New Horizons- A Fellow’s First Field Visit
By Caree Edson, KF 14, Armenia
While Kiva works with three microfinance institutions in Armenia, I have, thus far, only had the privilege to spend time with the staff at one. When I was offered an opportunity to do some Borrower Verifications for Nor Horizon (another partner institution), I jumped at the chance. Borrower Verifications, while requiring a lot of time and effort on the part of the fellows, are by far the best part of this journey. They entail going out into the field with credit officers and meeting with clients to ensure the accuracy of the information being uploaded on Kiva’s website. In Armenia this makes for a fantastic way to spend a Friday.
Nor Horizon (New Horizons) was originally started by Oxfam in 1995 with the intent to serve a vulnerable population in Armenia. It became an independent institution in 2002. You can read more about this institution by clicking here.
I was shocked to be greeted at the office by a young, vibrant, friendly crowd of individuals who all spoke English very well and were beyond welcoming. I could tell right away that this small institution (35 employees in all 4 branch offices) was just like a family. I had read an article highlighting Nor Horizon’s recent partnership with Habitat for Humanity and wanted to know about other things that they had to offer besides small loans. Yana (the Kiva Coordinator) explained to me that Nor Horizon offers small consumer, business, and agricultural loans as well as mortgage and home repair loans (through Habitat). There are also small tractors on display in many of the Nor Horizon offices that clients can lease to cultivate their land. She also discussed a partnership between Nor Horizon and the Millenium Challenge of Armenia which helps clients to build greenhouses and irrigation lines. I can say for a fact that Nor Horizon is certainly living up to it’s objective of partnering with other organizations to achieve greater outreach.
When asked why borrowers choose to go with Nor Horizon over their competitors, Yana simply answered “because they like the employees”. This institution has kept many repeat customers for over ten years and they only advertise by word-of-mouth. You can see by her enthusiasm that Yana believes this is a great company to work for and she talks emphatically about how these loans are helping clients to reach their business goals and to educate their children beyond high school. She expresses the help that people can receive by taking loans as small as $200 to purchase household items, clothing or food. And how it is additionally useful that Nor Horizon allows consumers to take advantage of agricultural loans whose 1st principal payment isn’t required for 6 months after the loan disbursal date so that farmers can prepare and save if the season is not profitable.Likewise, those with business loans can start paying the principal amount after 4 months and hopefully a profitable risk in expanding business.
I was greeted with cake, chocolate and coffee at the Vanadzor branch (not a bad way to start the day!) The manager of the branch walked me down the street explaining that almost every shop had a loan with Nor Horizon. Goharik was the first borrower that I have had an opportunity to meet in person. She is one of the long-time customers that I speak of- on her 13th loan with Nor Horizon and her second Kiva loan. She welcomed me with an ear-to-ear grin, a hug and lots of reassurance, saying that I was a “good girl” and that she liked me. She proudly showcased her shop and moved customers out of the way so she could take pictures with me that she hopes I will place in a newspaper back in the US in a spread about her and her shop. She has run this shop for over 20 years along with her husband and daughter who step in while she travels to Yerevan to secure more inventory. It is commendable to manage the stability of a business through such tumultuous times including the division with the Soviet Union and the current economic crisis. I ask how business is doing and she just nods her head and says “normal”. I can immediately see how her outgoing charm and vibrant personality have won her many repeat customers and fully intend to return, myself, to purchase some beautiful wine glasses if I can figure out how to safely transport them home in my backpack.
Next, we head out to Lake Sevan-indisputably the most beautiful place in Armenia. The expansive water is hugged on all sides by snow-capped mountains and to top it off- in perfect Armenian fashion- a church that was originally built in 305 (renovated more recently) stands tall atop a hillside overlooking the gorgeous scenery. This was only made more enjoyable by the incredible weather- sunshine and blue skies. We ate lunch with the local branch manager overlooking the lake as he toasted his gratitude for the partnership with Kiva and my willingness to take the journey to Armenia to help them complete this requirement.
After our huge meal, we headed out again to meet with a very different kind of Kiva borrower. Rubik is a 26-year-old farmer from a small village in Sevan. When we showed up, several of his friends were there to greet us and called Rubik out to meet us. He was shy and clearly in the midst of a hard work day. He showed us the cows he bought with the loan through Kiva and posed for a picture next to a 7-foot pile of manure. With his rough, dirty hands and gold-toothed grin, Rubik looked much older than his youthful age and reminded me that life is hard in the country.The loan helps to keep his family income stable and provide for his wife and two small children.
After Rubik, we ventured to a small tire repair shop in the nearby village of Hrazdan to meet Grayik who was engaged in business as we pulled up, working on someones flat tires. He stood proudly by three new, shiny, red machines and explained that the Kiva loan that he received from Nor Horizon helped him to obtain these machines and update his workshop. He told us about how the machines stretch the tires and allow him to fix the problems with them. Grayik keeps meticulous records of his repayment on his loan and showed me how he pays more than the minimum amount each month by his own records.
I was so thrilled for the amazing opportunity to meet borrowers today and grateful for the wonderful people at Nor Horizon who went so far out of their way to make me feel welcomed and inspired. Like all other fellows before me, I can’t wait to get out and do it all over again.
Caree Edson is almost fully recovered and once again taking in the breath-taking scenery among the inspiring people of Armenia. Check out Team Armenia and consider extending a loan to one of the hard-working entrepreneurs on Kiva today.