Posts filed under ‘Americas’

Introducing FUNDAPEC: Supporting Higher Education in the Dominican Republic

by Rose Larsen | KF20 | Dominican Republic

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The Dominican Republic may be a small island nation in the Caribbean, but it has a quickly growing economy based on a shift from exports of sugar, coffee and tobacco to services like telecommunications and tourism.

However, according to a study done by the OECD in 2012, this economic growth has been limited by deficits in human capital – more specifically, the education levels of workers are insufficient.

This problem stems from the low quality of primary and secondary educations – public schools are overcrowded, dangerous, and lacking supplies. Even students from lower-middle-class and poor families are attending private schools, which in the Dominican Republic can range from less than $50 a month to incredibly expensive.

By the time students manage to graduate high school, many families cannot afford to pay university fees, forcing the young people directly into whatever work they can find, often in the informal sector. If the Dominican Republic wants to continue to grow and bring a significant percentage of its population out of poverty, it needs to employ more workers in the formal sector – and to qualify for these formal sector jobs, workers need university or technical degrees.

On the more individual scale, it has been proven over and over that getting a tertiary degree increases lifetime earnings. If the Dominican Republic cannot find a way to help students from poor backgrounds obtain higher education degrees and have access to private universities, inequality (already a huge problem here in the DR) will only increase, and the economy will stagnate due to the lack of human capital.

ENTER KIVA AND FUNDAPEC

Kiva has been supporting entrepreneurs in the Dominican Republic since 2007 with Esperanza International, extending its reach in 2012 with a new partnership with ASPIRE. Up until now, all the loans Kiva has disbursed in the DR have gone towards small (often informal) businesses or personal expenses – stocking a corner store, buying supplies for a beauty salon, constructing a house.

FUNDAPEC’s offices in Santo Domingo

Meanwhile, Kiva’s newest partner, FUNDAPEC, has been giving out student loans for 46 years, and is the Dominican Republic’s only student loan provider. In the past FUNDAPEC has maintained strict minimum salary requirements for loan guarantors – usually the parents of the students. These requirements are meant to make sure that students’ families will be able to repay the loan, and are important in maintaining FUNDAPEC’s long-term sustainability, but they also mean that many poor students are turned away and simply cannot continue their studies.

FUNDAPEC has long wanted to provide loans to students from poor backgrounds, and through Kiva has finally found a way.

FUNDAPEC’S NEW LOANS

With the help of Kiva, FUNDAPEC has developed a new loan product specially designed for students with limited resources.

The loans can be used for undergraduate studies or for a technical (2-year) degree. Instead of having a minimum salary requirement for their guarantors, these loans actually have a MAXIMUM salary requirement – the guarantors of the students can have incomes no higher than 3 minimum monthly salaries ($480 USD per month or $5,760 USD per year).

These loans have some of the lowest interest rates on Kiva – 8% per year – and the terms are very generous. Students don’t have to make capital repayments on their loans until after they finish studying, and even then have up to 7 years to pay back their loans, keeping the monthly quota payments low enough that a recent graduate in his or her first job can keep up.

FUNDAPEC’S FIRST LOAN

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Crisley, Kiva’s first borrower through FUNDAPEC, posing for her Kiva borrower profile picture

When I arrived at FUNDAPEC’s offices to start getting the first Kiva loans going, the management team already had someone in mind to be the first borrower. They had received a letter from a girl who had no idea about Kiva’s program, but in desperation had sent a letter asking for help in finishing her education.

Crisley is only 20 years old, but has already been through a lot. An excerpt from her letter reads:

“3 years ago, studying was a distant dream due to a circumstance which changed my life and that of my family. I was diagnosed in 2009 with a chronic health condition. After multiple admissions to the hospital and after spending 6 months hospitalized on-and-off, I went into surgery.”

Crisley, instead of being defeated by her illness, has used it to inspire her. She is currently finishing her first year of studies in medicine, participates in a dance group, volunteers with the Red Cross, and hopes to one day be a doctor herself, so that she can help other people with similar conditions.

Crisley in her doctor's coat at INTEC, her university in Santo Domingo

Crisley in her doctor’s coat at INTEC, her university in Santo Domingo

Unfortunately, in the Dominican Republic, years of hospitalizations and surgeries can bring even a middle-class family to the brink of poverty. Crisley’s parents have invested so much in her health that they can no longer afford to pay her fees at INTEC, the school she has been enrolled at. She still has special needs due to her condition, and continues to need some medical care and supplies, so the fees are still coming. Desperate to continue her education, she wrote a letter to FUNDAPEC hoping that somehow, even though her parents are now too poor to qualify as guarantors for FUNDAPEC’s normal loans, they would be able to offer her something.

The beautiful campus of INTEC, the university where Crisley studies

The beautiful campus of INTEC, the university where Crisley studies

Her letter came just at the right time, and we have just posted her profile on Kiva as the first Kiva borrower from FUNDAPEC, and the first borrower on Kiva to seek a higher education loan in the Dominican Republic. She is hoping to raise $9,700 which will pay for the next four years of study she has left on her medical degree.

Crisley embodies the hope and strength that Kiva looks for in its borrowers. She wrote in her letter to FUNDAPEC,

“I truly believe that everything in life happens for a reason, and maybe all of this was just the push I needed to know that my place is where I can serve, help and turn my experience into something positive in the life of someone else.

“Finishing my degree successfully is the dream I most want to fulfill, and with the help of God and while there is still life in my body I will continue fighting until I see it reached.”

Though Crisley is ready to fight, I think she’s already had enough struggles. With Kiva’s help, Crisley will not have to worry about her university expenses, and will be able to pay back the loan slowly once she finishes her studies.

FUNDAPEC’s loans are not for everyone. Lenders will not begin to see repayments for many years – in Crisley’s case, for five years – and won’t get the full amount of their loan back for up to 12 years. However, I can guarantee that these loans will change someone’s life. Lend through FUNDAPEC and support a young person who simply wants to get an education.

After serving as a Kiva Fellow in the 19th class in Barranquilla, Colombia, Rose Larsen is continuing her tour of the Caribbean with a placement in the Dominican Republic, as part of the 20th class of Kiva Fellows. She has been working with ASPIRE and FUNDAPEC. Click here to lend to a Dominican borrower today. To find out more about the Kiva Fellows Program and to apply to be a Fellow, visit www.kiva.org/fellows.

6 June 2013 at 15:00

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.

(more…)

17 April 2013 at 03:24

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

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

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 One: Faces that Impacted the Lives of Kiva Fellows

By Kiva Fellows | KF19 | All Over the World

With January 2013 coming to an end, KF19 fellows are either continuing on with KF20 or returning home to various responsibilities and careers. Regardless of the next adventure or destination, one thing is common among all: KF19 fellows have been permanently changed by their placements.

What began as a joint blog post about any person, place, or event during the course of the fellowship that affected our lives, of itself turned into simply the one person who left the most impact. Afterall, Kiva’s mission is to alleviate poverty through connecting people. The fellows of KF19 have witnessed this connection over the course of the last three to four months, and nothing could have prepared us for meeting the people who would touch our lives in various ways.

KF19 presents to you Kiva One, a small collection of stories about human connections, hope, and inspiration.

