Posts filed under ‘Kiva Field Partners’

The Women of MCDT

By: Abhishesh Adhikari

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

(more…)

8 July 2013 at 16:42

Kiva Fellows: Mixing Business with Pleasure

a job that lets you travel across Mongolia... AND play table tennis while you wait at the airport?!

A job that lets you travel across Mongolia… AND play table tennis while you wait at the airport?!

Here in Mongolia, my top priority with XacBank has been to complete borrower verifications (BVs)—visits to 10 randomly selected Kiva clients to ensure that everything in the field checks out with the information reported to Kiva’s San Francisco headquarters. As it happened, the borrowers in my sample were scattered across the country. Here’s a summary of what my month of April looked like:

  • 1 month spent
  • 4,872 km covered
  • 9 borrowers verified
  • 5 aimags traveled to
  • 7 branch offices visited
  • 10 training sessions delivered
  • 35 loan officers and other staff trained
  • 13 top Kiva borrowers recognized
  • 1 television interview completed
  • 67 client waivers checked
  • 2 runaway borrowers chased down
  • 1 Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire
  • 2 beautiful lakes and other sights experienced
  • 4 items delivered via Mongolian messenger service
  • Many kilos of cheese curds (and other nice gifts!) received

I couldn’t help but feel lucky—I knew it would be an eye-opening experience to visit all these different parts of Mongolia. After all, I think most Kiva Fellows are in this as much for the professional experience as for the exposure to new countries and cultures. Why not mix business with pleasure if you can?

Runaway borrowers

I’ve talked before about some of the work that Kiva Fellows do when we visit branch offices during our BVs, but what I didn’t explain was how, in order to successfully complete a BV, the Fellow must meet with every single borrower on the list. If for whatever reason, a borrower is unavaible or nowhere to be found (and that’s happened before!), the sample must be re-drawn and 10 new borrowers must be verified—no matter how close you were to finishing the first set of 10 (and irrespective of how far and long you had to travel to see them). So it’s safe to say that Kiva Fellows sweat it a little when these meetings don’t line up perfectly. And people are often on the move, which can raise some serious logistical challenges sometimes.

Kiva borrower Aibek - what a relief it was when we finally caught up to him!

Kiva borrower Aibek – what a relief it was when we finally caught up to him!

Take Aibek, for instance. Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator at XacBank, booked us flights to go see him in Bayan-Olgiy, the western-most province of Mongolia (flying made sense given that Olgiy, the city centre, is a 3 day drive from UB). She also arranged our accommodations and made plans with the Director to deliver training sessions at the branch office. We were all set to leave on Monday morning, but late in the afternoon of the Friday before, she called me up sounding very serious: ‘Aibek is not in Bayan-Olgiy. He’s in UB right now. I just spoke to the loan officer.’

the plane we took to Bayan-Olgiy

the plane we took to Bayan-Olgiy

The trickiest part was that he was only planning to be in UB for a few days—which meant that by the time we came back from our branch visits in Bayan-Olgiy and Uvs provinces, he would have left already. We couldn’t change our flights, and flying to Bayan-Olgiy a second time was pretty much out of the question. So the best thing to do was to meet in UB during the weekend. We made plans to meet him on Saturday at 10 a.m. in his neighbourhood. We made our way to the east end of the city and waited… No Aibek.

Batzul called the loan officer in Bayan-Olgiy, who then called Aibek, but he wasn’t picking up his phone. We communicated through his wife, who was at home. We waited and waited. No Aibek. We gave up and agreed to try and reschedule.

Our opportunity came that afternoon. Aibek, the loan officer told us, would meet us by the Wrestling Palace at 1 p.m. When we got there we searched in vain for any passers-by who looked like the man in the borrower profile. An hour passed. No Aibek.

But the third time’s a charm, right? On Sunday afternoon I got a call from Batzul—Aibek had been located! We hopped in a taxi and made our way to the west end of the city. We were driven to a desolate, industrial area surrounded by auto body shops, where random vans were parked and people seemed to be waiting around for something. We waited in the safety of the taxi, but when no Aibek appeared, we cautiously stepped out and started asking strangers if they knew of our man. Eventually, one of them pointed us to a van, and lo and behold, Aibek was there!

Bayan-Olgiy

Our first stop in our travels was Bayan-Olgiy. Bayan-Olgiy is a special part of Mongolia: This region is home to the country’s Kazakh minority, giving it a very distinct feel from the moment you arrive. The Kazakhs, who make up some 90% of the population of this province, adhere to Islam (rather than Buddhism, like much of the rest of Mongolia), and the predominant language is Kazakh, not Mongolian (though most people speak both). From my hotel window, I could hear the evening call to prayers.

visiting the main mosque in Olgiy, where 90% of the population practice Islam

visiting the main mosque in Olgiy, where Islam is the main religion

The Kazakhs were first drawn to the high mountain pastures in the region in the mid-1800s, where they let their sheep graze during the summer months. Throughout most of the 20th century, they were an isolated, tight-knit community, and this region is considered even by people in Kazakhstan as the best-preserved example of Kazakh culture. One of the things it’s best known for is the Eagle Festival, which takes place every year in October.

even the houses in Bayan-Olgiy look different than the rest of Mongolia

even the houses in Bayan-Olgiy look different than the rest of Mongolia

I think my Kazakh colleagues were as curious about me as I was about them. I immediately started learning some words in their language. Instead of bayarlalaa for ‘thank you,’ they say rahmed. Amansasbaa is the common greeting, whereas in Mongolian it’s sain bain uu (or more casually, you can say salem in Kazakh). And learning to say tansganmaa huanshtaman (it’s nice to meet you) came in pretty handy several times later on!

with a couple of the colleagues who treated me to lunch

with a couple of the colleagues who kindly treated me to lunch

delivering Kiva training to the staff at the Bayan-Olgiy branch

delivering Kiva training to the staff at the Bayan-Olgiy branch

Having finished our work at the branch quickly, our colleagues took us to see the main mosque in town, followed by a hike up a nearby peak to get a beautiful view of Olgiy, the Altai Mountains, and the river that flows from them. Later, the Branch Director and driver took us on a long and bumpy drive to Tolbo Nuur, a freshwater lake about 50km south of the city centre. Though it was still frozen, it was amazing to see a body of water (there aren’t many in Mongolia!).

taking in the landscapes on our way to the lake

taking in the landscapes on our way to the lake

the driver, the Branch Director, and Batzul at Tolbo Nuur

our driver, the Branch Director, and Batzul at Tolbo Nuur

Next stop: A visit to the Branch Director’s extended family living in the countryside! True to Kazakh/Mongolian hospitality, they welcomed us warmly and prepared a massive and delicious feast for us. It’s customary for people in Mongolia to welcome strangers—locals and foreigners alike—into their homes and feed them. It stems from their nomadic history, in which families would help other people who were passing through the area, or receive visitors from different parts of the country (for example, the capital) and exchange news with them. It’s a beautiful aspect of the culture here.

the Kazakh family who welcomed us into their home

the Kazakh family who welcomed us into their home

the feast that they prepared for us (top) and our driver carving up 4 different types of meat (bottom)

the feast that they prepared for us (above) and our driver carving up 4 different types of meat (below)

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a horse and its foal that the family owns

a horse and its foal that the family owns

On our way back to Olgiy, we soaked in the peaceful landscapes of the countryside…

wild swans taking flight

wild swans taking flight

cows grazing by the water

cows grazing in the quiet evening

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the moon rising over the countryside

A picnic at Uvs Nuur

By midweek, we were bidding farewell to our new friends in Bayan-Olgiy and boarding another plane, this time bound for Uvs. We were welcomed at the airport by a small crew, and no sooner did we arrive at the branch than we got down to business. Client waivers, visits to borrowers, loan officer training—check, check, check! Then the branch staff treated us to a warm welcome dinner at a nearby Korean restaurant. We were starting to feel like royalty!

the Kiva borrowers who were recognized by XacBank

the Kiva borrowers who were recognized by XacBank

The following morning, we had certificates and tokens of appreciation to hand out to 5 Kiva borrowers who had repaid their loans on time (or early). It turned out that the Branch Director had invited the local television crew to film the small ceremony! They asked me to say a few words about Kiva, so I was happy to talk about the good work Kiva and XacBank are doing. It aired on the evening news that night. I guess that makes me famous in Mongolia!

