Trekking to La Danta
Two weeks ago I headed out for the last of my borrower verifications with EDESA, the microfinance institution where I’ve been working. All week long I anticipated my trip to Golfito, which is way down in southern Costa Rica, in the Puntarenas province. I asked my colleagues about our portfolio there and peppered them with questions like: ‘Have you ever been to Golfito? How far is it from the Panamanian border? I heard it’s raining hard in Golfito now, do you think it will clear up by the time we go?’
It wasn’t until we were an hour into our car ride that I started talking about Golfito again, and my one colleague informed me we weren’t going to Golfito. It turned out we were going to a small mountain community called La Danta instead.
This has been the story of my life here in Costa Rica: While slowly getting accustomed to hearing Spanish around me all the time, I’ve often been left clueless as to what is going on. It’s gotten a lot better since day one at EDESA, but there are still hits and misses. I don’t know how my colleagues didn’t pick up on my inquisition on Golfito, though.
At any rate, I was just happy to be in the backseat of a car and NOT on a bus as we flew over the winding mountain roads. (Mountain roads are part of my fate here in Costa Rica.) Not even a 4:20am wake-up could dampen on my spirits, although the Gravol did help. My colleagues told me it would be a long drive, 6 hours each way, a feat they wanted to accomplish in a single day.
As we gained altitude along the highway, we passed through an area called Cerro de la Muerte, where the temperature dropped to what felt like 5oC. We stopped and ate a hot breakfast, which I welcomed as I shivered to keep warm. One does not think to pack warmer clothes when traveling from Canada to Costa Rica. As I sat down in the open dining area (no protection from the chilly outside air there!), I glanced up and caught the whole restaurant gaping at me. I guessed it had been a while since this tiny hamlet had witnessed an Asian person!
The rocky roads to Concepción
We continued on our long journey, and as we got closer to Concepción de Pilas (where our partner in La Danta was located), the roads became a lot rougher. Our little Toyota crossover bravely crawled over large stones along some parts; along others, the roads were composed of red dirt and you could see how tropical rains could easily wash away sections of it. My colleague jokingly told me I’d better get my visits done quickly before the weather changed: We could see big clouds threatening the clear blue skies.
It turned out that the four borrowers on our list were far more scattered around this mountain farming community than we had hoped. Judging by the fact that one six-kilometre stretch took us 45 minutes to cross, we would not be getting back to San José as early as we had hoped.
‘Can’t we just swap some of the borrowers for people living closer by?’ my colleague asked, only half-joking. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option; the borrowers have to be randomly selected by Kiva, or it would defeat the purpose of an objective verification.
How does your garden grow?
We set off with our host, Gilbert, to meet the borrowers, our feet going squish, squish as we walked along a muddy trail. Two of them live in a quiet, beautiful little valley which may be converted into the largest dam project in all of Central America someday soon. If the project goes through, the entire community would be relocated to another area.
Finally we got to where Robert and Neojalí were working. Around us were fields of corn, ñampí (or eddoes, which are a close relative of taro), and ginger. Robert pointed out a papaya tree to me, where I could see the fruit in its early stages of growth.
Aside from corn, I’d never before seen how these things grew, and it was pretty awesome. I was especially excited to watch Neojalí pull up bunches of ginger from the ground, as I love cooking with ginger. Seeing taro was cool too, since taro is my favourite bubble tea flavour. I found out that while farmers sell taro for about 120 colones/kg (about $0.24), people buy it in the supermarket for 4,000 colones/kg ($8). Seems like they could use an app like the one my fellow Kiva Fellow Christina told me about, which lets farmers know the market price for their products.
As Gilbert, Robert, and Neojalí dug up some vegetables for us to take home, we heard an airplane flying in the distance. Robert paused in his work to gaze up at it. ‘It’s so beautiful,’ he murmured. That moment really struck me. Here we were, three people from San José coming to appreciate the simple ways of farm life, and here was a farmer, captivated by modern technology. The contrast between our lives was stark, and yet here we were, all together and somehow connected.
Later, we enjoyed oranges that we plucked from an orange tree at Robert’s house. Neojalí accompanied us back to Concepción and showed us where the corn was processed, housing 8,000 bags of corn from this year’s harvest. As for their other produce, Neojalí, Robert, and some other members of the community have a business called Frutas y Raíces Tropicales Costa Rica, in which they export their products to places like the US. I asked him to send some of their delicious produce up to Canada while they were at it.
Sharing an important message
The long day was made even longer with the road conditions. But rough roads in places like La Danta are not only problematic for Kiva Fellows with weak stomachs. They would also represent a real challenge if a borrower had a loan with a regular bank. Imagine if it took you several hours to get to that bank in the nearest town. To pay off your debt, you would have to make the long trek at regular intervals, perhaps on a monthly basis. There are no other options; you can’t make your payments online and there certainly isn’t a local ATM you could pop into.
For any entrepreneur, the opportunity cost would be high: It would mean hours of lost labour. Farmers would have to take time away from their crops. That’s where microcredit can be incredibly beneficial, providing ease of access for borrowers. Driving six kilometres to Concepción, even if it takes you 45 minutes, is still much better than the alternative of driving to the nearest town.
Microcredit also often provides greater flexibility for borrowers. Depending on the terms set out in the loan agreement, some entrepreneurs—particularly farmers—may not have to start paying back until they harvested their crops, for example in a year’s time if you’re a pineapple farmer. If agriculture is your livelihood, this makes perfect sense. Microcredit, at its core, is about understanding the needs of borrowers.
These are some of the things we chatted about throughout the day, and with Neojalí as we lunched on a comida típica in Concepción. Overall, it was a really fun day, and it was great to come home with an armload of fresh produce. I gave my share of the loot to Manuel, the gentleman who owns the house where I live, and my good karma was rewarded.
The best part of the trip, however, came right at the end of the day as we were getting ready to leave La Danta. As we said our goodbyes, Neojalí looked right at me and said:
‘Tell Kiva lenders we say thank you. Thank you for giving people in our community the opportunity to earn an income. Because it’s not for lack of hard work or motivation that they are in their current situations; it’s for lack of opportunity. Kiva’s loans mean a great deal to us.’
To me, that pretty much sums up what microfinance is all about, and that one word, opportunity, captures the very essence of it.