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31 January 2013 at 08:00

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

A Day in the Life of a Kiva Fellow [VIDEO]

Here is a peek into my daily routine as a Kiva Fellow in Sololá, Guatemala. My schedule usually goes something like this…

8:00AM – Wake-Up

8:15AM – Emails, Updates and Writing for my travel blog

8:45AM – Arrive at ADICLA Office in Sololá, Guatemala

9:00AM – Plan our day of borrower visits, Kiva training and other tasks

10:00AM – Leave office

10:20AM – Morning snack at the central market in Sololá

10:40AM – Begin motorcycle ride into the countryside to visit borrowers

11:30AM – Arrive at first borrower’s home to gather information, take photos and get a participation signature (in this video we filmed a Kiva”Thank You” piece)

12:15PM – Arrive at second borrower’s home (in this video the borrower didn’t arrive, which is a regular occurrence when there are crops to be harvested)

1:30PM – Lunch at one of my favorite spots just outside the town of San Andres. Churrasco, chorizo, black beans, tomato sauce, cheese and a Coca Cola!

2:30PM – Wait at the San Andres ADICLA Office for a borrower group to arrive. Juan Carlos and I exchanged language lessons (Kakchiquel and English).

3:00PM – Group Borrower Meeting

3:45PM – Ride back to Sololá

5:10PM – Upload new borrower profiles

7:00PM – Leave office for the night, change and snack

7:30PM – Get it right. Get it tight.

8:15PM – Grocery shopping

8:45PM – Shower and Dinner

9:30PM – Catch up on emails, writing, Kiva Fellow tasks and travel blog work

That’s my day as a Kiva Fellow!

A Day in the Life of a Kiva Fellow

A Day in the Life of a Kiva Fellow

16 January 2013 at 08:18

Different beginning and end of the year in Central America

When I hear the words “Christmas” and “end of the year” my mind quickly thinksabout Christmas trees, baby Jesus, cold, family, presents, snow and many more. When I ask the people from Centroamerica whatcomes to their mind with these same words they mostly answer the same, the only thing they change is they don´t say cold neither snow, and they normally include beach or river instead of them.

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1st January in Rivas, Nicaragua

After tough 3 months of work in El Salvador with Fundación Campo, Padecomsm and Integral I have just taken deserved holidays. Destination: South of Nicaragua. The reason for choosing it is because of its amazing beaches full of waves, its economic price, its cultural wealth and its proximity. And one more reason. Because it is close to the border with Costa Rica. My 3 months visa expired on 1st January. After seeing the endless points required by the Salvadorean government I decided to leave the C4 (EL Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala) in order to extend my days in El Salvador without being fined.DCIM100GOPRO

It was not an easy trip to destination. I waited for 5 hours to thebus that took me from El Salvador to Costa Rica (the engine broke before picking me up), 15 hours trip, 4 borders crossed (El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) with payments in all of them and an unforgettable night with 1000 ants in a room in the border of Peñas Blancas. Without doubts, the worst room I have ever slept in. I highly recommend not to sleep in a border, it is not a good atmosphere to sleep in.

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But, ¿How important  is it when the image you see when you wake up is this?

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From Nicaragua I wish you a happy new year and a lot of Kiva love to all of you!

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5 January 2013 at 07:51 1 comment

24th of December in San Salvador

Salvadorean people are strict Christians and their most important date in their calendar is Christmas Eve. They celebrate the Birth of baby Jesus. They live this day quite similar to American  people: meeting the whole family and sharing together.

This is how 24th December was:

5:30

Wake up! Don´t ask me why we get up so early, I don´t understand it yet.

6:30

We killed 2 hens, we plucked them and quartered them, with all the preparation they need.

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8:00

Go to the bank to withdraw the present our brothers & sisters that live in USA has made us in form of remittances. Long queue and slow employees. We wait for an hour.

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9:30

Go to the market with mami Valentina to buy the last things me need to prepare the dinner. It is crazy how busy was the market!

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11:00

Come back home alone because I lost my mami in the market. We continue preparing the hens.

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12:30

We eat eggs with frijoles.

15:00

My sister Marcia prepares Honduran Torrejas and sanwiches.

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17:00

Everything is ready. Lets prepare and stay with friends and family around the area.

19:00

Papa Chente, mami Valentina, hermana Marcia and me have dinner together. The menu is roast chicken  with thin corn Salvadorean pancakes and pineapple juice.

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21:00

Family members begin to arrive. We talk, dance, laugh, chat, hug…altogether!

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22:00

We go to buy fireworks and start exploding them.

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24:00

We hug every single relative and friend, we wish them merry Christmas and continue exploding fireworks!

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3:00

We go to bed after good dances of Cumbia, bachata (my favourite one) merengue, salsa…I get lost with dance names and I don´t distinguish them very well.

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Merry Christmas and happy 2013!

31 December 2012 at 10:00

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

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

- – -

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 End of the World Looks Bright for Kiva

End of the World - Tikal Ruins Guatemala
The “End of the World” is coming this Friday and I couldn’t be more excited about it!

Living in the heart of the Mayan Empire has given me the opportunity to get to the bottom of all the “End of the World” rumors that I’m sure you’ve all heard about by now.

It has been said that the Mayans predicted the world’s demise to be scheduled for December 21, 2012, and just like any international apocalypse talk, marketing schemes and business ploys followed soon after.

I wanted to see if I should start maxing out the credit cards or not, so I went to the Mayan Ruins of Tikal in Peten, Guatemala to ask an expert.

We had a great tour guide at the ruins named Donnie “Speedy” Gonzales, and he broke down the truth behind all the “End of the World” hype.

Here’s what he said…

He said that the Mayans did not predict the end of the world, just the end of an era. This era is a period of 400 years on the Mayan Calendar called a Baktun, and we are completing the 13th Baktun (Not the 14th as it says in the video) this December 21, 2012.

He also said the Mayans predicted a worldly transformation on this date, where the earth and its inhabitants may undergo a positive physical or spiritual transformation, and will “be more conscious of their neighborhood.” In other words, a focus on the greater good!

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for this magnetic shift! Hopefully that means a great influx of lenders to Kiva!

17 December 2012 at 21:00

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

Two Kiva Zip fellowships in the US

Christina:
I dreamed vividly during the Monsoon season in India: I woke up covered in sweat from the burning heat and the wind howling outside my window.   Only –  I didn’t! … I was no where near India. I was in Washington DC, and as Hurricane Sandy battered the east coast over night , my landlady had turned the heat up to 90 degrees  it seemed.

Ok, so being a  Kiva fellow in the US is on the periphery no where near as exciting as being a fellow in say India. (Unexpected hurricanes not withstanding). Instead of dosa and idly I have my standard cereal in the morning, and instead of a tuk-tuk commute to the office I walk leisurely to a nearby coffeeshop that is to be my HQ for the day. However, don’t be fooled that this means working as a Kiva Zip Fellow in the US is any less rewarding, amazing, exciting, challenging or impactful. The work is so entirely self guided that even as a very experienced contractor I found myself at times shell shocked at  the daunting task of finding ways to make things happen out of thin air. But happen they did – and you soon find out how great the need for what we do in the US really is, and  also how immediate the impact of a loan to one of the zip borrowers is.

that and bus fare was all I needed

At first my day to day life as a zip fellow felt surreal. I arrived in Washington and concurrently to sorting out my basic logistics of finding a place to stay etc I was trying to figure out where to start – and how ?- and with whom? The fellows that went to Africa or Central America reported back that they met with their partner organisations, had an office to work out of and a pretty concrete list of things to do. Some even started meeting borrowers within the first few days of arriving. Me? I had a few leads to call and the general guidance of ‘make it happen’! I felt very unprepared!

