How Do You Define “Efficient”?

17 May 2010 at 05:48 17 comments

By Iyanna M. Holmes, KF11, Liberia

When I began working my first office job in 1999 as a college intern, I immediately took note of how central of a role technology plays in the business world.   I have often asked myself, “What did people do before the internet, fax machines, and God Help Us….EMAIL.”  I imagined my mom at her first office job having to walk documents from the first floor to co-workers on the fifth floor or waiting days for a document that someone in the Atlanta office had mailed to her in Boston.  Then I’d roll my eyes at how tedious a process that must have been and give thanks that I was born into a time where a few clicks and an email attachment keep me from having to walk anywhere other than the food court or the ladies’ room.

But even in my wildest “imagine what it would be like” scenarios, never in a million years did I stop to ask myself, “How did people conduct modern day business before paved roads, a reliable postal service, unlimited phone plans, reliable electricity, etc.?”  Well here in Liberia, the questions are not hypothetical.

As a new Kiva Fellow working with the Local Enterprise Assistance Program (LEAP) in Monrovia, Liberia, my task, in a nutshell, is to have LEAP’s Kiva operations running like a well oiled machine by the time I leave.  The casual observer, which included me before this fellowship, could never begin to imagine the amount of work that goes into every loan listing, every journal update, and the process of collecting and reporting loan repayments.  And as someone who prides herself on finding the most efficient solution to any problem (work smarter, not harder), I was up to the challenge of helping to shape LEAP’s Kiva operations.  But after only two weeks in the office, at times I find myself overwhelmed by the restrictions that LEAP must work within.

Are we not receiving the borrower stories that get posted to the website in a timely fashion?  Great, have the loan officers email them in as they are collected.  What’s that?  Many of the branches do not have internet access?  Well in that case, just mail them in from the other branches instead of relying on loan officers to hand deliver them.  What’s that?  It’s the rainy season?  The unpaved roads are muddy and hard to travel?  The postal service will likely still not meet the deadline?

Is it difficult for the loan officers to get back out to see the borrowers in order to get updates at the end of the loan?  Well why don’t we just call those borrowers from the head office and get those updates ourselves?  What’s that?  We don’t have any money to pay for extra pre-paid minutes for cell phones? (FYI, there is no office phone.  Each employee uses their own personal cell phone.  I haven’t seen a land line since I’ve been in Liberia.  I’m told that they were once widespread, but like so much of the infrastructure, were destroyed in the war).

And the list goes on and on… At times there are more employees in the office than there are working computers.  There are not enough digital cameras for every loan officer to carry one with them in order to provide photos along with the loan updates to lenders as Kiva would like.  An office car may not always be available so that LEAP’s Kiva staff can assist the branches with loan disbursals.  Inefficiencies at Liberia’s few banks lead to a delay in cash being delivered to LEAP (several huge burlap bags full of cash… not the most efficient way of making payments), which causes loan disbursal meetings to last four, five, sometimes even six hours – taking LEAP’s borrowers away from the businesses that feed their families.  Electricity is fairly constant, though sometimes we have to switch to the diesel fueled generator when power from the Liberian Electricity Corporation (which is not widely available to begin with) fails.  The internet connection can be painfully slow.  I cannot tell you how many times I have asked a co-worker, who is sitting next to me, to email me a document, just to get a very confused look in response.  Now who’s the inefficient one?

Much has been written in the media in general, and on this blog in particular, about “high” microfinance interest rates, the operating environment that microfinance institutions (MFIs) must navigate, and how this makes operating costs much higher than they would be in the developed world.  As I sit in my apartment waiting for the electricity (read: air conditioner) to come on at the regularly scheduled time of 7pm, I have a newfound appreciation for the work, creativity, and ingenuity of LEAP’s staff and all of Kiva’s field partners who somehow always find a way to get the job done despite the myriad of resource and infrastructure constraints that they face in almost every aspect of their job.  I have a lot to learn, indeed.

Iyanna Holmes is a Kiva Fellow working with Local Enterprise Assistance Program (LEAP) in Monrovia, Liberia.  Join the LEAP Lending Team.  There are borrowers from Liberia with LEAP, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world, who you can help by making a loan on the Kiva site.

Entry filed under: Africa, blogsherpa, KF11 (Kiva Fellows 11th Class), Liberia, Local Enterprise Assistance Program (LEAP). Tags: , .

A Change of Perspective I quit my job for Kiva

17 Comments

  • 1. Harvey Smith  |  25 May 2010 at 04:38

    What a wonderful first post. I love hearing stories from my American friends that have visited Liberia. There’s always something new to learn and make you appreciate what you take for granted. I know that Liberia is blessed by your presence because your love and smile will shine in spite of the challenges to make a positive and lasting difference.

