La Paz, Bolivia
Its been a dynamic 2 days, filled with meetings, client visits, presentations and lots of delicious mate de coca. Heres the update:
I sleep past my alarm and awake to the sounds of husting taxis sounding their horns outside my hotel window. Jumping up I throw on my dress suit and snag a cab downtown. Destination: FADES’ headquarter office. The largest MFI in Bolivia, FADES serves over 21,000 rural borrowers through individual lending at 84 agencies scattered throughout the country. Stepping into the office, it certainly does feel like a production. 2 floors, lots of people who look busy at their desks, typing away, looking through books. The receptionist directs me upstairs to Fernando Mompo’s office. The Executive Director and visionary behind FADES, Fernando greets me warmly, and we take a seat in his spacious office and are served coca tea, starting off with the usual small talk. How’s the altitude treating you? First time in Bolivia? The atmosphere feels formal, a stark change from my previous day in the field up in El Alto. But thats why I love this work~ each day a new deck of cards!
Hangin with a Kiva borrower
We start to gab and I immediately feel more at ease. I learn all about their work, origins, reach, credit policies, MIS systems. Its supremely interesting, and at the end of 2 hours I have to apologize for asking so many questions! Aldo Terrazas, my first contact at FADES, joins us and we gab together for moment, catching up from our phone call a few weeks back. The conversation then turns to Kiva and I’m on point. Sales time! I go through our presentation and field the questions that by now I’ve some to expect. Some on interest rates, others on client selection. All in all the meeting goes well, and we close by making plans for field visits on my way up to Peru on Sunday. Its a win-win for me, I get to meet their borrowers in the field, and I get a lift to the border. Score! Plus, they’re delighted by Kiva and want to start immediately…time to talk to the Kiva team:)
Learning how to sew with a Kiva borrower
We bid farewell and I hit the streets of La Paz. Killing a few hours I get hopelessly lost in the cobblestone alleyways, and as it nears 3 o’clock I surrender and hop a cab back to city center, and then over to ProMujer. Third visit to the offices and its starting to feel like home. I meet Daniel, their new “Kiva hire” who will be responsible for traveling around to their field offices and collecting stories to upload to Kiva. Talk about a cool job. I show him the site, train him on the intricacies of our model, and then we’re good to go. We can expect businesses as early as next week, I’m assured. 1 small step for Kiva, but one big step for Bolivian microfinance
So then its Thursday.
I’ve been waiting for this day all week. The day I finally get to meet our borrowers and the IMPRO staff I’ve been working with remotely since February. 9am and I’m in the offices, the entire team (around 14 people) gathered around me, all of us dressed in winter clothes and sipping coca team. The office is humble~ one room, desks lining the perimeter, a small conference room (Kiva team, sound familiar??) and no central heating. Walking in I smile and think to myself, these are my people:) We dive into Q+A. They share their beginnings, their deep commitment to their borrowers, the creative solutions they’ve come up with to help solve the unique problems of the poor.
A Neighborhood IMPRO serves
One great example: “Pretamos Anticreditos.” The vast majority of IMPRO’s clients, especially in the urban and sub-urban areas, don’t own property, and have few prospects of doing so in the forseeable future. Poor women and men with no papers, few assets, and often no ability to read or write, they are some of the most vulnerable populations in Bolivia. They rent rooms and apartments on illegal settlements dottling the hillsides overlooking La Paz. At any moment their adobe houses could crumble from the Spring rains, get demolished by the government or a private landowner, or get re-possesed by their landlords.
Me and Enrique, an IMPRO loan officer
with La Paz in the background
IMPRO has come up with a creative loan product to serve borrowers such as these. They issue 0% interest credit to the landowner’s their clients rent from. This free line of credit serves as an upfront rental payment, and during the course of the loan renters make monthly payments to IMPRO, with interest. Then, at the end of the term, landowners are required to pay back the principal of the loan to IMPRO’s clients. In essence, this is their savings that they have been accumulating during the course of the loan. Its ingenious for a few reasons: 1) It helps ensure landowners don’t mistreat tenants as their contract is with a reputable institution, and not just a poor and often vulnerable individual. 2) It helps IMPRO clients generate savings, and at the end of the loan term they have a level of liquidity that they otherwise would not have had. 3) It serves as a “security deposit” for landowners. Its products like these that leave no doubt in my mind about the integrity and social orientation of this Kiva field partner. I’m delighted to talk to the team, and to hear about their innovations such as this one.
We wrap up the morning’s Q+A and head out to a yummy lunch, full of dynamic conversation about the Bolivian economy, the re-possession of the oil reserves, socialism, the microeconomy, and how it all ties together. Bolivia is such a completely intriguing country. So much to say on it, perhaps a blog for a long plane ride:)
Lilia and Veronica, Kiva borrowers
with their loan officer Enrique, and me!
Then its to the field. We visit Lilia and Veronica, 2 sisters who have recently received loans to build bathrooms in their house. With no sanitation and limited access to potable water, many people in the “barrios populares” overlooking La Paz are forced to go to the bathroom wherever they can~ in the street, in alleyways, their backyards. Its a huge health problem, and also has obvious rippling social and cultural implications. The loans they’ve each taken out from IMPRO will help them build 2 facilities within their living space for their respective husbands, families and children. We come upon them washing clothes in the early afternoon sun. Smiling and introducing themselves, they hop up to give us the grand tour. The adobe walls of their house look as if they’ll crumble to the touch. Their clothes hang drying in the crisp Andean air. Dogs roam the compound.
We sit with them and go over their plans. The folded paper ripples in the mountain breeze. Enrique, their loan officer who is also an architect by training, has helped them come up with their building plans, and as part of the evaluation process, has also worked with Lilia and Veronica to map out a longer term strategy for the improvement of their home (brick walls, partitions for their respective families, green space). The improvements will come in time, but for now they’re each concentrating on the task at hand.
A Kiva borrower
Off to visit more clients, then back to my hotel for a meeting. Just because I’m in Bolivia doesn’t mean I get out of the normal responsibilities:) I dial into the Kiva conference line and gab with my colleagues on the other side of the world. We pull up our spreadsheets, debate number and concepts of the various projects we’re involved in. Share ideas. Rev on our work. For a moment I forget I’m on the other side of the world, laying on my hotel room bed with my earphones in, my skype account on the screen. It all feels so normal, and I can even hear the usual office sounds in the background. Looking up from my computer, I smile to myself as the evening breeze blows in through the window. The world, indeed, has gotten very, very small…..
Until next time:)