Batzul with the Branch Director (left) and two staff members from the Uvs branch

Batzul with the Branch Director (left) and two staff members from the Uvs branch

Next on the agenda was a trip to Uvs Nuur, a saltwater lake that is the largest in Mongolia. Lucky us! We followed a road for part of the trek but veered off after a while to avoid muddy areas where our SUV could get stuck. We zigzagged across an open field and eventually made it to the water’s edge, where Mongolians love to come and take a dip in the summertime. It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and we took in the warm rays as we sat idly by the water’s edge and enjoyed the picnic our colleagues had packed for us. We couldn’t have spent a nicer time in Uvs!

Lake Tolbo

Uvs Lake

Business owners, an ancient monument and a stolen dinosaur

The following week, we hit the road for two more aimags, Arkhangai and Bayanhongor.

driving along a Mongolian superhighway

driving along the Mongolian superhighway from Arkhangai

some stretches of the road where you don't want to get stuck!

some stretches of the road where you don’t want to get stuck!

seems sturdy enough for our SUV, right?

seems sturdy enough for our SUV, right?

There, we had the opportunity to meet some borrowers who told us about their businesses. It’s always rewarding to make the connection between the borrower profiles on Kiva’s website and the people who are actually behind them. It’s also nice to see microcredit working effectively. These lovely ladies passed along their thank you’s to their Kiva lenders… Allow me to introduce them.

Byambahuu, who runs a produce and variety stand at the local market in Tsetserleg - and the recipient of a 9% interest incentive recognition award

Byambahuu is standing in front of her produce and variety stand at the local market in Tsetserleg. She was recognized by XacBank for her efforts to repay her loan on time, getting back 9%  of the amount she paid in interest deposited back into a savings account.

Oyunchimeg has a dairy stand at the local market in Tsetserleg, where she sells cheese curds and other milk products. She makes some of these products herself, while the rest she purchases from nomadic herders in the countryside.

Oyunchimeg has a dairy stand at the local market in Tsetserleg, where she sells cheese curds and other milk products. She makes some of these products herself, while the rest she purchases from nomadic herders in the countryside.

Munhdelger sells a variety of housewares and other goods at the outdoor section of the local market in Tsetserleg.

Munhdelger sells a variety of housewares and other useful household goods at the outdoor section of the local market in Tsetserleg.

Gerelmandah is a tailor who takes custom orders to make beautiful traditional Mongolian clothing, such as deels (below). It's a trade that was passed on to her by her mother, and one which she is now passing on to her own daughter.

Gerelmandah is a tailor in Bayanhongor who takes custom orders to make beautiful traditional Mongolian clothing, such as deels (below). It’s a trade that was passed on to her by her mother, and one which she is now passing on to her own daughter.

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While visiting these aimags, we also learned about some of Mongolia’s rich natural history. Not far from Tsetserleg, Arkhangai’s city centre, is Taikhar Chuluu, a large rock formation that juts out in the middle of a wide plain. Legend has it that a snake emerged from the earth one day, many moons ago, and a hero named Bökebilig forced it back and sealed off its cave with this rock. The rock has been revered by various civilizations since ancient times, as evidenced by the Mongolian, Tibetan, and Turkic inscriptions which can be found on it (the latter which dates back to the 6th century AD, although sadly, most of the inscriptions have been overwritten by modern-day graffiti).

