Part of my work as a Kiva Fellow is to visit a random set of borrowers from my field partner, Ameen s.a.l, as part of Kiva’s Borrower Verification process. In short, I am helping Kiva to perform a mini-audit to help fulfill Kiva’s commitment to transparency and client protection. This verification process is performed at least once a year at all of Kiva’s field partners. I will complete the same process for Kiva’s other Lebanon partner, Al Majmoua, in a few weeks. Now I never envied an auditor’s work, but I have to say that I appreciate Kiva’s inclusion of this deliverable as it enables me to visit borrowers all over Lebanon, such as my last visit to a few small towns in the North, just a few kilometers from the Syrian border.
After passing an always expected car wreck on the main highway, twenty billboards for McDonalds latest burger special, and tacky posters for the newest music album of the very popular and scantily clad Lebanese singer, Haifa Wahby, the two hour drive to this tiny border town seemed to pass by quickly with views of the Mediterranean on one side and the green hills dotted with villas and apartment buildings on the other. We enjoyed a bumpy ride down a rocky dirt road to arrive at our destination—the home of Ameen borrower, Houssam. I was intrigued by Houssam’s small village town which boasts more tractors than cars and has more murals of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, than of any Lebanese political leader. Also surprising is that this quiet village is home to over 90 Ameen clients and that the Ameen loan officer has established a powerful relationship with these mostly Muslim clients even though he is a Christian.
Not unlike his photo on Kiva, the live version of Houssam exudes a warm and kind energy. Houssam is an experienced farmer who specializes mostly in tomatoes. With his Kiva loan of $1200, he has invested in a large plastic cover to protect his tomato plants from Lebanon’s often uncertain weather. This cover is one of four that he has; each one costs about $1500 including the iron rods to hold it in place and the water irrigation system that is used inside. Houssam is able to grow a large enough quantity of tomatoes to sell to local wholesalers. He told us that Lebanon’s changing climate has affected his production and that the past season was relatively slow. The other Kiva agricultural borrowers we visited in nearby towns articulated the same frustration at the unfavorable weather conditions. But, when times are good, profits are high—Houssam estimates about $10,000 profit for his tomato crop in a strong season.
Not only was I impressed by the sophisticated set up of the farm, but I was thoroughly amused by Houssam’s lively father who also came to speak with us. I would guess that his father is no less than 80 years old, yet his enthusiastic spirit and relentless joking are more similar to that of Lebanon’s “shabab” (young people). Apparently the joke was on me when this energetic old man told us that he was upset with his wife (Houssam’s mother) because she only delivered 18 children, but he had wanted 24…..he was serious! I did not have the good fortune to see this incredible woman who spent most of her adult life giving birth, but I can only imagine what a force she is. When I asked Houssam’s father how many people were living in the large family home adjacent to the farm, he could not tell me an exact figure but estimated between 20-30 people. I could not help but laugh when Houssam told me that his wife had taken the house keys with her to Syria where she completes most of her daily shopping, and so he was locked out of the house. I was not sure of who would think to enter this house located in the middle of a farm in this tiny village, nor did I understand where the other supposed 20-30 household members had gone and why none of them had a spare key!
Just a few minutes down the road, we also visited Youssef, an established strawberry farmer. Youssef distributes his sizeable strawberry crop to a range of wholesalers; one of his biggest customers is “Al Hallab”, one of Lebanon’s most famous sweet shops. Similar to Houssam, he also used his Kiva loan to buy a protective nylon cover for his crops. This cover allows him to maintain a healthy crop for 10 months out of the year. Youssef estimates his profits for his strawberry crop alone to be $3,500 per season, and his annual profit from all of his crops to be about $14,000 per year. Although Youssef is clearly passionate about his work, he expressed his dreams for his children to study and pursue non-agricultural careers as he noted the manual work is extremely tiring and less stable. In the future, he is looking to add cucumbers and a special type of tomato that grows in the winter to his repertoire.
With the sun shining down, the smell of fresh flowers and vegetables that you can only find on a farm, spontaneous gusts of wind blowing through, and meeting several of Ameen’s agricultural clients, like Houssam and Youssef, it truly was a lovely and inspiring day. Thanks to Kiva I had a rare opportunity to see the more glamorous (with the exception of a little mud on my shoes) side of auditing in the tranquil border towns of Northern Lebanon.
Nishita Roy is a Kiva Fellow (Class 10) serving in Lebanon. Get involved with Kiva’s Lebanon partners, Ameen s.a.l. and Al Majmoua, today! Make an impact by lending to a Middle East entrepreneur today!