But of course, I wasn’t unprepared at all!

The week training at Kiva HQ had actually prepped us well and as soon as I started talking to people I realized I knew exactly what I needed to do and how and who to contact! The Kiva brand either instantly opened the  door or at least provided a friendly ear for me to explain what I was looking to do.  And also, like any good job interview/selection we were picked and matched to be fellows in exactly the places we would end up serving according to exactly what our skills and strengths were. My natural chattiness and lack of being intimidated by authority served me well in DC.  And although the San Francisco headquarter was a few time zones and miles removed, their guidance helped me connect early on with a few organisations that would proved vital over the next 3 months. Within a few days I had meetings scheduled, presentations arranged and a trip up to NYC planned to meet a US borrower and existing Zip trustee. Suddenly I didn’t know where to fit the opportunities in and everyone I spoke to added to my excitement of how much our work helped.  I presented to a group of start up entrepreneurs that were just finishing a two months long course helping them with the nuts and bolts of running a business. Their ideas were fantastic, their backgrounds diverse but they all had two things in common : an overwhelming enthusiasm for the kind of business they were starting up, and a drive to overcome the obstacles they faced ( like not getting funding ).  I was excited to present them with an option and maybe a potential solution.  One presentation and meeting led to another and when after a few weeks I met someone at a networking event who said: “Oh I heard about you” I realised my work was bearing fruit!

So my evenings were not full of howling monkeys,  washed out dirt roads in the middle of Nicaragua , exotic and questionable  food (well…as a European in the US there may have been some of that lol ;) or language barriers to overcome. But my days were exciting and never the same . I presented at a major conference one day, chatted for hours with someone starting a small non profit in the morning of another and met  the CEO’s and executives of a major national non profits that same afternoon. I met a borrower that just got her loan funded and finally saw some light at the end of a tunnel and worked with ones just trying to get on the site.  I am leaving my fellowship more enthusiastic then when I started and have deep respect for the multitude of organisations trying to help budding entrepreneurs turn the US economy around.

Rachel:
My story differs a bit from my fellow fellow – I was placed with Kiva Zip in the US in Denver, CO, my hometown.  I thought to myself, how different could this be?  I’ve worked internships that required me to work from home, I’m in the same location – this won’t deviate from the norm.  How wrong I was.

I quickly found myself having transformed in somewhat of a traveling salesperson.  But instead of selling a devious offer, I was selling a chance to gain access to capital for those who found themselves completely underserved and financially excluded.

Some days were much too long with back to back to back meetings and countless elevator pitches.  Some were short or nearly empty.  I found myself cozied up in coffee shops all over the front range of Colorado – researching, following up, or struggling to keep my chaotic spreadsheet of contacts organised.

kiva zip fellow office

In the past few months, because of this fellowship – I have had the pleasure of meeting an advisor to the President, a senator, the executive directors of nearly every large non-profit based in Denver, and countless well-connected people who have stories that would make your jaw drop.  I’ve attended conferences, hosted events, and given presentations and with every meeting, every conversation, I have been inspired and humbled.  It’s amazing who you get to meet with the Kiva name behind you.

The most memorable moment of this fellowship for me, however, was the ongoing interaction with one of our borrowers.  This woman falls into the ‘financially excluded’ category.  She has had trouble gaining access to capital and with Kiva Zip she’s been able to get a $5,000 loan to start her catering business.  In a conversation with the director of the organization that had provided an endorsement for the woman I was told that when our borrower was shown her page for the first time her eyes filled with tears.  She had already gotten a few lenders and was completely blown away by the idea that there are people out there cheering her on and willing to give her a loan.

On Kiva Zip, there’s a conversations feature where the lenders of each loan can leave comments for the borrower to see and the borrower can respond.  This borrower’s conversations tab is one of the most encouraging things I’ve seen while with Kiva Zip.  The lenders are incredibly supportive and the borrower can respond and thank her lenders directly.

This fellowship was not what I was expecting in any way.  It has been a learning experience throughout.  My jealousy of the fellows in exotic places remains but I wouldn’t trade my hometown fellowship for the world.

Come see the results of our labors at https://zip.kiva.org/

(Rachel is a Kiva Zip Fellow based in Denver.  For her bio please visit the Kiva Fellows page on the Kiva website.)

13 December 2012 at 08:30

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

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

The magic encounter of all Kiva loan participants in El Salvador.

Few days ago, an American couple that collaborate with Kiva translating loans sent me an email. The team of volunteers they belong to is one of the most important pieces in Kiva (there are nearly 400 volunteers around the world). They make possible all loans, no matter where they come from, are accessible in English.

This couple not only translate loans but also lend money to entrepreneurs through Kiva, especially to El Salvador.  Few years ago, they lived for two years in a little Salvadorean village working as volunteers. When they went back to the USA, they did not want to lose contact with this region and they were looking forward to keep helping in the distance. This is how they found in Kiva the best way to do it. They told me translating loans is easy to combine with their current jobs and you control how much you can do.

They told me they would stay for a week in El Salvador visiting some friends they left in the past and they asked me if it was possible to visit any of the borrowers they translated or invested in. The idea of an encounter between borrower and lender captivated me, and we started to work on it. (Not as easy as it may look: transport, communication and logistics is a different story in deep El Salvador).

After some steps we managed to make the challenge of putting borrowers, Mr and Mrs Luehm, and lender, Mrs Delfina, together. It was one of the best moments I have had in El Salvador. Seeing the encounter among these people and the conversation they had was wonderful.

Photo taken by Carlos, credit advisor from Padecomsm, on 23rd December 2011, when Mrs Delfina asked for a loan.

Photo taken on 22nd November 2012. The encounteer.

Nowadays, with initiatives like Kiva ´s, it is not possible to say either “ I want to help , but I don´t know how nor who” or “I dont want to help because I don´t know where my money goes to and the impact it creates”.

In Kiva, you can find more than 2400 stories and pictures of people/families in need, from every sector and from more than 60 countries. Every euro you lend through Kiva reaches the person you choose, and because it is a loan, not a donation, it bets on the sustainability of the project and consequently his life.

Your small amount, 25 dollars, it´s a lot for them.

Kiva, loans that change lives…

…And brings people´s lives together.

Here are all participants in the process of a Kiva loan: Borrower (Mrs Delfina in the center),Microfinance organization, Padecomsms (Rubidia, Kiva Coordinatos,  and Carlos, credit advisor, in the left) and Kiva (represented by KF19 Juan).

Thanks Lehm couple and Padecomsm for this magic encounter!

2 December 2012 at 09:00 1 comment

The San Severino Festival: Rain, Ritual and Revelry in Bolivia

Fiesta de San Severino: A People's Party in the Steets

“Do you know the real San Severino?” asked the inebriated man next to me on the bus back to Cochabamba. “The real San Severino!”

