The View from the Ground
By Nila Uthayakumar, KF 14, Uganda
Tuesday morning. It was just my second day at Micro Credit for Development and Transformation (MCDT), a Kiva partner microfinance bank based in Kampala, Uganda. I sat at the helm of a grouping of desks in an airy room within an office building perched at the very tip-top of a hill in Kampala. What a view. Of the city, but also of the four loan officers preparing to go into the field and meet with their borrowers. I looked out of the window, and then back at the people in the room. How did I get here again?
I needed to remind myself, lest I forgot. It had been the most intense month and a half of my life. In the beginning of December I was still living in Zanzibar, Tanzania. More specifically, I was painfully packing away six months into my backpack and getting ready to visit the States. I would be home for a month and a half, (although home for me is relative at this point), and I had an expanding to-do list to address. Most importantly, I was to attend Kiva Fellows training in San Francisco in January. I, along with a group of nineteen others, was going to be taught how to be Kiva’s eyes and ears on the ground. What exactly that meant, I could not have possibly known until I got to “the ground.”
“The ground” is an appropriate title for the space that I occupy at the moment, especially relative to where I was before. Let me explain. To understand and appreciate what goes into a microfinance institution’s day-to-day operation from the cloud of the internet is impossible. On the internet, Kiva’s partner microfinance institutions have profiles, and so do their borrowers. Information fits into boxes, and statistics are given in percentages. It is neat and tidy. Here where I am, on the ground, it is anything but…
On the ground, files and records are tied up with string and stacked up in corners; infrastructure is lacking and the streets turn into muddy rivers with the onslaught of tropical rain; computer systems crawl at speeds that rival that of molasses; and operations during elections must be carefully planned in case of civil unrest. On Tuesday at 9 AM, I left for the field with Sam, a loan officer working for MCDT. Shirt and pants pressed, and paperwork neatly tucked away into his bag, Sam marched like a man on a mission straight into Kampala’s dusty, chaotic cacophony of a city center, with me trying madly not to fall behind.
We boarded a share-taxi and first made our way to a commercial bank where we received loan funds that would be dispersed that day to borrowers. Next, we boarded another share-taxi that took us up and down several hills and dropped us off at a share-taxi stand. Then we walked for about ten minutes and arrived at a street corner, at which point Sam negotiated with a motorcycle taxi (called a boda boda here in Uganda) and we hopped aboard. The boda boda dropped the two of us off at the city’s edge where we walked into a small room with several benches, and about ten Kiva borrowers awaiting our arrival. It was 11 AM, and we had just started.
It started to rain shortly after we arrived at our meeting with the Kiva borrowers, and although Sam and I had escaped the rain, some of the people we were meeting with had not. To add, school had just gotten back in session, and many had to drop their children off beforehand. So, of the forty total women we were to see, only a handful made it within the first two hours of the meeting. None of this resulted in so much as a crease of tension on Sam’s face, however. It was business as usual and he rolled with the punches.
Sam spent the next four hours collecting loan repayments, counting and recounting stacks of money, filling out form after logbook, and handing out loan dispersals. I did a lot of watching, sitting, and chatting with borrowers. During the course of the day, there was one thing that I did contribute: I conducted a Kiva borrower interview for a woman named Hadijja. Hadijja will be receiving a loan that will be funded through Kiva’s website, and I had the pleasure of asking her some questions so that Kiva lenders can know a bit about her and her business when they lend to her. Near the end of the interview, I asked Hadijja why she chose to work with MCDT instead of the several other microfinance institutions in Kampala. Her response to my question was that MCDT’s interest rates were low and affordable. And that is when everything I had seen that day became real.
Microfinance is rough. It involves long distances, long waits, long rides, and long days. Microfinance is also expensive. It took Sam and me four share-taxis and a boda boda to get where we were going and back. Some of the Kiva borrowers we were supposed to meet with to collect loan repayments from never came. Sam and I got back to the office at 4:30 PM, and neither of us had eaten since 8 AM. And yet regardless of any of the difficulties on the ground, MCDT and Sam have to offer borrowers the lowest interest rates they can, while still covering their operating costs and staying in business. That’s how it is here on the ground, and that’s what the website can’t tell you in a box.
Nila has just arrived in Kampala, Uganda after having spent six months in Zanzibar, Tanzania last year. She considers East Africa home now, and looks forward to working with several Kiva partner microfinance institutions throughout the next few months in Uganda and Kenya.