region.  Since there are no direct buses for the next 3 days, I’m advised to take a bus from Ngara to Karagwe (it’ll take 3 hours!), from where I can get onward transport to Bukoba.  I arrive at the bus stand before dawn to get a window seat.  The bus fills rapidly (and I do mean fills…), and we set off close to schedule but lose time as we inch our way through the mist and up the steep hills.  The man wedged in next to me buys water at our first stop and downs more pills than I’ve ever seen in one dose; I wonder sadly if he’s one of the many people here infected with HIV/AIDS.  (I’ve visited a sewing class at one organization that cares for 1800 orphans, and met a worker from another that cares for 3700.  The numbers overwhelm me.)

Then the bus halts at a barrier and a man with an automatic rifle, (I recognize it as an AK47; I grew up during the war in Zimbabwe), climbs in next to the driver.  My neighbor explains this is our escort, but I’m a bit disconcerted and text a message to Andy in Ngara in case this all ends badly…  He replies that an armed escort on this route is normal…  I’m still feeling pensive when suddenly there’s great excitement on the bus: Twiga, twiga!  Someone’s seen giraffe, and we all scan the bush eagerly for a glimpse!  I snap a couple of photos, and pass my camera around.  My fellow passengers laugh happily at our good fortune, and my mood lightens!  I can face the rest of this 9-hour bus journey with equanimity now.
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10.  Young girls are delighted by their new dresses for Christmas!  I think the dressmaker is equally pleased.   Entrepreneurship is visible everywhere I go – this woman set up shop in front of her house, in the midst of a banana plantation.   And she’s doing a roaring trade as the festive season approaches!
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And finally: The unlikely Kiva connection. Yesterday I chatted with a charming woman at Bukoba airport as we waited in vain for our flight – the runway too muddy for the incoming plane to land. We met again today, and I showed my new friend the Tanzanian content on Kiva website. Imagine my surprise and delight when we scrolled through the last Update I posted about Tanzania, and she exclaimed “I know her! That woman is an excellent baker!” Who’d have thought there would be a connection way out here in Kagera? It’s a small world, thanks to Kiva!

Barefoot Power loans in Tanzania also went to Martin in Dodoma, and Clive in Moshi. That’s were my travels as a Kiva Fellow take me next! No Barefoot Power loans in Tanzania are currently fundraising on Kiva, but each month you can find loans posted by Tujijenge Tanzania.

9 December 2012 at 12:00 2 comments

A glimpse into Entrepreneurship in Kyrgyzstan

Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan

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One of the most exciting things about Kyrgyzstan is the potential for the growth of entrepreneurship. Over the last few months, I had the opportunity to travel all across this country and meet a wide variety of borrowers and potential entrepreneurs. From young college students in Bishkek to farmers in the remote regions around Naryn, shopkeepers in violence affected areas of Osh to livestock owners in Batken. Just twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm here for starting up small businesses.

Looking at the demographics and the challenges involved, I would categorize Kyrgyz entrepreneurs into two major categories. First, there are the young college students and graduates from around Bishkek and other major cities who are interested in starting service-oriented businesses. Second, there are entrepreneurs from the more remote regions who want to start new farms and livestock businesses.

(more…)

6 December 2012 at 09:34

Driving along the HIV Highway – visiting Kiva Zip trustee CTC International

As you might have heard many times before, meeting with the borrowers is the most rewarding part of the fellowship. It’s always such a great feeling to meet the Kiva borrowers in person and see that the loans are actually making a big difference in their lives. When you work with Kiva Zip you also get the opportunity to meet our trustees, which are fantastic organizations and individuals that all have in common that they want to help low-income entrepreneurs to create a better life for themselves and their families.

During last week’s field visit, me and my colleagues Shy and Alyza visited the trustee CTC International. CTC is based in Maai Mahiu in the Rift Valley, Kenya. Maai Mahiu is a small town located on a major trade route that runs through several countries in Africa, commonly known as the HIV Highway. According to CTC around 1.6-1.9 million people live with HIV in Kenya, and the spread of the disease is particularly high in this area of the country. Prostitution is very common and with thousands of truck drivers stopping by in the small “hotels” that are lining the streets of Maai Mahiu, the spread of HIV has run rampant.