I wasn’t too sure exactly what he meant; the real San Severino died over 1500 years ago. “Well, um, I know he was a saint, from Europe I think, who brings the rains…” I stumbled but tried my best to answer him.

“Bah! No one knows the real San Severino!” he blustered.

After a moment the question came again: “Do you know the real San Severino?” I knew this was going to be a circular conversation making the hour-long ride seem even longer. So I countered and turned the question on him.

“Ahh… ¡si pues!” He raised his right hand emphatically: “San Severino… he was… um… a Christian and a patriot… from the early republic, who… uh…” After an uneasy pause he dropped his hand in exasperation.

Snickering behind us, I spotted a couple of grinning chola woman looking at us. They were swearing those lovely shiny dresses and colorful bonnets typical of the indigenous women here. I smiled at them and asked if they knew who the real San Severino was.

They just shook their heads and laughed.

New friends outside a <em>chichería</em> in the streets of Tarata during Fiesta San Severino

New friends outside a chichería in the streets of Tarata during Fiesta San Severino

Apparently, even the faithful who come to celebrate the festival of San Severino don’t know who the real saint was. I admit there are a lot of Catholic saints to remember, numbering well over 10,000. But at the end of the day, when the processions, fireworks, drinking and dancing were over, here in Bolivia it really doesn’t really matter who the real San Severino was.

What matters is the celebration in the streets. A celebration for the change of seasons and a time to welcome the hot sun and the saturating rains. It is a time to revel with family and friends (and strangers, like myself) with good food and dance. It is a time to rejoice that the rains will bring growth and abundance to everyone.

Old Traditions Die Hard: Lliupacha Yuyaychay (The Andean Cosmovision) + Christianity

Proudly marching with the <em>Wiphala:</em> This Andean flag is eons old but only recently became official in Bolivia

Proudly marching with the Wiphala: This Andean flag is eons old but only recently became official in Bolivia

For thousands of years festivals in Bolivia have celebrated the unity of the physical and spiritual worlds through pagan rituals and dances, centering on the Pachamama, the supreme and life-giving Mother Earth goddess. Natural cycles, especially seasonal change, have long meant party time in the Andes.

The conquering Spanish were intolerant of the local religious traditions and tried hard to erase paganism. But Christian beliefs never fully replaced the existing practices, as is evidenced in the syncretism of such powerful religious icons as the Pachamama and the Virgin Mary. Today most Bolivians practice a combination of both Catholic and pre-Hispanic rituals.

San Severino, Patrono de Tarata

The faithful worship San Severino in the streets of Tarata, others admire his new suit made just for today

The faithful worship San Severino in the streets of Tarata, others admire his new suit made just for today

Enter San Severino, an Italian saint who died over a thousand years before the Americas were known to modern Europe. Some of his remains were allegedly brought to Tarata with the Franciscan missionaries who established a church here during their evangelical march eastward.

It is said that during the first procession on the saint’s feast day (actually in early January), it rained so hard that the locals were convinced that San Severino was responsible.  This milagro (miracle) secured his fame here as the Patron Saint of the Rains.

Members of the marching <em>fraternidades</em> assemble for the processions

Members of the marching fraternidades assemble for the processions

Because San Severino was such a hit with the locals, the Franciscans conveniently changed his feast to coincide with the traditional rainy season welcoming rituals already in place. And tah-dah: the San Severino festival was born. Or born again.

Today thousands flock to Tarata to worship the saint who will bring the all-important downpours needed to replenish wells, dampen fledgling crops and quench the thirst of livestock. Farmers carry pitchers of water blessed in Tarata to sprinkle in their fields, venerating both San Severino and the Pachamama.

Tarata: Small Town with a Big Reputation

The quaint streets of Tarata fill with celebrants for the San Severino festival

The quaint streets of Tarata fill with celebrants for the San Severino festival

Tarata today is a one-horse town with fewer than 3000 inhabitants but it boasts favorite-son Bolivian Independence hero Esteban Arze and three former Presidents of Bolivia. The most infamous being Mariano Melgarejo, a brutal autocrat who is remembered for giving a large chunk of Bolivia to Brazil in exchange for a white horse (he allegedly traced the horse’s hoof on a map of Bolivia to designate the parcel).

Normally a quiet town, the cobblestone streets come alive as the faithful and fun-seekers arrive en masse for San Severino. Events kick off the last Saturday in November with the entrada (inaugural procession) and an evening of fireworks, drinking, dance and general revelry.

Dancing In the Streets: San Severino Sunday

Mass for San Severino in Tarata, the administrative center for the Franciscan colonial missions in the east

Mass for San Severino in Tarata, the administrative center for the Franciscan colonial missions in the east

The following day a solemn mass is celebrated at the church and the San Severino statue is carried through the streets. This ends the Catholic part of the celebration. The rest of the day is spent drinking, dancing and watching the energetic fraternidades (fellowships of marchers) parade through the streets in flashy costumes, dancing, and singing mostly in Quechua (the language introduced by the Incas).

Craziness in the <em>calles:</em> The street processions can get wild and are always full of surprises

Craziness in the calles: The street processions can get wild and are always full of surprises

Chorizo y Chicha: Full Flavors in the Streets

Lots for sale: treats, games, charms and jugs for holy water

Lots for sale: treats, games, charms and jugs for holy water

And of course no Latin American festival would be complete without a vast assortment of street vendors. Hand-cranked ice cream, fresh fruit, fried potatoes, sweet gelatine, good luck charms, handicrafts, ceramic jugs to carry holy water and chicha, games and children’s rides… something for everyone.

Mighty meat on the street... no one goes hungry today!

Mighty meat on the street… no one goes hungry today!

Most conspicuous were the meaty morsels in large cooking vessels that lined the main streets. Tarata is known for its chorizo sausage and there was plenty of supply for San Severino’s feast.

<em>Chicha</em>, the corn-based Andean brew is a favorite in Cochabamba and a must during <em>fiesta</em>

Chicha, the corn-based Andean brew is a favorite in Cochabamba and a must during fiesta

Of course there was chicha, the beloved corn beer that is ever-present in the Cochabamba region. Cooked above huge adobe fireplaces and fermented in oversize terracotta jugs, chicha is served up in buckets and consumed liberally from dried-gourd saucers.

Chicherías are everywhere in Tarata, just look for the little white or red flags hanging outside homes. And one mustn’t forget to spill a little on the ground in honor of Pachamama when it’s your turn to drink!

Finding Friends and More Fun

I find most Bolivians to be warm and especially courteous but today they were overflowing with affability. I enjoyed the many smiles in the streets and I made new friends over shared buckets of chicha while watching the processions pass.

I was happy to run into Mario, a CIDRE colleague of mine. He introduced me to his family and friends and fed me peanuts fresh from his farm. We spent a good time chatting and joking and enjoying the festival.

My friend Mario from <a title="CIDRE" href="http://www.kiva.org/partners/140" target="_blank">CIDRE</a> (one of Kiva's partners) trying his best to stop the parade

My friend Mario from CIDRE (one of Kiva’s partners) trying his best to stop the parade

By late afternoon the processions had ended, the grilled meat stands disappeared and the chicherías slowly became quieter.

And I noticed that the sky was turning a bit darker… it seemed in every way the San Severino festival was a success!

