Friday, July 31, 2009

The Frontlines

I’d like to tell you about the one thing I felt I needed to do while I was there. It's a big one for me - close to my heart. If I could go back and do Kenya all over again from the beginning, I would insist upon repeating this experience as much as possible.  I wouldn't wait until so close to the end.

But I did, and when all is said and done, I still got to do it.

That's enough for me.

I attended some center meetings in Yehu's Kisauni Branch. For those of you that don't speak microfinance (or maybe you just don't speak Yehu), these are the meetings where clients gather in their groups to make payments, apply for new loans, or discuss anything of importance to the group. This is the very base level of the organization, where all the most important exchanges take place. This is where the real people are.

These are the frontlines.

One thing that makes Yehu unique is its focus on the rural poor, and by extension, the small size of their loans relative to other Microfinance Institutions. It really has no competition in this arena, because all other MFIs in the area are more focused on urban clients. Rural banking brings challenges: costs are higher, and it can be more difficult to reach and keep track of everyone. But Yehu is holding firm to its mission to serve the rural poor.

Given that mission, Kisauni is a unique branch for Yehu. It is actually located right outside of Mombasa, so many of Kisauni's clients are urban (or as Yehu likes to call it, "peri-urban").  This meeting was easier for us to visit, because a few of the clients spoke English and could keep us up on what was happening.

At Yehu, their ladies organize themselves into groups of five. Once a group is formed, they can apply for loans. If anyone in the group ever misses a payment, the rest of the group is responsible for picking it up. No one in the group can apply for a new loan until all missed payments are taken care of. This has a lot of advantages - it keeps the default rate very low, it is self-reinforcing because the ladies will keep track of each other and will feel the pressure of being responsible for their own payments, and it encourages them to only find responsible people to be in their group. The downside is that this concept probably sounds okay when you're told in the beginning, but when you're waiting several months to apply for a loan because of a delinquent group member and you have to pay off her loan, it can be very frustrating.

At this particular meeting, two groups paid off loans of delinquent group members that had been in arrears since January, so they could finally move forward with their plans. It was an exciting day. I particularly enjoyed seeing these strong women speaking out and voicing their opinions - even if it was in frustration. I could see the progression, from those who were waiting to apply for their first loan to those who were paying off their third loan. They've all been enabled and empowered by the opportunities Yehu has offered them. I imagine most of them were not always so confident as they are now.

We talked to some of the ladies afterward. This is Alice and Purity. Alice sells charcoal, Purity will use her first loan to open a fruit stand.

They expressed a very sincere interest in learning about properly running a business and managing their finances. They know the loan is a blessing and they really want to do everything right. It spoke to a deep desire I've had to conduct training for that very thing. Not only would the ladies benefit, but Yehu as well. I had hoped to do some of this training while I was here, but there is just so much to be done for this bank. It would take a completely separate internship - or more - to reach out to that need.

We also talked to Carol, who has been with Yehu for three years and was about to apply for her third (and biggest yet) loan. She sells secondhand clothing and has high hopes for growing her business. I could see the wisdom and confidence in her persona at having been around the microfinance block and learned some hard lessons along the way. I could see how she has grown.

Some of the ladies brought children to the meeting to distract me for just a few minutes. As usual, I was smitten. What new opportunities will these children receive, either from the additional income their mothers bring into their businesses, or from one of Yehu’s education-based loans?  It's exciting to think about.

Overall, the center meeting was a very powerful experience for me. In one fell swoop, it allowed me to connect everything together and gave my work more meaning and purpose than I could find anywhere else. This is something that all interns should be required to do within their first week of arriving in Mombasa. I really believe it could shape one’s entire experience.

Someone recently asked me what my #1 favorite thing about Kenya was. Hands down, it’s getting out to the villages and meeting the people. I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything in the world.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Trying new things is hard!

For my last bit of time in Kenya, I get to try my hand at some different activities. One of the other interns put together an audit program, so I took a trip to one of the village branches and we conducted an audit. This wasn’t my favorite activity, because we had to be the police, and we were essentially trying to catch them in the act of…something we had yet to determine. No one is every really excited to see the auditors.