Rift Valley, Kenya

Rift Valley, Kenya

HIV Highway

HIV Highway

CTC International is an amazing organization that works with a variety of projects to fight poverty. One of the projects is called GAPA (Grandparents Against Poverty and HIV / AIDS), where all members have in common that their child has died of HIV / AIDS. These grandparents are all raising their grandchildren, with little or basically non-existent financial resources. CTC is supporting these grandparents through income-generating activities, training and support groups.

CTC also helps the grandparents to get access to microloans, and the reason for our visit was to train one group of borrowers on the Kiva Zip model. All borrowers are working with different income generating projects, ranging from soap making to poultry keeping.

Presenting Kiva

Explaining Kiva Zip to the borrowers

Explaining Kiva Zip to the borrowers

The grandmothers

The grandmothers

Showing a Kiva profile to the borrowers

Showing a Kiva profile to the borrowers

It was so rewarding meeting these women. Even though they all have suffered terrible losses of their children, they didn’t give up on their grandchildren, and they do everything they can to support them. And the best thing is that you can help them too, shortly we will post their loans on our Kiva Zip website and you can help fund their businesses. Click here to get to the Kiva Zip website.

"Happiness GAPA"

“Happiness GAPA”

Read more about GAPA here

5 December 2012 at 11:17

The Rolex that You Can Eat (…and it tastes oh so good)

Laura Sellmansberger | KF19 | Uganda

Uganda offers its visitors a wide variety of foods to sample, but many would agree that the most delicious of these is the rolex. What is a rolex, you ask? I have heard many people describe the Ugandan rolex as something similar to the “breakfast burrito,” a peculiar food item that can be found at a number of American fast food chains. For purposes of basic mental imagery, this description may not be too far off; however, I personally believe that this comparison fails to give the rolex the credit that it deserves. That’s why I have decided to dedicate an entire blog post to this uniquely Ugandan culinary delight.

A rolex costs 1,500 Ugandan Shillings ($0.60) and is available on almost every street corner in Kampala. The name “rolex” has nothing to do with the luxury Swiss watch company, but rather relates to the ingredients of this scrumptious delicacy and the way it is made: roll + eggs = rolex.

The rolex first appeared about a decade ago in the Kampala suburb of Wandegaya near Makerere University, Kampala’s oldest institution of higher education. After appearing in Wandegaya, the late-night student snack took the region by storm and has since become a staple street food throughout all of Central Uganda.

My favorite rolex stand in Kampala

My favorite rolex stand in Kampala

Here I will outline the basic steps in the creation of a rolex.

1. First, the chapati is made. Chapati is a tortilla-like flatbread made from flour, water and salt. Chapati was first brought to Uganda by Indian migrant workers in the early 1900s. The dough is rolled thin, placed on a circular frying pan, and cooked until it has reached a solid yet soft consistency.

Frying the chapati

Making the chapati

2. Next, the omelette is mixed. Two eggs are blended together with pieces of fresh tomato, cabbage, onions, bell peppers and salt.

Mixing the omelette

Mixing the omelette

3. On the same pan where the chapati was cooked, the omelette is fried.

Cooking the omelette

Cooking the omelette

4. The omelette is placed on the chapati and is topped with cold tomato slices and salt. The chapati is then rolled into a burrito-like form.

Putting on the finishing touches

Putting on the finishing touches

And that’s how a Ugandan rolex is made. I can’t think of a more delicious way to spend $0.60. Bon appétit!