Rain clouds gather over a quieter Tarata as the festival wanes... thanks San Severino!

Rain clouds gather over a quieter Tarata as the festival wanes… thanks San Severino!

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

28 November 2012 at 11:28 3 comments

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

Elusive Cash Cows and Bread Baskets: Challenges Facing Bolivian Farmers Today

Farming in Cochabamba

Agriculture has long been the anchor for the people of land-locked Bolivia. As a testament to the region’s horticultural richness, the number of foods originating here is impressive: potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, pineapple, kidney beans, manioc, quinoa… foods we all know and should love.

You say potato, I say potahto: Cultivar diversity on display in a Bolivian market

You say potato, I say potahto: Cultivar diversity on display in a Bolivian market

And nowhere else in Bolivia is farming as vital as in the Central Valleys near Cochabamba, an area blessed with ideal climate and naturally rich soils. This is where I have been working with CIDRE, one of Kiva’s partners, and I am learning much from Kiva borrowers (quite literally) in the field.

Maize growing in La Maica, heart of the Cochabamba Valley

Maize growing in La Maica, heart of the Cochabamba Valley

The Incas colonized Cochabamba to help feed its growing empire. Then the Spanish arrived, introduced dairy farming and exploited the Quechua locals with the hacienda system. The conquistadores’ pressing concern was to provision the Potosí silver mines which provided much of the wealth to world-power Spain.

Incan ruins of Incarakay, a pre-Columbian agricultural administrative center, perched atop the fertile Cochabamba Valley

Incan ruins of Incarakay, a pre-Columbian agricultural administrative center, perched atop the fertile Cochabamba Valley

Today much of the land has been redistributed more equitably and farming continues to fuel the Cochabambino economy.

But there are powerful challenges:

Land: Low Supply, Rising Prices and Deteriorating Quality

Typical small Bolivian farm: adobe home, thatch roof, adjacent plot and irrigation canal

Typical small Bolivian farm: adobe home, thatch roof, adjacent plot and irrigation canal

While the 1952 Revolution in Bolivia went a long way in granting farmers their own plots, the last decade has seen land prices increase dramatically due to urbanization, limited turnover since family plots rarely change hands, and increased demand from migrants seeking better opportunities in the Cochabamba area.

Rising prices have encouraged some farmers to sell, usually to larger landholders and cash-flush immigrant Bolivians returning from abroad. This all adds up to great demand for land but low supply for most Bolivians.

Soil degradation is another major problem. Years of deforestation, excess grazing and rapid urbanization cause heavy erosion that washes away valuable nutrients needed to strengthen the soil. Decreased land productivity requires more chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds, resulting in higher costs to farmers and arguably less healthy food for consumers. It puts at risk the lives of countless rural Bolivians who depend on the land for their survival.

Water

The large reservoir of <em>Laguna La Angostura</em> provides water for irrigation to Cochabamba Valley farms

The large reservoir of Laguna La Angostura provides water for irrigation to Cochabamba Valley farms

Advances in past decades have greatly expanded farmers’ access to water for irrigation. Kiva’s partner CIDRE did some pioneering work in the 1980’s to introduce wells and canals to under-served rural areas. Most farms now yield three crops per year, an increase from 1-2 previously.

But adequate supply of clean water is still a concern: expanding (and thirsty) urban centers, shrinking glacier-fed sources, and a sharp increase in contamination are limiting factors. Cochabamba’s Water War of 2000 made international headlines when massive popular protests halted the privatization of the public water works.

Kiva borrower with me in his bean farm.  He used his loan to buy a share in the community irrigation system.

Kiva borrower with me in his bean farm. He used his loan to buy a share in the community irrigation system.

Without water there is no growth. Sadly, the water problems facing Bolivian farmers have few real solutions today.

Climate Cycles and Change

Chacaltaya, Bolivia's only ski area, has been closed for years due to lack of snow

Chacaltaya, Bolivia’s only ski area, has been closed for years due to lack of snow (Photo courtesy Cambio Climático/The Democracy Center)

Weather in Bolivia has long been extreme: a long dry season (usually culminating in drought) and a saturating rainy season. Many parts of Cochabamba’s valleys flood during the months of December to March which dramatically reduces available pasture. Moving cattle to higher elevations, pasture rental and additional fodder all increase the costs to farmers during this period when dairy production (and income) is low.

Global factors compound these normal patterns. Bolivia’s glaciers are disappearing. Unprecedented shifts in weather, such as more frequent hailstorms, can wipe an entire crop in minutes. Severe thunderstorms obliterate fields and collapse stables. Gradual warming in the higher altitudes, while allowing for a more diverse crop portfolio, has introduced new pests and other problems that leave local farmers unprepared.

You don’t have to listen to scientists if you don’t want to. Just ask the farmers: climate change in Bolivia is real.

New Demands for Dairy Producers

Corporate giant Pil Andina dominates the dairy market and domineers the farmers

Corporate giant Pil Andina dominates the dairy market and domineers the farmers

As consumer demand for dairy products has grown, so too have the burdens on Bolivian farmers. Few alternative outlets exist so most dairy farmers must sell crude milk at increasingly lower prices to large-scale industrial producers, such as the behemoth Pil Andina. While industrial producers have introduced new quality controls which lead to healthier and safer dairy products, farmers must pay for more expensive production methods which squeeze profits.

A Kiva-funded milk tank allows teams of dairy farmers to better control crude milk quality and fetch higher prices

A Kiva-funded milk tank allows teams of dairy farmers to better control crude milk quality and fetch higher prices

Only farmers who can achieve greater economies of scale are doing well. Smaller farmers face extinction. As a consequence of newer technology (fortified feed, milking machines, and storage tanks) there are fewer manual day-wage jobs which hits landless Bolivians especially hard.

International Barriers

Bolivian delivery truck bedecked with blessings for the dangerous mountain roads

Bolivian delivery truck bedecked with blessings for the dangerous mountain roads

Bolivia faces tremendous hurdles in getting its agricultural products to markets abroad. Stiff competition with far-more-industrialized Argentina, Brazil and Chile (who also control access to ports) puts Bolivia at a distinct disadvantage with regional partners.

Moreover, the recently-expired Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) which favored Bolivia with duty-free status, no longer covers nearly 30% of Bolivian exports to the United States. Several people told me this as yet another uncertainty facing Bolivian farmers today.

Finally, agricultural production is far below optimal levels. Many farmers still till their fields with wooden plows dating from the colonial period. And massive emigration in recent years of able-bodied Bolivians has left many fields fallow. Bolivia doesn’t normally produce a surplus but when it does the transportation costs to ship the goods abroad neutralize its competitive advantage in price.

Despite all this, what seems to work for farmers in the region?

CIDRE loan officer working with a Kiva borrower near Colomi, Bolivia

CIDRE loan officer working with a Kiva borrower near Colomi, Bolivia

Many take out small loans, frequently with the help of Kiva, to help manage the agricultural ups and downs. They invest in feed futures to avoid spiking prices during drought. They use the extra capital to build stables, drainage ditches and sustaining walls to protect their farms from the rains.

Locally produced quesillo cheeses for sale in Cochabamba markets, products that help dairy farmers earn extra income.

