By Iyanna M. Holmes, KF11, Liberia

When I began working my first office job in 1999 as a college intern, I immediately took note of how central of a role technology plays in the business world.   I have often asked myself, “What did people do before the internet, fax machines, and God Help Us….EMAIL.”  I imagined my mom at her first office job having to walk documents from the first floor to co-workers on the fifth floor or waiting days for a document that someone in the Atlanta office had mailed to her in Boston.  Then I’d roll my eyes at how tedious a process that must have been and give thanks that I was born into a time where a few clicks and an email attachment keep me from having to walk anywhere other than the food court or the ladies’ room.

But even in my wildest “imagine what it would be like” scenarios, never in a million years did I stop to ask myself, “How did people conduct modern day business before paved roads, a reliable postal service, unlimited phone plans, reliable electricity, etc.?”  Well here in Liberia, the questions are not hypothetical.

As a new Kiva Fellow working with the Local Enterprise Assistance Program (LEAP) in Monrovia, Liberia, my task, in a nutshell, is to have LEAP’s Kiva operations running like a well oiled machine by the time I leave.  The casual observer, which included me before this fellowship, could never begin to imagine the amount of work that goes into every loan listing, every journal update, and the process of collecting and reporting loan repayments.  And as someone who prides herself on finding the most efficient solution to any problem (work smarter, not harder), I was up to the challenge of helping to shape LEAP’s Kiva operations.  But after only two weeks in the office, at times I find myself overwhelmed by the restrictions that LEAP must work within.

Are we not receiving the borrower stories that get posted to the website in a timely fashion?  Great, have the loan officers email them in as they are collected.  What’s that?  Many of the branches do not have internet access?  Well in that case, just mail them in from the other branches instead of relying on loan officers to hand deliver them.  What’s that?  It’s the rainy season?  The unpaved roads are muddy and hard to travel?  The postal service will likely still not meet the deadline?

Is it difficult for the loan officers to get back out to see the borrowers in order to get updates at the end of the loan?  Well why don’t we just call those borrowers from the head office and get those updates ourselves?  What’s that?  We don’t have any money to pay for extra pre-paid minutes for cell phones? (FYI, there is no office phone.  Each employee uses their own personal cell phone.  I haven’t seen a land line since I’ve been in Liberia.  I’m told that they were once widespread, but like so much of the infrastructure, were destroyed in the war).

And the list goes on and on… At times there are more employees in the office than there are working computers.  There are not enough digital cameras for every loan officer to carry one with them in order to provide photos along with the loan updates to lenders as Kiva would like.  An office car may not always be available so that LEAP’s Kiva staff can assist the branches with loan disbursals.  Inefficiencies at Liberia’s few banks lead to a delay in cash being delivered to LEAP (several huge burlap bags full of cash… not the most efficient way of making payments), which causes loan disbursal meetings to last four, five, sometimes even six hours – taking LEAP’s borrowers away from the businesses that feed their families.  Electricity is fairly constant, though sometimes we have to switch to the diesel fueled generator when power from the Liberian Electricity Corporation (which is not widely available to begin with) fails.  The internet connection can be painfully slow.  I cannot tell you how many times I have asked a co-worker, who is sitting next to me, to email me a document, just to get a very confused look in response.  Now who’s the inefficient one?

Much has been written in the media in general, and on this blog in particular, about “high” microfinance interest rates, the operating environment that microfinance institutions (MFIs) must navigate, and how this makes operating costs much higher than they would be in the developed world.  As I sit in my apartment waiting for the electricity (read: air conditioner) to come on at the regularly scheduled time of 7pm, I have a newfound appreciation for the work, creativity, and ingenuity of LEAP’s staff and all of Kiva’s field partners who somehow always find a way to get the job done despite the myriad of resource and infrastructure constraints that they face in almost every aspect of their job.  I have a lot to learn, indeed.

Iyanna Holmes is a Kiva Fellow working with Local Enterprise Assistance Program (LEAP) in Monrovia, Liberia.  Join the LEAP Lending Team.  There are borrowers from Liberia with LEAP, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world, who you can help by making a loan on the Kiva site.

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