Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia
It is fair to say that every Kiva Fellow is excited about “going out into the field.” Meeting the local entrepreneurs who are using microfinance to grow their tiny businesses is the primary reason many of us gave up jobs, apartments, and lives in our home countries to volunteer our time abroad for 4 months.
What we are looking for is a personal connection, the ability to put a face to the erudite name of microfinance. We are dying to hear firsthand how, through Kiva, someone has been given new opportunities, and has used these to improve their life. A more extreme version, perhaps, of that desire for connection that drives so many people to lend through Kiva each day.
After months of hearing moving stories about meetings between Kiva Fellows and Kiva borrowers, I was surprised to hear that the majority of my first day out in the field here in Colombia would be devoted to something called “promociones.”
As you may be able to guess, “promociones” means “advertising” or “sales.” Instead of getting to meet a borrower whose Kiva loan has changed their life, I would be basically participating in door-to-door sales.
My host, Kiva partner Fundación Mario Santo Domingo, is a highly structured organization with more than 50 years of experience working in development in Barranquilla, and 28 years of experience working in the microfinance sector. They employ about 20 loan officers in their Barranquilla office (and more in the Cartagena and Bogota branches), each of whom are assigned a particular neighborhood or nearby town. About once a week, a team of 4 loan officers will go to one region of the city to do promociones.
A huge part of the loan officer’s job, it turns out, is sales. Mario, one of the loan officers I followed around, told me that while they have specially scheduled times that they do promociones, loan officers for FMSD are essentially always selling their product. Indeed, later that day, as I followed José, another loan officer, around a colorful neighborhood in Barranquilla, we visited not only current FMSD borrowers but also their neighbors; people with similar businesses who he thought might also be interested in a loan.
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So how exactly does FMSD go about promoting their loan products?
We started out by splitting up into teams and walking around the neighborhood, stopping by every business to talk to them about FMSD’s loans. These businesses varied wildly – some were well-established spots like internet cafes; others seemed more ephemeral – juice stands by the side of the road, a tiny stationary store run out of a living room.
The responses to the loan officer’s pitch varied too. Some people barely looked at him when he spoke, clearly uninterested in receiving a loan. Others seemed more curious, asking questions about interest rates and requirements. A few businesses were already borrowing from other banks, though at higher interest rates than those offered by FMSD.
After about an hour of walking around, we had gotten two people to fill out forms to begin the process of applying for a loan, but a few more seemed vaguely interested, and I knew the loan officer would follow up with them in a few days to see if they had thought it over some more.
Next, it was time for a break – inside of FMSD’s nifty mobile office:
Doesn’t look so impressive? This truck has Transformer-like powers, morphing into a mobile office that fights not Decepticons but poverty!
There we sat, parked on a main street in the working class neighborhood of Magdalena, waiting for curious local business owners to wander up. FMSD knows that not all borrowers can make it in to the center of the city to visit the FMSD offices, so they’ve figured out a way to bring the office out to the borrowers.
Fun fact: the mobile office doubles as a traveling loudspeaker, driving through the neighborhoods blasting motivational phrases like “Permítenos apoyarte” (“let us support you”) and urging listeners to call FMSD or visit the office to take out a loan.
While I knew that I would have plenty of chances to meet current, rather than prospective, borrowers, I realized that I had never even thought about how one of Kiva’s partners actually finds people to give loans to. Somehow, the idea that there are so many people out there lacking access to financial services negated in my mind the necessity of sales.
As I followed Mario, José and the others around the neighborhood, and saw the eagerness with which people filled out the forms for a loan, I realized that promociones was an essential part of FMSD’s microfinance model, not only for ensuring the foundation’s own survival, but also to continue fighting for their mission, to improve the quality of life of ALL Colombians.
Microfinance is all about leveling the playing field – providing financial access, something we in the developed world often take for granted, to those who previously never had the opportunity to borrow money or use a credit card.
So it makes sense that an MFI would spend time and resources making sure that its product really is available to everyone who might want it, whether they are a well-established business with multiple employees or a roadside stand set up by those desperate to provide for their families in whatever way they can.
Hopefully in a few months, I will be able to see some familiar faces from that day of promociones up on Kiva, asking for help on their very first loan with Fundacion Mario Santo Domingo.
Rose Larsen is a member of the 19th class of Kiva Fellows, serving in Barranquilla, Colombia with Fundación Mario Santo Domingo. Become a member of FMSD’s lending team, lend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow!