By Whitney Webb, KF16, Rwanda
One of the biggest challenges of providing access to financial services to those living in poverty is the actual logistics of expanding the services into some of the most remote areas of the world. 92% of Rwandans live in rural areas. During my first field visit, I visited a small village near the border of Tanzania. After meeting several first time borrowers and hearing about their challenges and strong hopes for the future, we drove out onto the unpredictable mud roads.
There was no electricity anywhere in the village and I anticipated empty streets on the post sunset (pitch black) drive out. I was quite mistaken and as our truck’s headlights illuminated our path I saw village life in full swing with children playing, men riding bicycles, and women carrying giant bundles of bananas on their heads. The loan officer I was with said they had the roads memorized and he responded to my surprise with the question, “What are the rural areas like in the USA?” I honestly didn’t know how to respond, “Well, people would have electricity and satellite TV, but they might have to drive 20 minutes to get to a big supermarket…”
A few more statistics:
56% of Rwandans live below the poverty line ($2 per day)
52% of the population is excluded from financial services
90% of Rwandans do not have electricity
These realities stand as giant road blocks to the microfinance institutions trying to include anyone and everyone who wants to make responsible financial decisions for themselves and their families. So how do you make it logistically possible for a person who lives 2 hours from the nearest bank branch (and has no form of transportation) to open a bank account or take out a small loan? The microfinance bank, Urwego, that I have been working with has come up with some innovative ways to deal with these issues.
1. Branching Out: UOB (Urwego Opportunity Bank) currently has 8 full branches around Rwanda and 25 smaller credit offices. They have a presence in all of Rwanda’s 30 districts. These branches are strategically placed to allow access to the largest number of people.
2. The Traveling Loan Officers: In simplest terms, if the clients can’t come to you, go to them. Loan officers are based in branches around the country but may spend 4 days out of every week on the road, or better known as “in the field.” They will travel to some of the most remote areas in their region for initial visits, loan disbursement, repayment collection, and general follow-up.
3. The Bank Truck: NYC may have gourmet food trucks, but they’ve got nothing on Rwamagana, Rwanda, home base of UOB’s mobile branch. This truck is outfitted as an operating branch with a staff of 5. They are able to disburse loans, collect repayments, and accept deposits into savings accounts. The truck makes its way around the eastern province on a set schedule to visit the most inaccessible areas.
4. The e-Wallet: Keeping up with technology, Urwego plans to significantly expand its outreach in Rwanda through the implementation of new strategies. This includes ATM’s, mobile money (loan disbursements and repayments through cell phones), and a platform allowing branch employees and loan officers to access the bank’s main database through a net book. This platform will significantly increase the number of clients these workers can handle at once since they can make updates directly from the field.
I have been fortunate enough to visit several districts of Rwanda to meet with Kiva borrowers during my time here. I have heard the pride in their voices at receiving a first loan and I’ve seen their huge sense of gratitude for being given an opportunity. It was always difficult to get them to speak up about the challenges or ways things could be improved, but when we pushed hard enough they would say something along the lines of, “My friends in the next village would like a loan. Please allow them to do this.” I’m happy to say that Urwego is listening and is actively expanding the possibilities of financial services within Rwanda.
Whitney Webb is in the Kiva Fellows 16th Class, currently working at Urwego Opportunity Bank of Rwanda. Click here  to join the Urwego Lending Team or here  to browse profiles and make a loan of as little as $25 on kiva.org.