Given our focus this month on Tajikistan  and how microfinance is making a difference  in what is now the poorest country in Central Asia, we couldn't think of a better time for Amniya to share her experience and outlook on what microfinance can make happen around the world.
A little bit about Amniya: After high school she earned her degree in accounting at Russia's Finance Academy and interned for the Agha Khan Foundation in Washington D.C., where she discovered microfinance. After completeing her master's in international business in Sweden, she returned home to Tajikistan to manage product development at First MicroFinance Bank. There, she spearheaded the first loan program for Afghan refugees in Tajikistan with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and developed a program for remittance-linked savings for Tajik migrants in Russia.
Without further ado, here's a Q&A with Amniya:
1. How did you first become involved in microfinance?
My introduction to microfinance was in 2001 through a program launched by the Aga Khan Development Network  in Tajikistan called the Enterprise Support Facility. The program helped many people I knew in the community to start businesses and improve their livelihoods. Later on, in 2010, after pursuing my master’s degree, I took a short-term job as a research assistant on a client survey project conducted by the First MicroFinance Bank Tajikistan, the first commercial bank in Tajikistan with a principal focus on micro lending.
Following this research project, I was hired by the bank as Research and Product Development Officer, and I eventually worked there as Product Development Manager. In this job, I helped to develop loan and savings products such as small student loans for tertiary education and remittance linked savings products, as well as a financial literacy brochure. I also worked with the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance to help with their client research tasks in Tajikistan. From all of these experiences, I was amazed how little money people sometimes need as loans to improve their living standards and I developed an interest in continuing to work in this sector.
2. Do you see microfinance as being important or helpful for Tajikistan and why? How do you see it impacting the country in a positive way?
I see microfinance as playing a very important role in Tajikistan. In a country where the percentage of the population living below the national poverty line is about 47% to 50%, people need money to start businesses and begin earning more money. There is a lot of potential in both urban and rural areas for economic growth and especially for growth of small businesses. The sale of suitable products could play a tremendous role in improving peoples’ livelihoods, but opportunities to do this are currently limited because mainstream banks see lower-income people as being too risky to lend to. In rural areas, many banks feel that it would cost them too much to set up offices and lend to the more isolated poor. However, the number of Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) is growing year by year and currently there are 124 MFIs operating throughout the country. This indicates that there is a need for micro lending, but I believe the current demand is still far from satisfied.
You can often see the difference between those who have accessed microloans and those who have not - people who have benefitted have had an opportunity to expand their agriculture plots, pay for the educations of their children, launch businesses, and create job placements. Females start sewing businesses, honey production companies, selling goods at food stores and more. All of these opportunities would not have been possible without micro lending. Still, I believe much more is needed to expand access to financial services in Tajikistan, especially in rural areas.
3. Why have you chosen to volunteer for Kiva?
Many organizations have approached micro lending from a direct perspective, establishing a physical presence in developing countries, Kiva completely changed that idea. It showed that micro finance can be about connecting lenders with borrowers directly and indirectly, with or without a physical presence in the field. Microfinance is a very wide sphere and can be approached in many ways under the same concept. Because Kiva is an online lending platform that connects hundreds of online lenders with entrepreneurs all over the world, it provides access to affordable low risk capital to MFIs to deliver more services to the poor and expand their outreach.
Kiva is fortunate to be able to focus its attention on the quality of these connections rather than dedicating all of its time to the administrative issues that would be involved in establishing physical premises all over the world. Kiva’s online approach is innovative and I believe that it could prove to be a model to be followed in the future by other microfinance agencies. I am interested in being part of that innovative work.
4. Do you think Kiva's work is impacting Tajikistan in a positive way? If so, how exactly?
Kiva is providing capital to two microfinance institutions in Tajikistan – Micro Deposit Organization (MDO) Imon and MDO Arvand. Both of these institutions have a fairly large client base (over 55,000 clients in total) and provide different types of loans to the poor, including business loans, agriculture loans, consumer loans, start up loans and more. I remember reading a message of a female lender from Canada who helped a female borrow through MDO Imon saying “I am happy to help you in your business and I am a singe mom as well.
I know how critical the ability to earn is in this situation. I enjoyed seeing your story and wish that may your business and health prosper.” It is amazing how Kiva connects people from all over the world to create social good! In addition to the financial benefits, this model of lending also helps people in Tajikistan establish a social connection with someone on the other side of the world.
5. Why do you believe in the potential of microfinance to support developing countries?
Microfinance by itself isn’t enough to solve the social and economic problems that countries face. However, it fills an essential need by helping poor people who cannot access formal employment to become productive and make a living. What makes me believe in the potential of microfinance is that I have seen examples of people -- including older people and women -- who have achieved a sense of dignity and independence from being able to access even small amounts of extra finance. Supporting people at the individual level is, in my opinion, just as important as supporting entire communities or countries.
6. As a Tajik why do you feel it's important for other Tajiks to lend to Tajikistan through Kiva?
There is one thing about Tajik culture that becomes clear to people when they visit -- people are very friendly and will help you when you are in need. Even if they earn only a little, helping family and friends was and always will be a priority. People are very grateful; once you help them, they will always remember it and will try to pay you back in either monetary or in-kind ways.
As Tajiks, we went through a lot of difficulties including a civil war that spread the population all over the world. Even now, many Tajiks migrate to Russia seeking jobs to help their families. If some of us are fortunate to have a better life and we have an opportunity to support others to improve their livelihoods, then we should do this, either through Kiva or in other ways. Tajikistan is still a fragile country and would benefit from the social connections that can be made.
7. What might you tell another Tajik who is considering lending to entrepreneurs in Tajikistan?
I would say try it once and see how you feel about it. You are given an opportunity to choose who you want to fund and the amount is as little as $25. I made my first loan to a female borrower from my country to help her pay tuition fees so that she could graduate this year. She worked part time sewing women’s clothes to be able to study and I know how hard it is to combine education and work. I was happy to see later on that her loan was fully funded.
8. How might you describe the Tajiks culture to someone who has never experienced it before?
Tajik culture is diverse; if you travel to all the regions you will be amazed how different they are from each other. The North is well known for weaving beautiful colorful textiles and handicrafts; the West has a lot of unique celebratory music called Falak and is well known for unique embroidery. The capital city is relatively modern and is a mixing point for people from all over the country. The East, where I am from, which is very isolated, has been able to preserve its folk music, red and white traditional clothes and graceful dancing culture. Tajik culture is very interesting because it has been influenced by so many other cultures -- such as those of Persia and Russia -- but it is also very unique and has been shaped by the isolation of the country and by many of its people living in high mountain areas.
Kiva loans have a chance to make a big difference for borrowers in Tajikistan. Lend to a borrower there today .
Want to volunteer or intern for Kiva? Apply today at kiva.org/volunteer .
Have questions about Kiva's work in Tajikistan? Send them our way at firstname.lastname@example.org .