by Rose Larsen | KF20 | Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic may be a small island nation in the Caribbean, but it has a quickly growing economy based on a shift from exports of sugar, coffee and tobacco to services like telecommunications and tourism.
However, according to a study done by the OECD in 2012, this economic growth has been limited by deficits in human capital – more specifically, the education levels of workers are insufficient.
This problem stems from the low quality of primary and secondary educations – public schools are overcrowded, dangerous, and lacking supplies. Even students from lower-middle-class and poor families are attending private schools, which in the Dominican Republic can range from less than $50 a month to incredibly expensive.
By the time students manage to graduate high school, many families cannot afford to pay university fees, forcing the young people directly into whatever work they can find, often in the informal sector. If the Dominican Republic wants to continue to grow and bring a significant percentage of its population out of poverty, it needs to employ more workers in the formal sector – and to qualify for these formal sector jobs, workers need university or technical degrees.
On the more individual scale, it has been proven over and over that getting a tertiary degree increases lifetime earnings. If the Dominican Republic cannot find a way to help students from poor backgrounds obtain higher education degrees and have access to private universities, inequality (already a huge problem here in the DR) will only increase, and the economy will stagnate due to the lack of human capital.
ENTER KIVA AND FUNDAPEC
Kiva has been supporting entrepreneurs in the Dominican Republic since 2007 with Esperanza International, extending its reach in 2012 with a new partnership with ASPIRE. Up until now, all the loans Kiva has disbursed in the DR have gone towards small (often informal) businesses or personal expenses – stocking a corner store, buying supplies for a beauty salon, constructing a house.
Meanwhile, Kiva’s newest partner, FUNDAPEC, has been giving out student loans for 46 years, and is the Dominican Republic’s only student loan provider. In the past FUNDAPEC has maintained strict minimum salary requirements for loan guarantors – usually the parents of the students. These requirements are meant to make sure that students’ families will be able to repay the loan, and are important in maintaining FUNDAPEC’s long-term sustainability, but they also mean that many poor students are turned away and simply cannot continue their studies.
FUNDAPEC has long wanted to provide loans to students from poor backgrounds, and through Kiva has finally found a way.
FUNDAPEC’S NEW LOANS
With the help of Kiva, FUNDAPEC has developed a new loan product specially designed for students with limited resources.
The loans can be used for undergraduate studies or for a technical (2-year) degree. Instead of having a minimum salary requirement for their guarantors, these loans actually have a MAXIMUM salary requirement – the guarantors of the students can have incomes no higher than 3 minimum monthly salaries ($480 USD per month or $5,760 USD per year).
These loans have some of the lowest interest rates on Kiva – 8% per year – and the terms are very generous. Students don’t have to make capital repayments on their loans until after they finish studying, and even then have up to 7 years to pay back their loans, keeping the monthly quota payments low enough that a recent graduate in his or her first job can keep up.
FUNDAPEC’S FIRST LOAN
When I arrived at FUNDAPEC’s offices to start getting the first Kiva loans going, the management team already had someone in mind to be the first borrower. They had received a letter from a girl who had no idea about Kiva’s program, but in desperation had sent a letter asking for help in finishing her education.
Crisley is only 20 years old, but has already been through a lot. An excerpt from her letter reads:
“3 years ago, studying was a distant dream due to a circumstance which changed my life and that of my family. I was diagnosed in 2009 with a chronic health condition. After multiple admissions to the hospital and after spending 6 months hospitalized on-and-off, I went into surgery.”
Crisley, instead of being defeated by her illness, has used it to inspire her. She is currently finishing her first year of studies in medicine, participates in a dance group, volunteers with the Red Cross, and hopes to one day be a doctor herself, so that she can help other people with similar conditions.
Unfortunately, in the Dominican Republic, years of hospitalizations and surgeries can bring even a middle-class family to the brink of poverty. Crisley’s parents have invested so much in her health that they can no longer afford to pay her fees at INTEC, the school she has been enrolled at. She still has special needs due to her condition, and continues to need some medical care and supplies, so the fees are still coming. Desperate to continue her education, she wrote a letter to FUNDAPEC hoping that somehow, even though her parents are now too poor to qualify as guarantors for FUNDAPEC’s normal loans, they would be able to offer her something.