Locally produced quesillo cheeses for sale in Cochabamba markets, products that help dairy farmers earn extra income.

Some supplement their income with non-farm work, such as construction or transportation. Others cultivate niche products, such as preserves, honey or quesillo cheese to sell at local markets.

CIDRE loan officers alongside a community irrigation canal which serves Kiva borrowers

CIDRE loan officers alongside a community irrigation canal which serves Kiva borrowers

Others turn to the community and leverage the collective power of farmers. They join farmer cooperatives to purchase storage tanks to aggregate products for higher prices or pay for shares in community-owned reservoirs and irrigation canals.

Farmers are an enterprising bunch and manage to find ways to move forward.

So, what does the future look like for farmers here?

Despite continuing urbanization and many young Bolivians finding work in the cities, there is a farming future here. The national government has few resources to carry the agricultural sector to a profitable and sustainable future, but many NGO’s are working hard to help bridge the gap.

Kiva's field partners excel at bringing much-needed credit to small farmers in Bolivia

Kiva’s field partners excel at bringing much-needed credit to small farmers in Bolivia

Of course, Kiva’s field partners in Bolivia have a strong history of helping farmers grow their businesses and succeed in spite of the environmental and economic challenges. They continue to offer innovative funding options to clients with the help of Kiva loans.

One of the first dairy production projects in Bolivia, the Simón I. Patiño Foundation on the outskirts of Cochabamba offers state-of-the-art research on non-GMO plants, a seed center, and model dairy farm. It eminently influences farmers in the area.

A happy Kiva cow, fed fresh alfalfa grown with locally-produced organic fertilizer

A happy Kiva cow, fed fresh alfalfa grown with locally-produced organic fertilizer

Other organizations are working with farmers to develop soil stability and crop diversification programs, such as planting barrier and cover crops (i.e. supporting grasses and legume “green manures”) to increase soil fertility without chemicals.

Many other groups, such as the Foundation for Sustainable Development, are expanding the capabilities of nonprofit organizations to implement other sustainable solutions that include and empower local communities.

The future of farming in Bolivia may not seem entirely bright. But with steady progress in recent years on increasing environmental awareness in the general public and implementing lasting changes in the agricultural sector, the future promises to be green!

New potato crops enjoying the warm Bolivian sun

New potato crops enjoying the warm Bolivian sun

20 November 2012 at 19:18

Rebuscándose in El Salvador. An obstacle race.

There is a famous song that defines Salvadoreans as people that eat everything, enjoy everything and do everything. I have checked these lyrics are right. There is a word usually used for referring to Salvadoreans, this is “rebuscados”. If someone is “rebuscado” it means he does the impossible to achieve what he needs: paying back a loan, help a relative or feed his family. As they say, they can even sell rocks to find a way to survive.

Like many countries in the American continent, poverty affects great part of the population and a job is extremely difficult to find. This is why many people decide to be entrepreneurs, because the only opportunities they find are the ones they create.

But even if they want to start a small business it is extremely difficult to do it. Most of the people don´t have enough money to begin and they have no access to banks. These institutions normally require having a job, presenting an electricity bill, having properties to set as guarantees, etc and the majority of these humble people do not satisfy these requirements. And even if they do, the high interest rates they have to pay makes the business unprofitable. The other day one woman told me she had a one-year loan with a well-known bank and she had to pay back the same amount of interests and capital. Crazy.

One more thing Salvadorean entrepreneurs face are maras, or also known in the USA as gangs. It is the cancer of El Salvador. They are groups of young people (10 years to 30) that control the areas where they live. They oblige businesses to pay a rent, arguing that they will protect them from other people. If they don’t pay the amount, they can end badly.

There are several options:

1. Paying the rent.

2. Not paying, close the business and move to another area.

3.Not paying and continue with the business. If they do this, there will probably be a death in their family.

And this is real live in El Salvador. Yesterday we were visiting a client that had one of the most successful businesses in “Puerto del Triunfo”. Gangs required her to pay a rent that was higher than the amount of the loan she received few months ago. She paid what she could (the same amount as the loan,1000$) , but this was not enough for the gangs. Her son started to receive serious threats to kill him. She had no option. She closed the business and moved to a different area. Now she and her family hardly live with a small pupusas business.

Not easy the life they have and the risks they face. But despite all these difficulties, they continue fighting for their families and dreaming in a better future. Thanks to organisations like Fundación Campo, Padecomsm and Apoyo Integral that collaborate with Kiva, they receive those opportunities they were looking for.

These are loans that change lives.

16 November 2012 at 07:35

My Return to Playa Blanca – The Story of Isla Baru

Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia

For me, this story starts two years ago, long before I ever dreamed of doing a Kiva fellowship. At the time, I was working at a small travel agency in San Francisco and took a much-needed vacation to Cartagena, which I had read was a UNESCO World Heritage site composed of colonial houses, bright colors and beautiful beaches.

Colonial center of Cartagena de Indias

The best beach in the area was reputed to be Playa Blanca, so I booked a tour, spending one night sleeping in a cabaña and enjoying the white sands, clear waters, rustic environment (no electricity or running water!) and fresh fish.

Playa Blanca

All I knew about Playa Blanca was that you had to take a boat to get there, and that from 1pm – 3pm, the exact time that most tours allowed their passengers to frolic on the beach, the place was overrun with aggressive vendors pushing massages, oysters, bracelets and handicrafts on the tourists. Where these vendors came from I had no idea, as they all seemed to melt away as soon as the big tour boats left, but I didn’t really care – I was just glad they were finally gone.

Fast forward two years. Back in Colombia serving as a Kiva Fellow, I joined the staff of my Kiva field partner, Fundacion Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD), on a trip to visit some of the development projects that the Foundation funds – first stop, Isla Baru, the impoverished island that is home to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Playa Blanca.

• • •

Baru, an island about the size of Manhattan, is home to about 10,000 residents who live in one of its three towns – Ararca, Santa Ana and Baru. Though tourists generally arrive by boat directly to the beautiful shores of Playa Blanca, everyone else takes the ferry. This journey took us over an hour as we passed through poor, undeveloped neighborhoods in northern Cartagena, traveled down bumpy, unpaved roads, and waited for over 30 minutes to load onto the ferry. If residents of Barú wish to travel to the mainland for work, cheaper goods or emergencies, they must make this long, arduous, and expensive trip (the ferry charges a few dollars per car).

Pasacaballos, the ferry crossing to Baru

Though it is clear that the towns in Baru are very poor and lacking in many amenities, the island is much more developed today than it was 20 years ago. Part of that is thanks to a boom in the Colombian tourism industry and its interest in developing the island further, and part is due to the work of FMSD, which has two very impactful projects on the island.

Instituto Ecologico Barbacoas

Our first stop on Isla Baru was the Ecological School, which was founded 14 years ago by FMSD and its partners to provide decent schooling to the local children. Today home to 719 children and 41 teachers, the school offers high quality, free education within an ecological and afro-Colombian context, teaching the students to preserve the beautiful natural island that is their home and embrace their local culture.

I was impressed with the simple, calm campus. Shaded by local trees, spread across ample grounds and scattered with open-air classrooms under palm-frond roofs, it was a tranquil paradise of learning. The students, who range from pre-kindergarten to 11th grade, were able to take advantage of a healthy breakfast and lunch each day, a computer lab, a nursing station, a campus store run by students, a modern dance studio, and courses in music, handicrafts and English.