The finished product

The finished product

~~~

Laura Sellmansberger is a member of the 19th class of Kiva Fellows, working at Grameen Foundation AppLab as well as two other nontraditional Kiva partners. 

4 December 2012 at 05:45 4 comments

Costa Rica? …Costa Lot!

my new 'hood

my new ‘hood in San Carlos

A road trip with FUNDECOCA

It’s hard to believe it’s been a month since I arrived in San Carlos and started working at my second MFI. FUNDECOCA is one of Kiva’s newest partners… and they are really excited about working with Kiva!

My fellowship here started off with a bang as I was whisked off on day trips (more…)

3 December 2012 at 08:00 2 comments

Chai Breaks in Odisha & Manipur (Part II)

By Eileen Flannigan | KF19 | India

Eileen and Irene are both fellows in India.  Eileen is living in Imphal, Manipur and Irene is in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.  While in conversations with one another, we have been struck by how different the cities are.  We’ve compiled these observations to share with you our experiences of the rich and diverse culture of India.  Eileen’s profiled in Part 2 below, while Irene is featured in Part 1.

Relax, get comfy with a cup of chai to enjoy the flavors and hospitality of India.

 

Top 3 things that you notice while roaming your neighborhood?

To some degree, Imphal looks like most Indian cities; colorful clothes laid out on riverbeds, vibrant vegetable vendors, cows grazing in busy streets, sidewalk barbers and active “hotels” (i.e. shops) of meat, rice, and tea.  However, on closer investigation, my curiosity led me to these:

  1. Rickshaw drivers in disguise. I was perplexed why most of the rickshaw drivers were covered from head-to-toe with only eyes showing, even on very hot days. I learned that these educated young men were forced to take this job because of the high unemployment in this region.  It’s considered an act of shame for themselves and their families if their identity was known.
  2. Men with large guns. Sadly, this has been a hotbed for militancy for decades. At any given moment, I’ll see men in combat uniforms jammed into the back of a vehicle or a crew taking a break at a paan shop or a tank slowly cruising down the street with the watchman’s bust out the top.
  3. Kids in uniform. I live right across the street from a primary school and my favorite morning ritual is to watch them all gather with the last bit of wild exuberance before the subdued day ahead. Children arrive scrunched with siblings on bikes, rickshaws, or father’s shoulders. Sisters eagerly tie younger one’s bows, friends connected by sweet hand holding and boys arm and arm while imitating their favorite cricket bowler.
The view out  my window in Imphal, Manipur.

 

When you want the “comforts of home” experience, what do you do?

I live with a family that has two young boys, so I’ve taught them some American card games like Go Fish, Slap Jack and Crazy Eights. On chilly nights we obsessively play with gusto, which always makes me happily nostalgic.

Although, when I’m really longing for home, I head to the best hotel in town to have a cappuccino and baked yogurt, which is a newly delicious discovery that is a cross between a crème brûlée, and American style yogurt.  Although I appreciate the ritual and social nuances of chai time, there’s nothing like the comforts of a cup of coffee or two, to turn my day around. Added bonus is this cafe plays the most wonderfully bad acoustic remakes of American songs. Depending on my mood, I am either really happy or deeply embarrassed that I now know all the lyrics to Rhinestone Cowboy.

 

Describe the people and culture in your region.

Manipur is one of the most northeastern states of India, snugly positioned next to Myanmar, formally known as Burma. Almost all states in the northeast have international borders with countries that include Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China which has meant a continuous migration of people with strong ethnic identities. The amalgamation of different tribal nations, indigenous traditions, languages and food has left a dynamic imprint on the Manipuri culture.
They have a rich arts heritage, however my favorite pastime is the daily theatre of weaved garments whisking by in the streets, with just the right amount of dramatic flair. Most women don’t wear saris but a long wrap-around skirt that tell a story of the woman, her home tribe and religious lineage through the intricate patterned design, electrified colors and weave techniques.

I love Indian food and its explosion of spices to awaken an exotic, far-away feeling in me.  However, one of my biggest surprises has been with my culinary experiences.  It’s not your typical Indian fare of masala, cardamom, coriander and the like, with the exclusion of turmeric, spices are used minimally here, if at all. Manipuris smother everything with the king chili (the hottest in the world) and say that “rice is always the main course” with something fermented (fish or bamboo) and possibly dried meat as a side.  Thankfully, my host family has been understanding of my western palette and doesn’t try to push the king chili on me, as I think we both know it would end badly.