Her letter came just at the right time, and we have just posted her profile on Kiva as the first Kiva borrower from FUNDAPEC, and the first borrower on Kiva to seek a higher education loan in the Dominican Republic. She is hoping to raise $9,700 which will pay for the next four years of study she has left on her medical degree.
Crisley embodies the hope and strength that Kiva looks for in its borrowers. She wrote in her letter to FUNDAPEC,
“I truly believe that everything in life happens for a reason, and maybe all of this was just the push I needed to know that my place is where I can serve, help and turn my experience into something positive in the life of someone else.
“Finishing my degree successfully is the dream I most want to fulfill, and with the help of God and while there is still life in my body I will continue fighting until I see it reached.”
Though Crisley is ready to fight, I think she’s already had enough struggles. With Kiva’s help, Crisley will not have to worry about her university expenses, and will be able to pay back the loan slowly once she finishes her studies.
FUNDAPEC’s loans are not for everyone. Lenders will not begin to see repayments for many years – in Crisley’s case, for five years – and won’t get the full amount of their loan back for up to 12 years. However, I can guarantee that these loans will change someone’s life. Lend through FUNDAPEC and support a young person who simply wants to get an education.
After serving as a Kiva Fellow in the 19th class in Barranquilla, Colombia, Rose Larsen is continuing her tour of the Caribbean with a placement in the Dominican Republic, as part of the 20th class of Kiva Fellows. She has been working with ASPIRE and FUNDAPEC. Click here to lend to a Dominican borrower today. To find out more about the Kiva Fellows Program and to apply to be a Fellow, visit www.kiva.org/fellows.
by Rose Larsen | KF20 | Dominican Republic
One of my first tasks upon arriving in the Dominican Republic was to visit 10 borrowers, chosen at random from all of the borrowers with ASPIRE (Kiva’s partner MFI), to verify data and find out how they are doing on their loan. This was an exciting but challenging introduction to daily Dominican life, as I navigated Santo Domingo and the surrounding areas via shared taxis, public buses, motorcycles, the metro and my own feet. I traversed bustling neighborhoods in the center of Santo Domingo, small towns in the mountainous interior of the country and everywhere in between, seeking out 10 lucky individuals to interview for Kiva’s audit of ASPIRE.
As a recent arrival in the country, it was a great experience to learn more about the Dominican Republic and what it’s really like to live here. Though each visit was uniquely interesting in its own right, four experiences stood out as having taught me a lot about what life is like for Kiva borrowers in the DR.
1. Dominicans have a very strong connection to the United States
I have often been surprised by the number of Dominicans who speak to me in near perfect English. Everyone seems to have a cousin or an uncle or a sibling in the States (mostly in New York and New Jersey), and many Dominicans that I’ve met have spent years living in the US as well. According to the census, in 2010 there were 1.5 million people of Dominican origin living in the US.
But what really drove that home to me was when I met my first Kiva borrower, Ramon, the owner of an internet center in the town of La Vega. He heard my accent when I spoke to him over the phone to arrange our meeting, and asked me where I was from. When I said the US, he told me he had lived there, all over – in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.
As we began our interview in his little computer center, I was surprised to hear him answer my questions in perfect English! After months in Colombia of struggling to understand Kiva borrowers’ difficult Costeño Spanish accents (the ends of all words seem to be cut off), this interview was a breeze!
Like many other Dominicans, Ramón moved to the US in search of a better life, and spent 20 years there. Unfortunately his wife preferred the Dominican Republic and he had to move back. He said that here in the DR, it was much harder to make enough money to live on, because here, inflation is high but wages and income streams remain low.
2. Dominican food is delicious, and Kiva borrowers sure know how to cook
I arrived in Villa Altragracia in the early afternoon, and the branch manager immediately rushed me into the lunch room to eat the Dominican lunch they had ordered for me. It was a plate of rice, soupy beans that are called “habichuelas,” salad, and stewed beef – this is the national dish of the Dominican Republic and is called “La Bandera Dominicana,” or “the Dominican Flag.” The bandera dominicana comes in many variations – sometimes the beans are red and sometimes they are black; the meat can be beef, chicken or pork; and it is often accompanied as well by plantains. The meal I was served in Villa Altragracia was simple but really tasty.
