Take the Long Way Home: A Loan Officer’s Journey
By Claire Markham, KF16, Kenya
Before I arrived in Nairobi, I had heard on multiple occasions about the fundamental role loan officers play in making an MFI function. Loan officers are the backbone of the organization; they are intimately familiar with their clients and the challenges they face and they go to extraordinary measures to meet client needs. I was able to fully appreciate this on my recent borrower visits in Mombasa with two of SMEP Deposit Taking Microfinance Limited’s loan officers: the one who supposedly travels the most, and the one who supposedly travels the least.
Now that I have an understanding of a loan officer’s typical day, it’s impressive to me how much they contribute to the organization. I feel it’s important to share this experience with those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to spend a day in their shoes so you too can share in this feeling of admiration and learn that, despite the long distances travelled, the shoes do not become worn out.
The most travelled loan officer
I had heard about the loan officer in the Mombasa branch who travels the furthest and I was curious what exactly this entails. I jumped on the opportunity to accompany him on his borrower visits. He lives near the airport but every morning he takes public transport into the office. He spends an hour or two doing preparation work for his borrower visits before he departs for a long day of borrower meetings, including loan disbursements, repayments, or savings facilitation for groups who have not yet received loans.
Our long journey begins. We walk 10 minutes to the nearest matatu stand and board the matatu, a 14-seater mini bus, for a 10 minute ride to the ferry. Because the ferry has not yet arrived, we must wait for 15 minutes before we get on board. There are anywhere between 1 and 3 ferries working at a given time and the waiting time varies accordingly. Today we were lucky to only wait for 15 minutes because there are constantly hundreds of people who take the ferry transporting many types of goods and it can get quite overcrowded.
After the 15 minute ferry ride, we meet with the first borrower right in the village on the other side of the river for a 20 minute meeting. This is the only borrower we are visiting in this village, so when the meeting ends, we must board another matatu to another borrower group. This matatu leaves town and drives along the main road for another 45 minutes. The loan officer tells me this is our stop – I’m confused because I don’t see any sign of civilization. He points to a dirt path which we walk along for 15 minutes until we get to a small clearing between the vegetation.
Unfortunately the borrowers we came to find aren’t there. We sit on a tire that is lying on the ground and we wait while he calls them to see if they’re still coming. I’m in no rush personally but I know that the loan officer has several other clients to visit that day so I admire his patient manner. Forty five minutes pass before the borrowers stroll in. To you, they may appear to be 45 minutes late but in Kenya, we consider this right on time. They unroll a straw mat and sit down in the shade of the palm trees to discuss loan repayments for 20 minutes.
When the meeting is over, the loan officer suggests we head back to the office so that he can drop me off despite this being only a fraction of the borrower visits he does in one day. He tells me that some of his clients are double the distance we traveled today from the office and we would typically have another three to visit in addition to the two we had already seen. To thank him for his time, I offer to treat him to lunch. It is already 3:00 pm and I am beyond hungry. He seems pleasantly surprised – his days are usually so busy that he never has time for lunch so this is a real delight.
The least travelled loan officer
On a separate occasion, another loan officer kindly lets me tag along as he visits two of his borrowers. I had heard that compared to some of the other loan officers, he doesn’t need to travel very far for these borrower visits. This is all relative though and I’m somewhat skeptical that his borrowers are going to be easy to get to.
Similar to the first loan officer, we must walk 10 minutes to the nearest matatu station. Again, we board the matatu and must wait until it is full before we can set off. After 5-10 minutes of waiting, the matatu departs. It is swelteringly hot outside so we sit in the vehicle sweating like we’ve just run a marathon. When we encounter traffic, the matatu drives on the sidewalk and on the wrong side of the road to cut ahead of the other vehicles. Thanks to this creative maneuvering, it’s only a half hour before we turn off onto the road to Bamburi where his borrowers are located. We drive past several burning piles of garbage which have a piercing stench. I encounter these on occasion but haven’t been able to get used to the smell, though the loan officer doesn’t seem bothered in the slightest. After the Bamburi turn off, we drive another 15 minutes to our stop where get out and walk for two minutes to the borrower meeting.
We meet the borrowers outside a small government building and I am mesmerized by the 15-20 other borrower groups meeting huddled in circles ranging from 5 people to 25 people. Apparently this is a popular place for borrowers from all different MFIs to meet and it reminds me of how integral microfinance has become in these low-income areas.
We meet the borrowers for 15 minutes while the loan officer documents their repayments and savings progress. The meeting is relatively quick and it’s not long before we hop on another matatu for a 10 minute drive to his next borrower to whom he disburses a Kiva loan. This process takes 10 minutes as he explains how Kiva works, collects the borrower’s information and takes his picture. When this meeting ends, the loan officer sends me back to the office while he continues to meet several other borrowers. He doesn’t seem to eat lunch either as his day is also action-packed.
At the end of the day, he comes back to the office to document his progress for the day and completes some paperwork before heading home. This man’s typical day is by no means a walk in the park, and he is the loan officer who is rumored to travel the least.
Eyes and ears of the organization
Loan officers do far more than routinely travel to clients and attend meetings. They are the eyes and ears of an MFI; they observe what clients value in the MFI and what the clients would like to change about the MFI’s processes. They understand the challenges clients face in their day to day lives.
I asked one of the loan officers why customers choose SMEP over other MFIs. He said it can be a variety of reasons but often it is because SMEP is adaptable and offers loan features that respond the customer needs. One of his borrower groups told him they have difficulty making monthly repayments and would rather pay weekly to avoid keeping large amounts of cash on hand; he adapted and said he would come to them weekly instead. He listened to their needs and responded accordingly.
MFIs can have incredible customer service networks to solicit comments from customers, but the best form of feedback comes from loan officers who interact with the clients daily. If an MFI can successfully leverage the knowledge of their loan officers, it will really do wonders for their ability to meet customer needs.
A recap of the day in numbers – amount of time taken to visit two borrower groups