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.

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