1) Naga Village skirts 2) Classic Meitei design 3) Kuki pattern called “elephant knees” 4) Very common vertical stripes with border design.

 

 What type of work is common in this region for Kiva borrowers?

I’ve been awed by the way Kiva borrowers work many different, inter-connected businesses to sustain their livelihoods. There is no main industry to speak of, so the women must find creative ways to bring in little bits of income from many different sources, mostly 4, 5 or even 6 businesses operating at once. The Kiva borrowers, all women, live in remote hill areas with fertile land and weaving skills that start at a very young age and are seeded in deep traditions.  They are using these strengths to form business of:

Weaving + Rice Paddy + Garden

All village women will be involved in these three activities. Weaving is done twice daily, at dawn and late night when all the other household chores are completed. Rice harvesting is only once a year and the yield is not only expected to feed the whole family throughout the year but provide a small supplemental income.  A majority of families, regardless of income level, have a paddy field that has been pasted down through the generations. In addition, village families will have anything from a kitchen garden to a full farm. In this region, they typically grow potatoes, gooseberries, ginger, turmeric, cabbage, chillies and will use the harvest for family consumption and market sales.

Piggery + Poultry

“Piggeries”, as pig farms are known here, can reap a good profit, especially around festival time when the demand is high. Ladies will spend about 8-9 months feeding their pigs from scraps from their garden and rice paddies. In most cases, a woman who is raising pigs will be raising chickens,too. This is because chickens, like pigs, are a home based business and can be sold within 4-6 weeks, allowing the Kiva borrower profit to live and pay back the loan while waiting for the income from the piggery.

Clothing +Tea + Paan+ Variety Stores

The resale of used clothing has provided a good living for Kiva borrowers here because of the high profit margins with less time and hard labor then other activities. In addition, tea stalls, paan shops and variety shops are heavily littered throughout India, but in rural areas they are still viable means to respond to village needs.

Weavers (hand loom & loin loom), Chai Wallah, Poultry Farmer, Paan Stall, Turmeric Seller

 

What are the main strengths of your MFI and how have you experienced these in the field?

Kiva’s partner, WSDS-Initiate, has many strengths that contribute to successfully penetrating the remote regions in the northeast.  Manipur has several challenges and complexities that make it difficult for financial institutions to operate. Which of course, compound the effects of social, political, and geographic circumstances by widening the disparities in rural populations by financial exclusion. WSDS- Initiate, has a long history of working in this area, not only in a financial role but a social services capacity and understands the ethnic conflicts and nuances needed to work with many different tribal communities. They operate with an inclusive approach that tribal harmony and peace-building is pivotal to the regions long-term growth. Therefore, they work with the three major tribes (Kuki, Naga & Meitei) in remote and sometimes dangerous regions with a needs-based approach to financial inclusion. This includes, not only providing loans, but financial training and  savings education.
  I’ve personally met hundreds of WSDS clients, in several villages and have witnessed how they work to financially include and educate all women, even those that are considered “too high risk”, such as widows, women over 55 years old and those with little collateral.

In addition, I’ve been particularly inspired by how they continue to strive to make a social impact in this region, which isn’t easy. They have partnered with organizations that are using innovative ways of enhancing their client’s livelihood activities by enabling them to get better access to solar power, education, agriculture and forestry projects that benefit the whole community. It’s clear that WSDS’s investment in these villages are holistic with the overarching driving principle of poverty alleviation.

The incredible WSDS staff hard at work visiting borrowers, collecting stories, group photographs & of course, taking a chai break.

Eileen Flannigan is a Kiva fellow (19th class) serving in Manipur, India with the micro finance organization, WSDS Initiate.  Support our Indian partners herejoin the Indian lending teamWSDS lending team or get a holiday gift card for someone special!

