By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan
My fellowship in Kyrgyzstan has come to an end and now I’m writing this in London before starting as one of pair of Kiva Fellows in Colombia: a first for Kiva. During training, I heard on the Kiva rumour mill that Kiva would be starting in Colombia a few months after training and thought it would be an amazing placement. Three months later with flights booked for Colombia in the New Year, I can feel the excitement building up as years of Colombia Dreaming finally come true.
Even though Kyrgyzstan is not a country I chose and Central Asia is not a region I chose, I’m already missing the marshrutkas (minibuses) and mountain views of Bishkek. The reason I ended up in Kyrgyzstan is because I speak Russian; Kiva looks for “Language proficiency in […] Russian” and speaking Russian is a sure-fire way to be offered a Russian-speaking placement. I decided that the post-Soviet stories would be fodder for dinner parties for years and that I’d have a large selection of Central Asian hats. Rather than the detachment of funny stories and the materialism of hats (although I have both), I have come to love the region. And if you can love Central Asia in the winter without yurt stays, much horse-riding or hiking and no beach life on Issyk-Kul, it must be true love.
Over the past three months, I’ve learnt a lot. Life as a Kiva Fellow can sometimes be hard; challenging, but hard. I feel I’ll truly start to appreciate what I learnt in Kyrgyzstan months and years down the road, but for the time being a few things stick in my mind. From the beginning, I quickly learnt that I was dealing with real people who are already busy with their real jobs and that turning up as a foreigner with my own set of needs and demands would take some getting used to
I was also surprised that my MFI is a company, not an NGO. The first impression of many outside the industry is that microfinance is charitable work and, therefore, the organization that should do that is an NGO. In reality, a large number of the partners on Kiva are companies, like Mol Bulak Finance, that is, they are for-profit institutions. Although it might seem counter-intuitive at first, the challenges of microfinance institutions both for-profit and not-for-profit are quite similar: sustainability. Microfinance is a high-cost, low-margin business and this is something I saw again and again, whether it was during the initial loan approval process or while visiting borrowers to collect journals. It was the remoteness of the rural areas and the time it takes to reach them in a second-hand import car that keeps the costs high. On the one side, MFI staff might be travelling for hours to visit borrowers spending their time, the driver’s time and money on petrol; on the other, the large number of NGOs in Kyrgyzstan (I heard a ballpark figure of around 300, which is huge for a country of only 5 million people) means that the room for movement in terms of interest costs is small as borrowers will go elsewhere. In this context, it’s interesting that one of the current trends in the microfinance industry is to look at social responsibility: this is a way of measuring how effective MFIs really are at alleviating poverty which is, of course, the philosophy behind microfinance in the first place. Social responsibility isn’t that new to me, as there were outstanding corporate citizenship programmes at my previous investment bank employer. Even in that context, social responsibility was something extra and my role was to monitor the risk levels of our clients. Conversely, in the MFI context, social responsibility has the potential to be a game changer and to significantly change an MFI’s core business. It was refreshing to feel it tangibly on a daily basis.
Of course, it’s a personal desire to be socially responsible that brings a lot of fellows to Kiva. The times, when I felt how worthwhile the goals of microfinance are, were when we visited two incredible women in Kemin, running similar “businesses” which summed up why development is so important and whose lives seemed to reflect the hopes and dreams that brought every Kiva lender to the website in the first place. Tatiana, who I’ve written about in a previous blog, runs a shelter for the elderly and took out a loan to buy a cow to support her shelter. A few kilometres down the road, Gulnara also took out a loan to buy cows and sheep and runs a children’s home for ‘social orphans’, children whose parents don’t have the resources to look after their children properly or may be victims of alcoholism. Coming from the West, it’s a stretch to think of social homes like this as businesses and to imagine them being run by such enterprising women, but in the context of rural Kyrgyzstan, entrepreneurialism and little bit of luck are what puts bread on the table. And one of my last days in Kyrgyzstan was spent visiting Tatiana again whose cow she bought with the loan had just had twins. There was something that felt like justice had been done.
One of the other things I’ll remember my time in Kyrgyzstan for is the drive out of Bishkek across Chuy oblast, the province around Bishkek. Bishkek sits at a T-junction of roads, with an east-west road is joined by a road to the north that heads quickly into Kazakhstan. Whenever we drove to branch offices or to visit borrowers, we travelled along this east-west road often to the sounds of Kyrgyz or Russian radio stations. Along with a selection of European house music, American hip hop and pop from Romania and Russia, the song Gudbay Lyubov by Yulia Savicheva sums up my time in Kyrgyzstan with its chorus lyric of “Гудбай, любовь, здравствуй новая я” (Goodbye my love, hello new me). The singer’s a woman so it would have to be different said by me, but the lyric feels more than appropriate. I have loved my time in Kyrgyzstan and am incredibly excited for my next placement in Colombia.
Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow has now finished working with Mol Bulak Finance in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Join the Kyrgyzstan lending team. There are borrowers from Kyrgyzstan with Mol Bulak Finance who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site./>