Spring has arrived in Mongolia! That means warmer weather (afternoons creeping closer and closer to the double digits)… and, of course, baby animals!
I had the opportunity to travel to Selenge aimag (province) last week with XacBank, one of Kiva’s partners in Mongolia. Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator at XacBank, and I had a jam-packed schedule: Do borrower verifications, check client waivers, conduct loan officer training sessions, capture videos, and present certificates to top borrowers. And after two short days, I was proud to say: Mission accomplished!
After being delayed by the heavy traffic in the capital, we finally left Ulaanbaatar (UB) close to 11am. Sukhbaatar, the capital of Selenge, is about 300km from UB, and it’s just a stone’s throw from the Russian border. The mostly straight road that took us there meanders along wide plains, with mountains looming on either side.
Though the timid round signs along the road try to impose a speed limit of 50km/h, we easily tripled that speed for most of the ride, and at one point our driver, Turaa, maxxed out at 180. While he’s a very experienced driver, the back seats in cars here don’t tend to have seatbelts… so I must say I was quite relieved when we arrived at our destination in one piece.
The branch in Selenge was bustling with activity when we arrived. After checking loan documents there, Turaa took us 20km out of the town centre to Tsetsee’s farm, where she had built a barn for her animals using her Kiva loan. Tsetsee is a trained veterinarian, so caring for animals is second nature to her. While she still works part-time as a vet to administer vaccines to animals in her community, this entrepreneurial woman had bought a variety of animals in order to start selling organic dairy and meat products. At last count, she had 30 cows, 5 horses, 230 sheep, and 280 goats.
We couldn’t have had better timing. Her livestock had produced 200 offspring this year. Some had been born two weeks prior, while others were just two days old! The older offspring were keeping warm in the newly built barn, while the littlest ones had their own ger for a nursery. When we arrived, Tsetsee let them all out, and joy and chaos ensued.
We finally dragged ourselves away from all the adorable-ness. Tsetsee welcomed us into her lovely farmhouse for a chat, where she expressed a deep gratitude for her Kiva loan. I was fascinated to learn that all meat and dairy produced in this country (as well as fruit and vegetables) is organic. (While Mongolia’s agricultural climate does not support extensive fruit and vegetable production, it is favourable to the growth of sea buckthorn, of which the country is a large producer).
Another interesting thing I’ve learned is the Mongolian approach to slaughtering animals—particularly when it comes to smaller scale production. For smaller animals such as sheep and goats, an incision is made in the animal’s torso (which causes it relatively little pain). The slaughterer reaches in and gently snaps the spinal artery, and the animal loses consciousness. It’s considered to be a more humane practice than other approaches.
(This may seem strange to foreigners, but then again, most consumers in the West are so far removed from the farms where our food comes from that most of us never really think about how meat ends up on our plates. And these days, it seems, the truth about farming practices in the West are being kept even more tightly under wraps.)
Back at the branch office, with the work day officially over, we found the loan officers still hard at work. But there was Kiva training to be done! One of the main tasks of a Kiva Fellow is to provide support to our field partners and to help them implement Kiva’s policies and procedures effectively. That includes training loan officers on what Kiva is all about. While loan officers disburse Kiva loans on a daily basis, most of them have had little more than a crash course on Kiva from someone at their institution. As Kiva Fellows, we provide them with a better understanding of what we do—especially in a wider, global context.
Loan officers play an important role in the disbursement of Kiva loans. Together with the Kiva Coordinators, they are the ones who take the photos and write the stories of the borrowers which lenders browse on Kiva’s website. In order to motivate them to create the best borrower profiles they can, I always remind them that they are competing for funds—not only with borrowers at Kiva’s other Mongolian partners, but also with borrowers from all of Kiva’s 192 partners around the world.
These training sessions are quite useful for loan officers as they really get them thinking, often provoking interesting and thoughtful questions. The sessions we ran in Selenge were no exception. Another benefit is that they make the loan officers’ work more meaningful to them, as they understand more clearly how they fit in to the Kiva picture.
The next day, we set out to meet Shurbat, another Kiva borrower. Shurbat is a cobbler and a veteran in the business—she’s been offering her services in Gurvan Mergid market since 1973! She told us she was really thankful for her Kiva loan, which had allowed her to purchase an inventory of soles. Her plan is to start producing winter boots and summer shoes for children.
Due to illness, our visit with Shurbat was limited (we weren’t able to see her shop), but she graciously offered us her time and her attention. After chatting with her about her loan, we asked to take her photo, and she and her daughter made a small fuss over her appearance to make sure she looked her very best. She even put on her bright pink hat just for the occasion!
Back at the branch office again, we did a spot check on client waiver forms—which Kiva clients must sign if they agree to let Kiva post their information on our website—and also handed out some certificates of appreciation to a few borrowers. In order to encourage its Kiva clients to save, XacBank has an incentive program for those borrowers who pay back their loans on time. It deposits 9% of the interest they’ve paid on their loans back into a savings account for them. After all, savings are an important aspect of a household’s financial health.
Finally, it was time for a lunch break, so one of the loan officers took Batzul, Turaa and I out to a nearby restaurant. There, we enjoyed some fresh khuushuur and other Mongolian foods. Afterwards, he took us for a stroll so we could check out the local market. It was every bit as interesting and colourful as the pictures show…
It was wonderful to experience a part of Mongolia that I might otherwise never have visited. It’s definitely one of the perks of being a Kiva Fellow. After a busy two days, and our confidence fully placed in Turaa’s hands, Batzul and I let the peaceful scenery of the countryside lull us to sleep as we headed home.