Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rural Field Visit - Village Style (with a resort feel?)

After the urban center visits, Melinda and I headed to a rural part of Kenya, known as Msambweni, located about 2 1/2 hours outside of Mombasa. However, since there is no place to stay in that area, we were lucky enough to be hosted by the founder of Yehu at his home. After riding a ferry across the inlet, we journeyed in a matatu to Akunda, where Louis Pope and his wife Chris picked us up. Unfortunately, it was already dark, so I wasn't able to truly appreciate the beautiful beach setting of the newly constructed home that Louis and his wife recently built.
When we arrived, we ate a wonderful dinner with chocolate cake for desert and chatted with a couple from Utah staying with the Popes. I know it seems trivial to put a desert in my blog, but it was my first chocolate cake since I arrived in Africa and I quickly realized that I never wanted to go this long without it again. It's the little things I miss, not the guaranteed hot running water and electricity, having my own car to drive, or even air conditioning when it is blazing hot, but it is the chocolate cakes and ability to get nearly any book you want almost 24 hours a day that I really miss. Next time I make a trip to a less developed nation, customs may be a little concerned about why I have Betty Crocker cake mixes and a small inventory in my luggage, but it will definitely be worth it.

The next morning, we woke up to the sound of the beach and a beautiful sunrise. I almost forgot that I was actually here for work and not vacation because it was so relaxing. But I quickly returned to reality, got out of bed and got ready for the village visits. Melinda and I met Rachel, one of Yehu's rural credit officers and went to the home of the center leader, where the meeting was underway.

The difference between these borrowers and the urban borrowers was only evident by their meeting location. They were both groups of hardworking entrepreneurs that depend on Yehu to provide the capital they need to run their businesses so they can take care of their families and ensure a positive future for their children. When interviewing them, I realized that they did have slightly different needs, such as roofing loans and Ramadan loans, while the urban borrowers were more concerned with health insurance and higher loan amounts. And although these rural borrowers knew what the competitor was offering, the number of competitors was only 1 or 2, not the 3 or 4 we found in the urban areas. After these meetings, I realized that the marketing strategy was going to have to be slightly differentiated for geographic areas -just one of the many valuable realizations I gained from conducting field visits.

The rest of the day was filled with visiting the local branch and meeting with the branch manager, another center meeting and visiting a borrower at his butchery business. Omar, the butcher client went from selling meat on a wooden table to building a completely tiled shop with plans for expansion, in just one year with the help of a Yehu loan. Pretty remarkable! At the second center meeting, Melinda and I were generously given gifts, hand-made by the borrowers themselves. Their craftsmanship was great, so I made some purchases for my family while I was there.

It was a spectacular day, ended with a nice swim in the ocean and bonfire on the beach. Life really doesn't get much better than this, right?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Urban Field Visit - The Cosmopolitan Microfinance

After spending a week in Yehu's headquarters, I knew it was time to get out into the field and see what Yehu was really doing. I learned from my experiences in March with Grameen Bank and BRAC in Bangladesh, that the best way to find out how to best serve microfinance customers was to see them in their environment. So, Mel and I went to one of Yehu's 'urban' branches, Kusani. I met with 2 Credit Officers, which are the main point of contact for Yehu's clients. I asked them questions about their job, challenges, opportunities and customer needs. They provided a lot of insight that was starting to shape my thoughts about the marketing for Yehu. Next, we went with a third credit officer to attend her 'center meetings', where I would see how her weekly/biweekly meetings with groups of her clients are carried out and get the opportunity for the one on one interviews that were integral to my plan successfully meeting the needs of Yehu's clients.

Typically in the villages, the center meetings are in a central part of the village, or at someone's home. But because we were in the city, the center meeting was at a local restaurant/nighttime hangout spot. When we arrived, there were about 6 other center meetings being conducted, all by different microfinance institutions. This is quite different from what I am used to in the villages. These clients have choices in where they get thier business funding, and not just 2 choices, but 4 or 5 choices. It was exciting to see that microfinance was doing so well in Kenya, because I am of the belief that the more choices that people have for services, the better the services will probably be.

During the 3 center meetings we attended, I was able to interview 5 borrowers, including 2 men (microfinance is typically targeted toward women, so these were the first male borrowers I had ever interviewed) and have some group dialogue with one of the centers. The differences between the rural and urban borrowers became more and more clear during these interviews. The wants of the borrowers were typically lower interest rates and the products/services that the other microfinance institutions were offering. These were some pretty savvy borrowers. However, the bright spot in the middle of all of the other MFIs center meetings was that when I asked the borrowers why they continued with Yehu when other MFIs were offering better interest and more products, they said that it was the relationship and the ease of banking with Yehu that made them stay. I asked if they would leave Yehu if they needed the other products, and they all simply said no. They wouldn't trade the service that Yehu offered for the lower interest or diverse products. That type of loyalty was going to make my job much easier!!!

After meeting with all of the centers, we headed off to the village to get ready for the next day's round of center meetings and interviews - village-style.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Finding 'Kenyan' fabrics in Kenya? Impossible!