30 November 2012 at 07:00

Chai Breaks in Odisha & Manipur (Part I)

Eileen and Irene are both fellows in India. Eileen is living in Imphal, Manipur and Irene is in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. While in conversations with one another, we have been struck by how different the cities are. We’ve compiled these observations to share with you our experiences of the rich and diverse culture of India. In Part I, we start with Irene in Odisha and continue with Eileen in Part 2.

Top 3 things that you always notice while roaming your neighborhood…

Continue Reading 29 November 2012 at 11:00 1 comment

8 fun facts about Kyrgyzstan

Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan

When you live in a new culture for a long enough time, you start to realize subtle cultural norms that you wouldn’t have necessary learned by reading a book about the country. I have now been in Kyrgyzstan for exactly 2 months. Here are some interesting facts about the country and its culture that I have noticed after arriving here.

1) Manas: Manas, a warrior who united Kyrgyzstan, is undoubtedly the most popular folk hero in the country. You see this name everywhere. There are streets, statues, universities, radio stations, national parks, and many other things that are named after him. Even Kyrgyzstan’s main airport is Manas International Airport. During one of my borrower visits, I visited his final resting place, Ala Too mountain, in the northwestern city of Talas. There they have Manas Ordo, a historical park and museum built in his honor.

Manas Ordo, the burial place of Manas. Legend has it that, as a kid, Manas regularly lifted the huge piece of rock shown in this picture (center right)

(more…)

28 November 2012 at 20:00

VIDEO – Kiva loans to sick ex-sugarcane workers in Nicaragua

by Luan Nio | KF18 Nicaragua | KF19 San Diego, USA

It’s November and the sugar cane cutting season has started in Nicaragua.

Even though I am back in my comfortable home in the US, I can’t stop thinking about the men all over Centroamerica who are now working the fields. They know they will develop Chronic Kidney Disease one day or another, often leading to dialysis, kidney transplantation and sometimes death. Yet the poverty level and scarce job opportunities in their region leave them with no other choice.

Read about it in a previous post I wrote About Nicaragua beer and rum – brought to you by Kiva clients.

Kiva now facilitates loans to these sick cane workers and the families they have left behind. You can lend to an ex-cane worker in Nicaragua here.

25 November 2012 at 21:24

The Illustrated Guide to Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner! (Tanzania Edition)

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania

I’d like to celebrate Thanksgiving with you, the Kiva community!  I’d love to cook dinner for us to share but this is the thing: I’m in Tanzania right now.  (I’m a Kiva Fellow, serving with Tujijenge and Barefoot Power.)  So I’m enlisting your help with getting the food to the table.  It’ll be easy!  I’ve chosen a familiar Thanksgiving menu:

Turkey with Pan Gravy

Nut Loaf (*vegetarian option)

Mashed Potatoes

Roasted Corn

Seasonable Vegetables

Desert

Coffee or Tea

And just to be certain we end up with the same meal as each other, I’ve provided step-by-step instructions (with full-color illustrations from Tanzania!) for you to follow.  You can’t go wrong…  So let’s get cooking!

1.  Set the oven temperature to “moderate” heat, i.e. be sure to let the charcoal burn down!

2.  Cook the Bird till the juices run clear, and the skin is nicely browned.  (Turkeys proved elusive – here’s rooster from Bagamoyo instead…)

3.  Pick, peel, and roast nuts for the nut loaf.  Cashews are abundant here, but feel free to use any nuts growing locally near you.

Oh! I almost forgot to decorate the table!

4.  Peel the potatoes – don’t be shy with the quantities!   (My neighborhood chip-vendor goes through 3 of these 250 lb sacks every day!)

5.  Roast the corn to perfection, then spice it up with peri-peri (chilli) and lime juice.

6.  Finely chop a selection of greens, and saute each individually.

7.  Fix the desert of your choice.  We’re not big on pie here, and the electricity quit (again) so the ice-cream has melted…  but cake is a winner at all celebrations!

8.  Brew coffee or tea – we grow them both here!  Our coffee is world-famous for quality and flavor, but we export most beans to you.  We usually use instant powder ourselves, or more often drink tea.

I hope you’ve cooked up a feast!

Happy Thanksgiving from Tanzania!



Marion has written many pages of operating instructions for polymer manufacturing facilities… You too can apply to be a Kiva Fellow for a totally different experience!

22 November 2012 at 19:00 1 comment