one has to wonder how this got here... if not for the legend

one would have to wonder how this got here… if not for the legend

And did you know that it’s possible to smuggle a dinosaur out of a country? Luckily, the one that was taken from Mongolia is now on its way home. Bayanhongor, which is part of the Gobi Desert region, is home to some of the incredible dinosaur fossils that have been unearthed since the 1920s. These include many dinosaur eggs and several Velociraptors (which of course you’ll remember from Jurassic Park!). One of the most famous discoveries is of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops that were locked in battle and frozen in time 80 million years ago. You can also see exhibits such as a nest of newborn baby dinosaurs, and a mother protecting her young at the Natural History Museum in UB—that is, when they’re not out touring the world!

the dry and dusty desert climate of Bayanhongor is also evident in the main city centre

the dry and dusty desert climate of Bayanhongor is also evident in the main city centre

The Mongolian Messenger

I witnessed another curiosity during these BV travels. In a country where there are effectively no street names or real addresses, I’ve been intrigued by how mail gets delivered around here. You may know that the Mongolian Empire had a highly developed mail system at the height of its rule. People have assured me that when they receive mail—that is, anything that cannot be taped to their doors—they are given notices to go pick it up at the nearest postal outlet. Sounds reasonable, right?

But the truth is, Mongolians today have instituted an informal delivery system that would surely do Chinggis Khan proud. My edification began as Batzul and I waited in line at the check-in counter in the UB airport to fly to Bayan-Olgiy. A man was hovering nearby, and finally he approached Batzul. They exchanged a few words in Mongolian; he passed her an envelope, and she took down a phone number. I observed the whole interaction somewhat suspiciously.

‘What was that all about?’ I asked after the man had gone.

‘Oh, he just wants me to deliver something in Olgiy,’ she replied casually. And to my confused stare, she added, ‘It’s the Mongolian Messenger service.’

As if that explained everything! My jaw must have dropped. I started sputtering… What? How? Who?? I was full of questions!

These questions were somewhat cleared up when we arrived in Olgiy. As we stopped for lunch with our branch colleague, Batzul got on the phone and a short while later, a lady walked into the restaurant. Just a few words were exchanged before the envelope was handed over and the lady walked back out. I watched in fascination. ‘How did you know she was the right lady?’ I exclaimed.

‘Because I just talked to her on the phone,’ Batzul answered matter-of-factly.

‘But don’t you need to see her ID or something?’ I persisted.

‘No.’ We resumed eating.

This happened again and again until I finally started to believe in the system. Coming back to UB this time, we walked out of the baggage-claim area of the airport and Batzul delivered another envelope straight into the outstretched hands of a stranger. She knew him by the black shirt he was wearing, she assured me. On the way into the city, our driver stopped along the road from the airport, not once but twice, at seemingly random intersections where our little Messenger hopped out, delivered her goods to waiting recipients, and hopped back into the car. I was blown away.

a typical plane which carries private messages across Mongolia... and a typical messenger who delivers the service

a typical plane which carries private messages across Mongolia… and an example of a messenger who delivers the service

The Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire

Speaking of this Messenger, delivering envelopes isn’t Batzul’s only talent. For the past four months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with her, and for good reason: She is a truly exemplary Kiva Coordinator. We’ve worked closely together, particularly during all of our branch visits for the BVs, and I must say we’ve made a great team. We get our work done quickly and efficiently, and even have time left to have some fun (as you now know).

But it’s not just that. Batzul is an impressive young professional all on her own. She is always on the ball with her Kiva work and manages several other projects on top of that. But the best part about her is that she takes immense pride in her job as a Kiva Coordinator, and also in the fact that her work is impacting the lives of many Mongolians. Whether we are running a training session together, or visiting a borrower, she’s been far more than just a translator. She elaborates by adding anecdotes and lessons from her own stock of experiences, including her interactions with branches, loan officers, and clients, thus adding colour and depth to the messages we deliver. She makes my job as a Kiva Fellow easy!

Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire (left) and the lucky Kiva Fellow who works with her

Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire (left) and the lucky Kiva Fellow who works with her

Just as I had thought, the opportunity to see so many different parts of Mongolia for my BVs was fun, rewarding, and incredibly enriching. And I have Batzul, the Kiva borrowers, XacBank, and all the incredible people at the branch offices we met to thank for that—so from the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone for a truly amazing experience!