One great feature of the school is its vocational program. By 9th grade, each student picks a vocational focus – handicrafts, seamanship, or tourism, the three main industries of the island. The final three years of school are spent focusing on this vocation, preparing them for life after school, as most will spend the rest of their lives on the island.

Some samples of the handicrafts work that some of the students have done

Clínica Julio Mario Santo Domingo

A few minutes down a bumpy, pot-hole-riddled road in the middle of Santa Ana, we came upon the Foundation’s other project in Baru – the health clinic.

The Clinic

Founded 18 years ago, the clinic brought healthcare and health education to a place that had no existing medical entity of any kind. Now, it cares for the health of the entire island, along with another branch in the town of Baru.

I was amazed at the range of services that were provided: medical consultations, dentistry, a clinical lab, hospitalization, 24-hour emergency service, a 24-hour ambulance that even travels to Cartagena in cases of extreme emergencies, a pharmacy, radiology, surgery, and a maternity ward.

It is staffed by 6 young doctors who have just finished their studies and are required to do a year of service, as well as 2 more experienced, permanent doctors. The clinic also utilizes something that they call “telemedicine,” using telecommunication technologies to consult specialists based in places like Cartagena and Bogotá. This gives the residents of Baru access to some of the best doctors in Colombia, something which previously would have been unimaginable for an isolated, undeveloped island.

The clinic has changed the lives of everyone on the island. It cares for pregnant women, newborns, children and adolescents, all the way through to elder care. Besides providing basic healthcare, it also works with other organizations to introduce family planning programs, giving out contraception and teaching the youth population about sexual and reproductive health. Today, the birthrate in Baru is lower than the Colombia national rate.

When I was there, the clinic was bustling with visitors, who were there for check-ups, to pick up medicines, and for consultations. It was heartening to see, in a town of unpaved streets, wandering livestock and dilapidated houses, a modern medical facility.

Baru’s Future

Big changes are ahead for this little island. Work on a paved highway was recently begun – it will travel from the ferry crossing all the way through the towns to Playa Blanca. The residents are now pushing for a bridge to be built to replace the ferry, which is slow and expensive. This bridge would change things completely for Baru, bringing access to police services for increased security, as well as saving time and money.

It would also facilitate an increase in tourism, which is already growing as new resorts are planned. This is a double-edged sword. The development of tourism has enticing rewards in the form of rich foreign tourists, a new source of income for an impoverished people. But as with anything, too much of a good thing can ruin it, as has happened in Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef and even nearby Cartagena. Is Colombia prepared to preserve the tropical natural beauty of the island in the face of giant development projects? Are the residents ready to be invaded by huge hotels, hordes of tourists, and the crime waves that accompany them? Only time will tell.

•       •       •

After a long and exciting day visiting the school and the clinic, meeting locals and hearing about Baru’s problems and its potential, I found myself back in a familiar spot:

This time, I looked around me with greater understanding, and greater appreciation. The many beachside restaurants and cabañas were projects by enterprising locals, and though their predatory sales tactics were still annoying, I now understood that tourism provided one of their only opportunities to generate income. I knew that after spending the day hawking their wares, they would make the long journey on foot down a newly constructed highway to the town of Baru or Santa Ana, a place where you might find a free-range pig burrowing in the mud outside of a modern full service medical facility.

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 team, lend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow! 

15 November 2012 at 08:00

7 Tips on How to Infiltrate Your MFI

The office of ADICLA in Sololá, Guatemala

Building relationship for a better Fellowship at the offices of ADICLA in Sololá, Guatemala

As in life, the key to a happy, healthy and productive Kiva Fellowship is largely based on the relationships you form with those around you. The difference with this experience however, is that you don’t have the opportunity to spend years earning trust, respect and admiration from your peers. You must find a way to infiltrate the hearts and minds of your colleagues and clients in a relatively short period of time in order to truly be successful.

With that being said, there is no relationship more influential to the success of your Kiva Fellowship than the one you build with your MFI (microfinance institution). If you win them over, the rest will sort itself out; at least, that is what has happened for me.

(more…)

14 November 2012 at 14:01 1 comment

Visiting Kiva Borrowers in Honduras: Why is there a gringo in my house and is he leaving soon?

The roads that lead to Kiva borrowers: this one in good condition.

With few exceptions, Kiva borrowers have greeted my visits to their homes and businesses with the sentiment captured in the blog title, that is to say with skepticism and unease.  Visits can start awkwardly and end awkwardly.  But sometimes they inspire; borrowers graciously share their story – their successes and struggles, their hopes and fears – with a complete stranger.

(more…)

10 November 2012 at 07:00

Dear Lenders, Thank You from Costa Rica

thank you, Kiva

Trekking to La Danta

Two weeks ago I headed out for the last of my borrower verifications with EDESA, the microfinance institution where I’ve been working. All week long I anticipated my trip to Golfito, which is way down in southern Costa Rica, in the Puntarenas province. I asked my colleagues about our portfolio there and peppered them with questions like: ‘Have you ever been to Golfito? How far is it from the Panamanian border? I heard it’s raining hard in Golfito now, do you think it will clear up by the time we go?’  (more…)

9 November 2012 at 09:35

When the Dead Come a-Knockin': Todos Santos Celebrations in Bolivia

<em>Todos Santos</em> in Bolivia: Andean and Christian syncretism

Todos Santos in Bolivia: Andean and Christian syncretism

Luckily I’m here in Bolivia for one of the most important celebrations of the year so I jumped at the chance to witness the Todos Santos holiday up close and personal.  My previous knowledge was limited to piecemeal notions imported from Mexico, but here in Bolivia this special celebration takes on its own particular traditions dating back centuries and is deeply rooted in Andean cosmology.

Life and Death: A Revolving Door

Long before the Spanish arrived, the Andean people viewed life and death as a continuum.  Each spring these two worlds converge — the dead return from the underworld (ukhupacha) to momentarily enjoy the pleasures of life and to deliver happiness and abundance to loved ones in the living world (kaypacha).

This intersection of life and death is the Day of the Dead; its celebration coincides with the Catholic All Saints’ Day holiday in Bolivia.

Rain clouds gathering over Island of the Sun, Lake Titicaca

Rain clouds gathering over Island of the Sun, Lake Titicaca

Todos Santos ceremonializes the never-ending succession of arrival and departure, of renewal and disintegration, of the changing cycles in the natural world around us.  It accompanies the coming wet season, known in Quechua as Aya Markay Killa, when the rains return after the annual period of drought to nourish the dormant crops and begin a new season of growth.

In Andean society, Todos Santos is a celebration of reciprocity.  Knowing the returning dead will be famished and very thirsty after a year in the dry earth, family members prepare the mast’aku, an offering of favorite foods and beverages to be shared during the festivities.  This feast nourishes the bones of the deceased, who in turn bring rains that will ensure abundant crops and livelihood for loved ones.

Receiving the Dead: A Feast for All

Breads are brought to the <em>mast’aku</em> in offering to the hungry spirits

Breads are brought to the mast’aku in offering to the hungry spirits

Todos Santos begins on November 1st with almuerzo, the filling midday meal, when the dead are welcomed home.  The family meal is celebrated in style with rich flavors, prayer, amusing recollections and tales, music and togetherness.