Giving Thanks for New Opportunities in Benin and Togo

The Kouroumlakiwe Group in Togo received a loan from WAGES to fund their farming activities

The Kouroumlakiwe Group in Togo received a special credit loan from WAGES. This loan does not have to repaid until after their crop has been harvested.

This Thanksgiving I may not be eating turkey and pumpkin pie, but I have many reasons to be thankful. I am grateful to work with two Kiva Partners in Togo and Benin who go above and beyond to provide services to poor clients who previously had no access to formal credit.

Reaching the Poorest of the Poor

In December, 2011, Kiva launched social performance badges as a way to measure and maximize the good created by Kiva partners.  Alidé, a Kiva partner based in Cotonou, Benin, has already earned 5 of the 7 Kiva Social Performance badges, making it one of Kiva’s most socially conscious partners.  For partners to merit Kiva’s “Anti-Poverty focus” badge, they must target poorer populations despite additional costs and difficulties. This week I saw firsthand how Alidé credit agents are driving long distances, in the pouring rain, to do just that.

Visiting Ze, Benin’s Poorest Community 

The Partnership with Alidé is a BIG DEAL for the Ze Community.

Monday morning, it was time to make my last visit to verify client information for Kiva. I headed off to Alidé’s most distant agency in Allada, Benin (a two and a half hour moto ride away from Alidé’s main office in Cotonou). Once I arrived in Allada, I set off with loan officer Aubin to visit the group Titomagba.

During the hour long ride there, Aubin explained to me that the group is located very far from the office in Ze, the poorest community in Benin. The community has no banks (the closest is in Allada) making it very challenging to access financial services.

Aubin uses the red moto in the background of this photo to visit Alidé’s clients. He works with clients in Ze, one of Benin’s most isolated and under-served regions.

When we arrived, we were greeted by the 16 members of the Titomagba group along with various children, family members, friends, including the Chef of the community.

After everyone introduced themselves and I explained why this Yovo (white person in Fon, the local language) was visiting their neighborhood, I began my line of questions to verify information for Kiva.  I asked the group members to rate their satisfaction with their loan on a scale of 1 to 10. One indicates that they are not at all satisfied and ten indicates that they are extremely satisfied. Aubin translated this question into Fon and each group member’s response included the word “DIX” or “OWO” (TEN in French and Fon, respectively).

The Chef explained that before Alidé started working in Ze in April, there had been no way to access loans with affordable interest rates. The women in the Titomagba group are the first members of the community to have the opportunity to receive an affordable loan.

The group members used their Kiva loans to buy food products such as bananas, rice, and palm oil.  The women prepare and re-sell these items for a higher price, increasing their income and earning potential. The group members have paid back 71% of their loan and plan to begin a second loan immediately after the first has been repaid. The women of the Titomagba Group hope to use their increased income to contribute the expenses of their family and provide food and schooling for their children.

Some of the children of the Titomagba Group.

Improving the Lives of Farmers in Togo 

Back in Togo, Kiva’s Partner Women and Associations for Gain both Economic and Social (WAGES) has been increasing its offerings of high-impact loans tailored to support under-served farmers. These agriculture loans offer a flexible repayment cycle which allows farmers to start repaying their loans AFTER their crops have been harvested and they have begun generating income from the sale of their produce. This initial grace period permits farmers to focus on the production of their harvests instead of worrying about their loan repayments.

Adjoa received a loan from WAGES in April to buy fertilizer and seeds.

Learn more about Adjoa and the lives of other farmers in Togo here.

THANK YOU from the Kiva Family! 

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for the Kiva lenders who are helping to alleviate poverty in Togo, Benin, and all over the world.

Give a Kiva Borrower a reason to be THANKFUL:

Click here to make a loan through Alidé in Benin

Or help a borrower through WAGES in Togo

From Kiva, WAGES, Alidé and our family of borrowers, I thank you for your continued support.

On est ensemble!

(We are together)

Holly Sarkissian (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with WAGES in Lomé, Togo and Alidé in Cotonou, Benin.

22 November 2012 at 06:57

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