After the first week of wearing dresses that I had custom made in Ghana during my last internship the month before, I thought it would be nice to have some dresses made in Kenya while I was here. Since I didn't want to take any chances on getting a slow tailor that wouldn't get my dresses made in time, I asked "Mama Rose", the adminstrative officer at Yehu that kept telling me all week that I looked so "smart" in my dresses (I quickly learned that she did not at all think I looked like a nerdy librarian, but that being 'smart' is the Kenyan way of saying that she liked my outfit). Mama Rose assured me that she had a tailor that would be able to get my dresses turned around for me before I left, but that I needed to get the fabric before he took my measurements. So this weekend, I planned to head off to the market with Mel and another Yehu employee to find the perfect Kenyan fabrics.

The market was abuzz on Saturday morning with all types of shops and vendors and customers rushing to get what they needed before lunchtime. We walked around the fabrics markets for about an hour, but everything looked like something I would pick up in India (which I already have 5 outfits from there when my luggage was lost 3 years ago), a burka, or something I could get at a fabric store in the US. It wasn't until I showed them a brightly flowered print and kept saying 'I want something Kenyan' that they realized I wanted kanga fabric. Typically, kangas are used to wrap around like a skirt or to wrap around a mama's torso to tow her little one on her back, but they come in the most interesting and fun designs that I wanted a dress made from them. After a painstaking deliberation and negotiation, I finally decided on 2 kangas at about 300 shillings each (less than $4) and we were on our way back home. Next week, I will be taking them to the tailor to see what amazing dresses he can design from these 'Kenyan' fabrics.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My first week at Yehu - by the numbers

View from Yehu Conference Room
10 Matatu rides (with only 1 that nearly put me in traction from the potholes in the road)
10 mad dashes to the Matatu stop
4 leisurely walks home (including one that included a detour to the beach for a beautiful sunset)
13 new friends at Yehu
7 manuals and materials reviewed
3 meetings with the CEO
24 opportunities identified that will be included in my plan
5 cups of Milo (my favorite ovaltine/cocoa drink that will make me a “future champion”, or so says the packaging)
4 new Kenyan dishes, which included beans and rice, chapati, ugali, beef stew
3 desk assignments:
  1. In a plastic chair on the side of the other intern‘s desk
  2. In the same plastic chair across from the marketing officer at his desk; and
  3. Lastly, the conference table in the top floor conference room (the final one is my favorite, despite the scratching, thrashing alligator that I swear resides on the roof, we have a beautiful view of the water)
1 Friday night out after work which included the movie “Knight and Day” and popcorn at the local cinema and a ride home on a boda boda motorbike taxi.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Arrival and first couple of days in Kenya

I arrived in Mombasa, Kenya on Saturday morning, July 17. This was after leaving Accra, Ghana (after a month-long internship with Global Giving) on July 16 at 9pm. Unfortunately, with the time difference, this basically meant was that it was a red eye without any sleep, so I arrived with the proverbial red eyes. But my fellow intern and roommate, Melinda was there to pick me up and we were off to my new accommodations for the next 3 weeks.

When we arrived, it was an awesome 3 bedroom apartment, fully equipped with a kitchen and 2 full bathrooms (with hot water even!). I know doesn’t sound like the lap of luxury, but after sleeping in a new place almost every night for a month, including one night on the side of the road on a sheet over gravel during the worst bus ride from Burkina Faso to Mali during my previous internship, this felt like the Ritz Carlton.

I had time to drop my bag, change my clothes and we were off to Old Town Mombasa, which included some really neat native souvenir shops and the beach at Fort Jesus (a fort built on the coast in the shape of Jesus by the Portuguese). The pictures don’t do it justice, this was one of the most breath-taking ocean views I had ever seen!

Unfortunately, I was quickly losing steam, so we headed back to the apartment in a tuktuk (basically a motorcycle cab). We decided to watch a movie and after about 10 minutes, I had fallen asleep and was starting to scare my new roommate with my sudden jerks awake, so I put myself to bed After 16 hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep, I awoke the next morning at 10am., and spent the whole day relaxing, catching up on emails, reading, and getting ready for the next day - my first day at Yehu Microfinance. I was so excited!

Monday, July 19, 2010

My first day at Yehu Microfinance

After showering and having breakfast, Mel and I rushed the mile out to the Matatu stop (15 passenger vans that transport non-vehicle owning Kenyans around the city for about 40 cents a ride). Although it was a pleasant enough ride, I forgot how disorienting a new city can be. I barely kept up with Mel as she navigated through the crowds and traffic-filled streets to the head office of Yehu.

After I arrived, I was introduced to the staff and had a meeting with Yehu’s CEO, Adet Kachi. We decided on the game plan for the next three weeks since so much information needed to be gathered in a short period of time. After that, I was handed the first of many materials I would be reading over the next three weeks and dove into learning everything I can about Yehu, specifically about their marketing and new product development. My purpose is to make a plan that will help them attain their main goal of self-sustainability. This will ensure they will be able to continue helping the rural women in Kenya become economically independent without worrying about where the funding will come from each year. I realized quickly that this is going to be a challenging, but very rewarding internship.