    Has your team looked into mobile payment systems, such as the mpesa system that’s available in Kenya? If that could be used, it would go a long way to reduce the costs of servicing loans in the interior, as well as make it safer than carrying cash.

    And maybe there’s some way we can get some company to donate used camera phones to Kiva to distribute to either the loan officers or maybe even the loan recipients. That will take care of the photo requirement.

    I may even know a FAMU alumna that might have some connections in the film industry who has a special tie to Liberia and may be able to find a benefactor for you. I’ll email you the details.

    • 2. Iyanna Holmes  |  26 May 2010 at 05:34

      Hey Harvey, just last week I got to meet with a telecom company that is considering rolling out mobile payments here in Liberia. That has the potential to have a huge positive impact on LEAP but I do see some challenges, mainly IT-related.

      That is a great suggestion about the camera phones. I’ll follow up with you on that.

  • 3. Kim Hodges  |  22 May 2010 at 10:51

    Thank you for providing us with a glimpse of some of the important work that you do and the real difficulties associated with helping Liberians achieve their business and financial goals. Keep up the great work.

  • 4. Sharon P.  |  20 May 2010 at 19:27

    Great article, I know you can ooil that machine with no problem.

  • 5. Fehmeen  |  20 May 2010 at 13:22

    Striking difference in the business environment of MFIs in Liberia and other non-war-ravaged economies. LEAP is literally building the country, bit by bit, and it’s a huge task, considering the lack of infrastructure.

    There is a suggestion for the weekly meetings that tend to take borrowers away from their businesses for hours – the meetings can be conducted early in the morning, before their businesses start. I heard Grameen Koota does that.

  • 6. Fred  |  19 May 2010 at 15:11

    *Liberian giiiiiiiirlll…*

    And here I was texting you last night to see if you were watching the Orlando-Celtics Eastern Conference Finals. I feel so…superficial now. Still, sounds like despite all the obstacles and “inefficiencies”, you’re enjoying every minute out there in Liberia. Keep it up.

    Quick question, given the inefficiencies in the system, does this have an astronomical effect on the “risk premium” attached to the rates on these micro loans?

    • 7. Iyanna Holmes  |  22 May 2010 at 09:33

      I’m definitely pulling for my boys, but 2-0 does NOT look good.

      To answer your question though, while there is definitely a risk premium in the interest rate for these poorer clientele, a lot of the premium is just environmental – meaning someone with your (relative) financial situation and credit profile in Liberia would still pay more in interest than you would in a developed country. But where these inefficiencies really impact interest rates is in the operational costs. While Bank of America can cut costs by doing business online and reducing the per transaction costs, loan officers at a rural MFI are hiking through the forest to collect a $2 payment on a $300 loan. How many customers can you service in a day in that kind of environment? Kind of hard to reduce your per transaction costs in a situation like that.

  • 8. Anthony Gore  |  19 May 2010 at 04:31

    My dear Niece, it was a delight to hear of your experinces in a place where your knowledge, skill and endurance will be tested and finely toned. Thanks for giving us a look into your work and the place in which your work has taken you.
    Uncle Tony

  • 9. JWalk  |  18 May 2010 at 18:36

    So…
    Cake walk, gotcha.

  • 10. Bert  |  18 May 2010 at 18:06

    Iyanna, “necessity is the mother of invention…” I know that you will do GREAT work there and make a difference. And I complain about the T-1 internet connection in my office… LOL

  • 11. Charisse  |  17 May 2010 at 18:31

    You’re doing great work Iyanna! With time, I’m sure you’ll get used to your “new normal”.

  • 12. Alan  |  17 May 2010 at 16:59

    Excellent Post!!!

  • 13. DP  |  17 May 2010 at 13:12

    Thanks for putting up the write up…. it adds a lot of perspective to how things we take for granted can have such a large impact.

  • 14. Pooks  |  17 May 2010 at 07:52

    I been in places like that but I didn’t havt to work in it.

  • 15. Deb M  |  17 May 2010 at 07:07

    Wow, great story thank you for sharing.

  • 16. leonard poteat  |  17 May 2010 at 07:01

    Great write up… i can see you sitting behind the computer screen, waiting for it to load….and almost pulling your eyelashes out at the time!! TALK ABOUT…THANK GOODNESS FOR DSL

  • 17. Jeff  |  17 May 2010 at 06:05

    Good report, Iyanna. While reading it I almost felt I was there.


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