The celebration turns public on November 2nd when farewell festivities move to the burial grounds.  Streets leading to the cemetery host a lively fair.

Street fair approaching the cemetery: flowers, cold drinks, ice cream and merchandise of all sorts

Street fair approaching the cemetery: flowers, cold drinks, ice cream and merchandise of all sorts

Flower vendors, milliners, clowns, artists cram the sidewalks.  Food stalls offer ice cream, orange juice, grilled snacks and colorful candies to celebrants en route to the burial grounds.

Flowers and Food

As families gather in the cemetery, the first order of business is to spruce up the grave sites.   Vases are washed while trash bins overflow with faded flowers and the stems of their replacement bouquets.

Basic Housekeeping: Beautifying the niches of the deceased

Basic Housekeeping: Beautifying the niches of the deceased

Next, another mast’aku (offertory table) is arranged with sentimental items such as a photographs, flowers, toys and personal mementos.  The main contribution is food:  dried fruit, pineapples, oranges, sodas and chicha (fermented corn beer) – an appetizing tribute to the dead.

The offertory <em>mast’aku</em> come in all sizes and styles

The offertory mast’akus come in all sizes and styles

Plentiful masitas (baked goods) adorn every mast’aku: sweet breads in the shape of ladders (representing the Catholic tradition of ascending to Heaven), animals (such as llamas, snakes and birds) and doll-like t’antawawas (literally “bread children”) which date back to Incan times.

Plump <em>niños de pan</em> and wild <em>masitas</em> for sale in the local market

Plump niños de pan and wild masitas for sale in the local market

Earlier in the week the markets of Cochabamba were brimming with vendors selling these masitas.  I watched buyers busily fill their shopping bags in preparation for the Todos Santos festivities.

Assorted sweet breads and cookies for sale in advance of the <em>Todos Santos</em> celebrations

Assorted sweet breads and cookies for sale in advance of the Todos Santos celebrations

I found the heaping stacks of baked goods a marvel, more interesting than the synthetic aisles of manufactured Halloween candies found back home.  I now understand why Señora Celestina (A Kiva borrower in La Paz) has been so busy with her baking business!

Supplication and Song

Reverence imbues the entire cemetery despite the outward and celebratory nature of Todos Santos. Everywhere families join in prayer as children’s voices are heard around every corner:  “…pray for us now and in the time of our death…”

Santa María, Madre de Dios,
ruega por nosotros pecadores,
ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.

Children praying with their families at the <em>mast’aku</em>

Children praying with their families at the mast’aku

Partnered with prayer, of course, is music: guitar players and groups of roving mariachi bands play Andean folk tunes, trumpeters blow a mournful rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, and children with pan flutes sing rueful melodies before bowed families.

Roaming minstrels offer songs to the departed

Roaming minstrels offer songs to the departed

Bidding Farewell to the Dead

All these ceremonial elements are crucial to the Todos Santos parting ritual that takes place on November 2nd.  The abundant food, music and prayer energize the spirits as they return once again to the underworld.  Nourished and adored by loved ones, the dead bid farewell to their families and leave the world of the living, ending the precious reunion.

<em>Chola</em> woman at the cemetery in Cochabamba during <em>Todos Santos</em>

Chola woman at the cemetery in Cochabamba during Todos Santos

In another year, a new cycle of growth and abundance will again join the two worlds of kaypacha and ukhupachaTodos Santos will be celebrated once more with all the beauty and vitality that Bolivia inspires.

The resting place of Domitila Barrios de Chúngara, Bolivian labor leader and feminist, who died earlier this year in Cochabamba

The resting place of Domitila Barrios de Chúngara, Bolivian labor leader and feminist, who died earlier this year in Cochabamba

7 November 2012 at 05:00

EL Salvador, a country devoted to Football

After the first days in EL Salvador it looked like if I had never left Spain. Every single newspaper I read, there were FC Barcelona or Real Madrid at the front page. I did not know at all the fever salvadoran people had about football and especially about Spanish soccer. Wherever you look to, you can see Barça´s or Real Madrid´s colours and emblems: in every mean of transport, t-shirts, houses, boats…

     

Wherever I say I am from Spain, people ask me, before I can say a word, which team I support. I always answer the same. Ni Barça ni Madrid, Athletic de Bilbao! And some of them have started to change team. Here is the biggest supporter, Ever!

And this fever gets to the point that if Real Madrid and Barcelona play together people stop working and go to see the match. And this rivalry between these two teams has become dangerous. Tension is very high among supporters and quite often there are fights and quarrels that end badly. This is why police presence is reinforced whenever they play together. It is very strange to see them behave this way for something happening thousand of miles away from this small country.

                           

However, there is a time when these two supporters come together forgetting any differences. It is when “La Selecta”, the national team. plays. This is definitely one of the biggest moment for Salvadorans. The country stops and the blue and white paints the country.

By the time La Selecta was playing the qualification round for the world cup against Costa Rica I was collaborating with Fundación Campo, a very special MFI.  Its management has achieved to share with their employees strong values and they have established a true reliance relationship with their employees.  One of the many activities they do to reinforce teamwork is going to San Salvador to support La Selecta.

As one more member of the team I went with them to support the national team against Costa Rica. The winner of the match would be classified to the World cup. After a 3 hours journey we arrived to San Salvador and we straightly entered to the stadium in order to take a good seat.

When I asked about the starting time of the match I got astonished. There were 4 hours and a half left, it was starting at 19:30! Soon I understood why we did this. First, two hours before the match began, the stadium was nearly full. And second because it was vibrant to warm up the match with the supporters. In the 4 hours and a half waiting, they did not stop singing, dancing, doing the wave and many more. It was an extraordinary experience seeing the unconditional support of the fans.

Unfortunately La Selecta was not at the same level as its fans and it was beaten by Costa Rica, losing any chance to qualify for the world cup. But as H. W. Arnold said, “ the worst defeat a person can have is when he loses his enthusiasm”. And this never happens to Salvadoran people. They are passionated people that get up again and again despite the difficulties they meet on the way. Sharing this experience with my colleages of Fundación Campo made me understand them better and consolidate myself as a member of their team.

As good Salvadorans, on the way back to San Miguel we started to dream again about seeing La Selecta playing a world cup…

1 November 2012 at 08:00

Musings on what it means to be an entrepreneur in the more developed world

Ever since I started with Kiva Zip in the US my sixth sense seems to have awakened…I see entrepreneurs…everywhere!

I think my understanding what an entrepreneur was had until now been quite limited. An entrepreneur is Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook. Or the guy from Google, or someone opening a restaurant. But how about the person selling soda from a pull cart in Downtown DC? Or the person that put a card in my mailbox saying “cleaner for hire”? No. I didn’t include them in the same definition – until now that is! So as I head to the food cart guy in my neighborhood, I walk past a professional looking farmers market stand, a less established lemonade stand, a guy selling the homeless magazine, a make shift sunglasses stall off the main street and a flower vendor. And it’s clear: we need to adjust our thinking about entrepreneurship. All of us, not just the banks who lend money.

(more…)

31 October 2012 at 10:03

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