By Jason Jones, KF15, Nicaragua
It’s Wednesday, the third day of my Kiva Fellowship here in Nicaragua. After a short ride on a motorcycle, a relatively long walk, two different vans (OK…so the first one MAY have been due to an error on my part) and one taxi, I’ve finally arrived to a small meeting area outside the town of Masaya. As I enter the gathering, I find approximately twenty women sitting around a U-shaped arrangement of tables. They are the “entrepreneurs”, the owners of small businesses that have come today for a training session on the topic of Business Development. Unlike me, they seem to have arrived in a relatively timely manner despite the morning rain. Fortunately, they don’t judge too harshly.
To understand why we are here today, I should probably begin with a brief explanation. With an overall mission of connecting people through lending to alleviate poverty, Kiva partners with 133 microfinance institutions in 60 countries throughout the world. After making a loan through the Kiva website, these funds make their way from the lender (you?)……to Kiva……to a local MFI…….to individuals such as those sitting in front me on this rainy morning in Central America. By receiving such loans, these women are given the opportunity to grow, improve, or enhance their businesses for the economic benefit of themselves and their families.
As for the reason behind MY particular presence, that’s a slightly different story. Through Kiva’s Fellowship Program, individuals such as me are sent to the various field partners (MFIs such as ADIM) in one of those 60 countries I mentioned before. I would describe the actual work of the fellows as a combination of such roles as accountant, journalist, photographer/videographer, customer service liaison, globetrotter, business consultant, and auditor. It involves such objectives as being Kiva’s “eyes and ears in the field” and “increasing the impact of Kiva’s global mission”, but in the end really just comes down to creating or maintaining a connection between those four distinct groups in the Kiva model; lenders, Kiva, MFIs, and borrowers. Two weeks ago, while participating in a training session at Kiva’s central office in San Francisco, I was wondering why I hadn’t dressed more appropriately for the cold weather. Today, I find myself sweating in the tropics.
As I am continually learning as a relative newcomer to the world of microfinance, NOT ALL MICROFINANCE INSTITUTIONS ARE CREATED EQUAL. Of course, when evaluating a particular organization, one always wants to consider such obvious factors as geographic location, size, history, portfolio yield, return on assets, operational sustainability, and that ever-present struggle between the red and black numbers at the bottom of the page. But in a world of mission statements often describing a particular institution’s reason for existence with such phrases as “improving quality of life to specific sectors”, “helping the poor to improve their livelihood”, and “offer financial services to marginalized communities”, the often overlooked SOCIAL PERFORMANCE of an organization remains a vital component of an accurate assessment.
ADIM is a microfinance institution dedicated to entrepreneurial development, especially of female entrepreneurs in peripheral urban and rural areas, to help them move towards transcendence, personal affirmation and evolution into more equitable relationships.
This is the mission statement of ADIM, a small microfinance institution located in Nicaragua. ADIM has been operating in the area for 22 years now and believes strongly that although financial assistance is certainly an important piece, it’s not the entire puzzle. For this reason, they offer their clients (90% of which are women) classes on such topics as identity and self esteem, economic independence, basic accounting, and a variety of themes involving success in the marketplace. Today as I make my entrance, they are giving testimonials with regard to how previous sessions have positively impacted their lives and businesses. After listening for several minutes and giving an impromptu introduction, I ask if anyone in the group has been the recipient of a Kiva loan. One has to remember that although a number of ADIM’s clients do receive loans through Kiva, there are also those that do not. After a moment or two of puzzled looks from the majority of those present, four hands eventually go up. Today, amongst this group of twenty borrowers, it looks as though Kiva has been responsible for 20% of the loans. From there, the stories begin.
Maura is a 39 year old florist who has come today with her teenage daughter. 15 years ago, in an attempt to learn the trade, she began working in local flower shops around Managua. Since no one was willing to pay her for her work at that time, she simply acted as free labor until she gained enough knowledge to be on her own. Although her business remains very small to date, she tells me that it has grown considerably from what it was in the beginning. With her recent loan through Kiva, she’s excited for the opportunity to boost her inventory in preparation for what is perhaps the largest day for the floral industry here in Nicaragua, namely Mother’s Day.
Another one of today’s attendees is 23 year old Gloria, who began working with leather several years ago. What began with an initial focus on shoes quickly grew to include purses, wallets, belts, hats, briefcases, etc. In 2010 she, along with two other members of her borrower-group, received an $800 loan from Kiva. With the subsequent improvements to her business and her increased knowledge through ADIM’s training program, Gloria went on to qualify for an additional $1500 in the form of an international grant. Now with a new workshop to call her own and further recognition that has come recently in the local media, she claims that business is better than ever.
I could certainly go on. Adelfa mentions that her Kiva loan has allowed her to purchase beauty products of much higher quality to sell in her small store. As a result, her profit margin has increased significantly. Through a separate Kiva loan, Mayra has been able to raise her inventory as well. In her business of “intimate apparel”, she too reports that sales are up and talks of potential loans in the future.
And so the day continues. We complete the testimonials, several educative sessions, lunch, and a demonstration of products by a number of the entrepreneurs. Before the inevitable departure, the group is given one final surprise in the form of being serenaded with several songs from Mayra, all in honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day. As I make my way back to Managua, I see that the rain has stopped, and I experience a small victory of my own by successfully boarding the right bus in the right direction. While traveling in the northern direction, I can’t help but reflect upon the day. I think it’s fair to say that the borrowers represented by today’s cross section would not be considered to be OVERTLY successful by much of the world’s standard. For the most part, they are simply owners of very small businesses trying to make it from one month to the next. Is microfinance the answers to ALL of their problems? Of course not. Is immediate radical transformation experienced following a simple training seminar? Most likely, no. But from what I’ve witnessed over the last 8 hours, I have to say that this group is certainly heading in the right direction. At some point and in some form, a positive difference is being made along the way. And for that, I also have to say that despite the afternoon showers, it’s been a pretty nice day.
Now…..which one is my stop??