Posts tagged ‘KF19 (Kiva Fellows 19th Class)’

Young Kenyan Entrepreneurs at the Forefront of Tech Innovation

        Young Kenyans are harnessing their country’s growing tech prowess to go into business for themselves.  For example, Jamila Abbas and Susan Oguya, created a mobile application called M-Farm. The application allows Kenyan farmers to access real time market information, buy farm inputs from manufacturers and find buyers for their produce, all through SMS.  Lorna Rutto started EcoPost, a company that turns plastic waste into durable fencing posts, an environmentally friendly alternative to timber.  At Strathmore University, Kenya’s leading institution for business and accounting, many students are interested in pursuing traditional career tracks like joining the ranks of major financial firms, but quite a few are just as eager to start their own enterprises like Jamila, Susan and Lorna.  On a recent afternoon on campus, I sat down with Asha Mweru to discuss Chochote, an e-commerce platform that she launched with her classmates Ivy Wairimu and Victor Karanja.  Chochote, which is the Swahili word for “anything,” started as a simple classroom assignment.

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The Chochote Team: Asha Mweru, Ivy Wairimu and Victor Karanja
(Photo Credit: Katrina Shakarian)

        The team of 4th year Strathmore students sought to connect buyers and sellers on a platform based on excellent customer service, discounted prices and home delivery.  Currently, it targets consumers between the ages of 18 and 48.  Chochote’s tagline is “not just anything.” It’s transitioning from offering a wide range of products like electronics, cosmetics and clothing to a narrower, more particular supply of unique crafts, jewelry and fashion items, similar to Etsy. Ivy explained that, “Kenyans are very specific [about] what they are buying.  So, we [investigated and] found out what the specifics are,” then decided to re-brand.

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        The project has received support from the IDEA Foundation and ilab Africa’s business incubation center at Strathmore.  Currently, they get between 600 and 900 hits a day and hope to reach the likes of popular Kenyan e-commerce sites like Uzanunua and Online Shopping. Their foreseeable goals include increasing their suppliers, expanding to reach consumers across the region and establishing a Chochote mobile application.  After all, Kenyans are just beginning to warm up to the idea of online shopping. “Since everything is going virtual, why should Kenya only shop at Amazon? Why shouldn’t we have our own thing here? Kenyans between the age of 18 and 48 have accepted that the internet is here, it’s here and sure to be used. They’re accepting it, so let’s grow with them,” said Asha.

        Nonetheless, online shopping is a very new concept here.  “Kenyans are still quite skeptical towards e-commerce and this is a challenge we’ve had to take head-on,” said Asha.  Other challenges faced by the team include accessing seed capital, establishing relationships with reliable suppliers and remaining abreast of clients’ changing preferences. On a macro level, the team points to the current state of Kenyan primary and secondary education as a hurdle to overcome too.  In conversations with Kenyans, I’ve personally heard that there’s more of an emphasis on memorization than critical thinking.  According to Victor, “Someone once said that our education system is meant to produce employees not employers.  Notable, however, is the number of Kenyan entrepreneurs that circumvent these challenges therefore making it easier for the rest of us.”

        Despite these challenges, the Chochote team would not have it any other way.  “Honestly, I’ve never liked the idea of being micro-managed, and solving a problem and actually seeing the solution being implemented gives me a thrill,” said Victor. The team explained that the most exciting part of entrepreneurship is the ability to create employment opportunities rather than compete for limited slots that are already there. Ivy’s dream is not only to see Chochote become profitable, but to ensure that it expands enough to generates jobs. “Through our work with Chochote, [we’d like to] build a successful e-commerce model that can be replicated within Kenya and Africa at large.”

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The Chochote team at Strathmore University Business School
(Photo Credit: Katrina Shakarian)

        Perhaps, the team’s experience will have them avoiding 9-5’s forever.  They’re part of a new generation of Africans who are inspired by the likes of Muhamed Yunus, public intellectual Dambisa Moyo and the founder and CEO of Open Quest Media, June Arunga, among others.  Both women were chosen by Forbes Magazine to be among the 20 Youngest and Most Powerful Women in Africa.  In addition to the rise of visible role models that they can relate to on the global stage, their immediate environment is more conducive to innovation than ever.  In Kenya, sky’s the limit.

5 April 2013 at 09:57 1 comment

Following a Kiva loan from Calgary to Dar es Salaam!

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania

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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

Kiva One: Faces that Impacted the Lives of Kiva Fellows

By Kiva Fellows | KF19 | All Over the World

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

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

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

(more…)

31 January 2013 at 08:00

Twelve Days of Christmas from Kiva Fellows

By Kiva Fellows | KF19 | All Over the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here are three beers from three Colorado breweries, enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maayong Pasco! (Bisayan for Merry Christmas!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS

FROM THE KIVA FELLOWS!

20 December 2012 at 08:00

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

How the Arab Spring Has Affected Microfinance in the Middle East

” After weeks of headline news about the Arab Spring, we seem to have forgotten the man who started it all: Mohamed Bouazizi, the  [26 year old] Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire after police confiscated his small cart.  It was Mr. Bouazizi, a microentrepreneur, who sparked this revolution in a single act of protest against the same harsh economic realities shared by the majority of citizens across the Arab world.” ~ Elissa McCarter, Vice President of Development Finance, CHF International

Juice vendor in Downtown Amman, Jordan

Juice vendor in Downtown Amman, Jordan

(more…)

10 December 2012 at 06:00

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