Be that as it may, it was quite interesting and informative. Almost all of the records for the branch are kept on paper, so the very methods of recordkeeping they utilize are different than one may expect.
I wish technology wasn’t such a great hurdle for Yehu. Having more access to technology would make such a big difference in the quality control of recordkeeping, it would reduce the chances of someone being able to manipulate the system, it would get the info back to the head office in a timely manner, and it would save some time for everyone across the board. The problem is that you’re dealing with people who have never developed any trust for technology. Kenya in general is still trying to catch up to us there, but especially in rural areas, you’re not going to see a lot of people who are jumping at the chance to do everything in Excel.

Change may be on the horizon for this little bank. People around here are aiming high, when it comes to technological advances. Fiber optic cables are in the final stages of being planted in Kenya, and Yehu wants to take advantage of the new and improved Internet connectivity. Hopefully we can do all the important background work (read: training) to make it happen.

Branching out...

I’ve decided the optimal time to be in a new place is longer than two months. My friends here and I all agree that we have just barely hit the point where we feel really comfortable with everything at Yehu and we really understand everything. Now we are ready to dive in and find new things we can improve upon. What a shame that I won’t be around to fully enjoy the benefits.

A few of us were brainstorming about new incentives we can offer to employees, and that conversation evolved into a conversation about redesigning the brand. We’ve been in touch with graphic designer friends and other people who could give input, and we’re all getting really excited at the prospects. This brand – and the incentive-related products we’re coming up with – should be such that employees and clients are proud to associate with the bank.

We also want to advertise after the manner of Safaricom and Zain, which basically means painting an entire building the color that represents the brand, and then stenciling the brand name sporadically all over the place.

We’ve got it all wrong in America with all our billboards. Why not just advertise directly on walls of buildings, homes, fences, whatever? So, okay, Safaricom is lime green and Zain is bright pink, but you have to admit that they stand out. You’ll pay attention and remember, like it or not. I think I will forever associate lime green with Safaricom. Such could be the effect for Yehu.

This idea could go far, depending on how well it is received by the right people. I won’t be around to really implement it, but I am definitely tempted to return later to help paint some buildings.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Using a little creativity

My time at Yehu is winding down. During the week or so I've got left, I'm trying to spend as much time as I can outside of the office, in the villages with the people. I've mostly finished the templates and tables I wanted to create, and I'm really happy with the way they've turned out. I think it'll really save time for people here, and it will help them to pinpoint what they really need to focus on. Since I started working on one particular weekly report, I've knocked the time to completion down from about 4 hours to a little less than 2, on a slow computer. If I'm working on a better computer, it could be done in less than an hour. That's a lot of time saved every single week. Yehu has such aggressive plans for growth, and this is the time for them to clean up and tighten all the processes that will allow them to accomplish their expansion goals.

The next step is to empower everyone outside of the corporate office with training, greater responsibilities, and more tools to do their job. Yehu just got a new COO who really seems to have captured the vision of this. He has a solid understanding of what is needed out there, based on over a decade of experience in working with other microfinance banks in Kenya. He's committed to the cause, and he's got the understanding of the processes and the people to make it happen. I'm excited to have him on board. He's only been here a couple weeks, but he already has a clear idea of what he wants to do and how he's going to do it. Discussing these things with him gives me a lot of hope for the future of this organization. I'm actually a little sad that I won't be around to help with this part. I would love to get out to the villages to train these people.

I got to visit another village with representatives from CHOICE this week. We visited a school in Mulunguni to conduct an art project with some of the students. They drew pictures for us of their homes, trees, animals, family, cars, or whatever came to mind for them.

CHOICE is going to auction off some of these drawings to raise some additional funds for the school and raise awareness. They've worked pretty closely with this school, to build brick structures and supply desks and other supplies. Over 700 students attend this school, and there are only about 9 or 10 classrooms.

I'd also like to draw your attention to the background of the picture below.

All of the kids are in line for lunch, which is provided every day by the USAID School Feeding Program. It may not seem like a long-term logistical solution to just give handouts to the kids, but just think of how many of these students are coming to school just to get that food. For some kids, it's the only meal they'll get every day. It is incentive for them to educate themselves. Sounds like a pretty clear long-term solution to me.

Of course, the kids always love getting their picture taken, and I was more than happy to oblige after all the work was done.