2 June 2013 at 10:30 1 comment

What Green Means in Mongolia

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

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

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

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

31 May 2013 at 16:45

Of Baby Animals and Borrowers in Selenge

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

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

13 April 2013 at 04:33

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

Following a Kiva loan from Calgary to Dar es Salaam!

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania

Marion_1

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

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

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

Lender’s city; borrower’s city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dresses for the two-dimensional!

Dresses for the two-dimensional!

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

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

The expedition across town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting the borrower

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

Meeting the borrower (Take 2)

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

Prisca in her store.

Prisca in her store.

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

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

Closing the circle

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

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

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

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

24 February 2013 at 07:00 2 comments

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

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

Loan officers are the hidden heroes behind the Kiva model.

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

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

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

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

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

Kiva Fellow: Wesley Schrock, KF19 Honduras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiva Fellow: Rose Larsen, KF19 Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiva Fellow: Luan Nio, KF19 United States

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 February 2013 at 08:00 1 comment

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

Twelve Days of Christmas from Kiva Fellows

By Kiva Fellows | KF19 | All Over the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here are three beers from three Colorado breweries, enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maayong Pasco! (Bisayan for Merry Christmas!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS

FROM THE KIVA FELLOWS!

20 December 2012 at 08:00

Dancing in the New Year

By Holly Sarkissian, KF 19,  Benin & Togo

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Sokodé or the Azonto Song
  2. Afro Mask

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays!

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

19 December 2012 at 14:10

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

Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia

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

The streets of San Jacinto de Bolivar

The streets of San Jacinto de Bolivar

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San Juan Nepomuceno’s church

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Just outside of town, San Juan Nepomuceno

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

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

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How to Make a Hammock: Two Visits in San Jacinto

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A Couple of Shoemakers from San Juan Nepomuceno

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 December 2012 at 08:00

The Ticos Who Touched My Heart

just some of the lovely Ticos I met during my fellowship

just some of the lovely Ticos I met during my fellowship

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

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

the FUNDECOCA crew

the FUNDECOCA crew

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

the folks at EDESA

the folks at EDESA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alejandra and Bryan (and their wonderful families in Pital)

Alejandra and Bryan (and their families in Pital)

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

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

Don Manuel and his full house

home sweet home – Manuel and his full house

So here are some things I’ve learned:

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

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

Beep! Hello!

Beep! Hellooooo there, baby.

Beep! Coming through!

Beep beep! You go first!

Beep! Thanks dude!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

traipsing the country with Carlos and his family

traipsing the country with Carlos and his family

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romano and Hannia

Romano and Hannia

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

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

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

Rosi and her family

Rosi and her family

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

13 December 2012 at 21:04

Magical Moments with Kiva Borrowers in Bolivia

PeterKF19-06-00-Hdr

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

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

Señor René, Vegetable Farmer, Cochabamba (CIDRE)

With Señor René in his bean field

With Señor René in his bean field

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

René’s daughter with the family puppy “Shadow”

René’s daughter with the family puppy “Shadow”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Señora Yelica, Baker, Santa Cruz (Emprender)

Señora Yélica at home with her Kiva-funded oven

Señora Yélica at home with her Kiva-funded oven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Señor Gustavo, Magician, La Paz (CIDRE)

Señor Gustavo eagerly shows off his Kiva-funded magic kits

Señor Gustavo eagerly shows off his Kiva-funded magic kits

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

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

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

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

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

Some truly magic moments with Kiva borrowers!

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

12 December 2012 at 08:00 1 comment

A glimpse into Entrepreneurship in Kyrgyzstan

Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan

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

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

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6 December 2012 at 09:34

8 fun facts about Kyrgyzstan

Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan

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

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

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

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28 November 2012 at 20:00

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

Giving Thanks for New Opportunities in Benin and Togo

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

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

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

Reaching the Poorest of the Poor

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

Visiting Ze, Benin’s Poorest Community 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the children of the Titomagba Group.