After eating a satisfying lunch I followed a loan officer down the street to a Kiva borrower’s restaurant. It was only after finishing the interview and leaving that I found out that the ASPIRE branch office had ordered my lunch from there! I only wished I could have thanked her for the delicious meal.
3. Riding on the back of a motorcycle on a highway is terrifying, but loan officers do it daily
The second borrower I was scheduled to visit in Villa Altragracia was apparently not walking distance from the branch office. Since Villa Altragracia is a fairly small town, I agreed to get on the back of a loan officer’s motorcycle, so we set out motoring down the main road in search of Nailan.
I was very surprised when, 10 minutes later, I found myself merging onto Autopista Duarte, one of the main cross-country highways in the Dominican Republic. I clutched the waist of the extremely young-looking loan officer sitting in front of me who suddenly held my life in his hands. We stayed mostly on the shoulder, zooming by people selling snacks by the side of the road, and my heart leaped every time an enormous truck went by, going twice as fast as us.
20 minutes later I shakily stepped off of the motorcycle, and Nicolás, the loan officer, seemed surprised by how much the journey had scared me.
“I make this trip every day,” he said. “I used to have a car to do it, but the motorcycle is cheaper.” Gas prices are astronomical in the Dominican Republic – prices are currently at $5.25 per gallon! I had a renewed awe for the hard work that loan officers do to reach borrowers, even ones who are not very conveniently located.
4. Kiva Borrowers Span Many Economic Levels
My visits around the country were a great opportunity to see how normal Dominicans live – I visited their homes and businesses, met their families, and even shared meals with them. I was struck by how different each borrower’s life is – the pair of borrowers that I visited in the Santo Domingo neighborhood of Los Alcarrizos were the perfect example of these contrasts.
One borrower who left an impression on me was Papio. We found him spending the day at his parents’ home, a few kilometers down a dirt road outside of Los Alcarrizos, a working class neighborhood in Santo Domingo. He took out his loans to fund two of his businesses – a car and motorcycle repair shop, and a “colmado,” or corner store. He was spending the day overseeing construction on his parents’ land, where they raise chickens, bees and will soon rent out the new buildings they are currently working on. This was a man with multiple lucrative businesses – though perhaps the home was modest by US standards, he was clearly not struggling and in fact seemed to be flourishing, especially with the help of his Kiva loan! Though these borrowers are not what one normally thinks of when imagining a Kiva borrower, the money they borrow can go very far – Papio has multiple employees at his various businesses, all of whom depend on him doing well.
I spent an hour exploring the extensive acreage owned by Papio’s parents, as he pointed out different types of trees and plants that they grow – besides bees and chickens, they also produced mangos and avocados. I even got to share a meal with them.
Another borrower lived nearby, in the same municipality as Papio. To get to Elisabel, we bumped along down a dirt road filled with potholes, passing rundown shacks that housed whole families. The only day Elisabel was available to meet was Saturday, as she works the rest of the week as a maid in someone’s home – she finished paying off her loan a few months ago and unfortunately is not currently running her own business anymore.
Her home was very basic – a small wooden construction with a tin roof, and a tiny yard out front where a few chickens scratched in the dirt. The difference between Papio’s parents’ acres of land and well-furnished home and Elisabel’s shack where she, her husband and their three children lived was huge – it was hard to believe they lived just a few miles from each other. The difference in the quality of their lives was even more obvious.
Elisabel and Papio, though different, can both be helped by microfinance and the loans that ASPIRE and Kiva provide – though at very different levels. Elisabel’s loan was for $5000 pesos while Papio took out a $40,000 peso loan. The Dominican Republic has a lot of poverty, but as you can imagine, this poverty doesn’t always look the same, and it’s important to remember that Kiva borrowers don’t fit just one profile – they are as diverse in background as Kiva lenders!
Rose Larsen served with the 19th class of Kiva Fellows in Colombia and is now serving her second fellowship with KF20 in the Dominican Republic, with Kiva partner ASPIRE. Lend to one of ASPIRE’s borrowers today, or apply to be a Kiva Fellow!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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?
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.
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!
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
Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
and Medellin, Colombia.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 team, lend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow!
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.
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.
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.
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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).
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.
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.
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.
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!