Improving the Lives of Farmers in Togo 

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

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

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

THANK YOU from the Kiva Family! 

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

Give a Kiva Borrower a reason to be THANKFUL:

Click here to make a loan through Alidé in Benin

Or help a borrower through WAGES in Togo

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

On est ensemble!

(We are together)

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

22 November 2012 at 06:57

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

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

A walk through Osh Bazaar

Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan

Osh Bazaar

It’s crowded, overwhelming, loud, and cheap. And you can find almost anything you need here. Osh Bazaar is a huge marketplace near the center of Bishkek. People from all over Bishkek and the surrounding areas come here to buy and sell.

(more…)

11 November 2012 at 10:17

Group Loans: Filling a Particular Niche

By Marion Walls, KF19, Tanzania

There’s a buzz about Group Loans here in Dar Es Salaam!  And now that I see them in action every day, I’m sold too!  I’m volunteering as a Kiva Fellow at Tujijenge Tanzania where all Kiva loans are Group loans, so I’ve learned considerably more about them in the last six weeks.  It’s become clear why Group Loans are a mainstay of microcredit: they fill a particular niche for borrowers.

Let me show you what I’ve learned…

Borrower groups at Tujijenge are made up of around fourteen members who know each other, though there may be as many as twenty or as few as eight.  Groups choose their own names – and names run the gamut from the practical “Mt Rungwe”, to the motivational “Breakthrough”, and confident “Top Class”.  Their names are just the first indication that each group is unique…  It’s been immediately apparent when I’ve met them that each group has it’s own personality: some are shy and quiet, others cheerful and full of energy!

Group members don’t necessarily operate the same type of business as each other.  One may have a fruit stall in a market;

another may own a general store;

while a third raises (inquisitive) ducks!

Group members don’t all borrow the same amount as one another either – each member’s loan amount is dictated by both the amount they requested and their personal loan history at Tujijenge.

I’ve participated in a number of Group loan disbursements at Tujijenge’s main branch.  I’ve been delighted to meet members on their tenth loan cycle, borrowing Tsh 1,800,000 (about US$ 1125), because it confirms for me that the loans provide genuine benefit.  I’ve been equally happy to meet members who’ve only recently joined a group and are on their first loan cycle, borrowing Tsh 80,000 (about US$ 50).  Wait a minute…. surely that can’t be right?  $ 50!   I’ve never seen an Individual loan for $ 50 on Kiva.  And this is precisely the point: Group Loans are special.  They enable borrowers to start borrowing.

This thrills me – I’m here, seeing borrowers stepping onto the first rung of a ladder that could lead upward out of poverty!  New group members are borrowing $ 50 to boost their fledgling business, or to make a lump sum payment on an item such as school fees.  The main reason these borrowers join a Group is that members guarantee each others’ repayments, so small loan amounts are accessible to those who don’t yet have physical collateral.  (Tied to this fact, too, is that members don’t need spousal approval for participation in a Group loan – an important consideration in a culture where gender equality has not been the traditional norm.)

Group loans also provide a good environment for nurturing new borrowers.  Established group members can help new borrowers learn the skills and discipline associated with repaying a loan, all within the safety-net of the group guarantee.  And, I was fascinated to learn, a Group is a self-regulating mechanism against the scourge of over-indebtedness.  Group members actively discourage each other from taking out simultaneous loans from multiple organizations because they know they’ll personally be on the hook for paying back the Group loan if a fellow member cannot.

Then there are the intangible benefits to a Group loan that I’ve discovered while attending Group meetings!

Groups meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis in a location convenient to them (but that entails several hours’ journey on a hot and supremely overcrowded dalla dalla for the Tujijenge loan officer and Kiva Fellow…), to register repayments with their loan officer.  At one meeting, I ask the Group Chairman if hers is a tough job and she sighs: “Yes, following up with members who haven’t repaid is the hardest part.”  I ask her why she’s persevered in the role for five years, and she answers without hesitation: “Leadership!”  She’s referring to leadership within her group, as well as within her community.  It’s her very practical way of bettering the community in which she lives.

Likewise, the young Treasurer is demonstrating her accounting skills and acting as a role model to new borrowers within the group, whilst also developing her status outside it.

And another group member, (an irrepressible character who offered me a two-week home stay to get my Swahili vocabulary up to scratch!), has the opportunity for the group interaction she so obviously thrives on.  It’s a big part of the reason she was a founding member of the group five years ago…

But it’s not just idle chit chat at a Group meeting; the support members gain from one another is so highly valued that many well-established borrowers choose to stay in a Group long after they are eligible for “graduation” to an Individual loan.  In this case – and in a nice paradox – the Group loan enables borrowers to access some of the largest loan amounts on offer.  So chalk up one more winning attribute: Group loans empower the borrowers that started with them to keep moving upward!

If you’d like to loan to Tujijenge’s Group borrowers, you can do so here.

As we say in Tanzania: Karibu sana!  You are very welcome!

10 November 2012 at 18:00 2 comments

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

Standing Out from the Crowd: How Kiva Partners Thrive in a Saturated Microcredit World

By Peter Soley | KF19 | Bolivia

Continue Reading 30 October 2012 at 06:00

Riding a horse in Kyrgyzstan

Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan

Manas Sculptural Complex in Bishkek

It has now been three weeks since I landed at Bishkek’s Manas International Airport. It’s amazing how many new things I have experienced and learned in such a short amount of time: a completely different culture, new friends, exotic food, interesting Soviet architecture, the Russian language, and many more. I am now glad to add a new item to that list: my first ever horse ride!

(more…)

25 October 2012 at 07:42 2 comments

Hard Workers and the Spirit of Entreprise

En route to San Carlos for some BVs

Visiting borrowers in rural Costa Rica

By all accounts, borrower verifications (BVs) have been a highlight for all Kiva Fellows who have had them on their work plans. I started mine last week, but I have to admit I went into them feeling apprehensive—especially since not all borrowers fully understand how Kiva works or how Kiva is even related to them. (more…)

24 October 2012 at 10:15 1 comment

A Day of Promociones: Promoting Kiva’s Product in the Field

Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia

It is fair to say that every Kiva Fellow is excited about “going out into the field.” Meeting the local entrepreneurs who are using microfinance to grow their tiny businesses is the primary reason many of us gave up jobs, apartments, and lives in our home countries to volunteer our time abroad for 4 months.

What we are looking for is a personal connection, the ability to put a face to the erudite name of microfinance. We are dying to hear firsthand how, through Kiva, someone has been given new opportunities, and has used these to improve their life. A more extreme version, perhaps, of that desire for connection that drives so many people to lend through Kiva each day.

After months of hearing moving stories about meetings between Kiva Fellows and Kiva borrowers, I was surprised to hear that the majority of my first day out in the field here in Colombia would be devoted to something called “promociones.” (more…)

23 October 2012 at 08:00

Borrower Verification in Bolivia: One Kiva Fellow’s First Days in the Field

By Peter Soley | KF19 | Bolivia

Lofty La Paz, Bolivia

As a newly deployed Kiva Fellow, join me as I introduce you to La Paz and the Kiva Borrower Verification process that I am performing for two of Kiva’s partners in Bolivia. Come along as I visit Kiva borrower borrower Celestina who bakes holiday cookies high in the hills above downtown La Paz.

Continue Reading 16 October 2012 at 05:00 3 comments

¡Bienvenidos a Barranquilla!

Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia

My first glimpse of Barranquilla, Colombia was of wide avenues lined with tropical trees bearing unfamiliar fruits; a busy, congested city sprouted up in a tropical coastal jungle. Having lived my entire life in the cool, foggy embrace of San Francisco, my first few weeks in Barranquilla have involved quite a bit of adapting.

Since most people’s picture of Colombia seems to involve guerillas, kidnappings and cocaine, I thought I’d share what life is REALLY like, here on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. (more…)

10 October 2012 at 10:00 3 comments

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