The Secret Bengali Ingredient for Change
I was recently in Kolkata, India for a Kiva fellowship to work with BJS, one of Kiva's partners, to visit its borrowers and help develop catalytic loan products to further reach underserved populations. Kolkata is a dynamic, vibrant city that is a marriage of the modernized and the developing. It was a captivating experience to be there, meet the people I met, and be a part of the local community, an intertwining of passions and talents.
I have a serious sweet-tooth and boy was I in for a treat when I discovered this city's passion for sweets. I gave in to my sugar cravings every chance I got, visiting multiple sweetshops and trying at least 10 different types of desserts, each with its own unique delicious blend of flavors. All the locals I met outside of West Bengal also obsessed over the Bengali sweets. Maybe it is a special type of milk or how the dessert is processed, but this is the uncrackable Bengali trade secret that will keep people (including me!) coming back for more.
While I did spend a good amount time being a foodie there, I also spent quite some time traveling and meeting the clients of BJS. What I couldn't wrap my head around was with the various risk factors in play at the localities that Kiva and its partners operate in, how could repayment be at such high levels? Rate of repayment back to Kiva is at about 98% and for its partner BJS, it is near perfect from the borrowers themselves. This simply was not something that could be explained by financial analysis or purely looking at numbers. This was beyond zeros and ones.
I realized the best way to get closer to understanding was to speak to the borrowers themselves to understand the rural communities, their mentalities, and what made them tick.
I went to visit a borrower group that consisted of several individual Kiva borrowers in a small village in Dhupguri. During the time I had spent with this group of women, a woman named Parul chimed in several times about how much having a loan has helped her.
Immediately, I wanted to hear her story. Exuding confidence and radiating energy, Parul told me about her firewood business. Parul has been generating income through collecting wood from neighboring villages and selling this firewood for a profit. However, even with the money made from this business, she was still facing money problems in her family. She has been in this business for about 10 years and has always struggled to take her business forward to the next step. After taking out a loan with Kiva's Partner, BJS, Parul was able to scale her business in a way she was never able to before and can now maintain a steady stream of cash flow.
When I asked Parul what drove her to work so hard at her business, she said to me with her infectious smile, "My family. My family keeps me going in everything that I do."
Meet Minu, a 24-year-old married woman with one daughter. She used her loan from BJS to buy seeds and fertilizer for her farming business. When I asked Minu what she enjoyed most about her business, she responded, "It comforts me to know that I can now start saving more money for a better education for my daughter".
During a financial literacy training session, I spent some time interacting with the women there. I remember one woman in particular that stood up and spoke about what Kiva and BJS had meant for her. Although I could not understand Bengali, I empathetically connected with her through her body language and voice. She told me how grateful she was for this loan and felt that she was in a more powerful position now that she was given an opportunity to contribute to and make a difference for her family.
After speaking to borrowers across various parts of West Bengal, I have come away with a better grasp of the underlying driver for these women's increased participation in economic activities. Nothing makes these women more content than knowing that their husbands and children are healthy and that they are providing the most that they can for their children's present and future. They look to advance their own backgrounds and economic status for the betterment of their families. These women feel privileged that they were given loans. For them, it means that BJS, Kiva, and all the Kiva lenders across the globe believe in their abilities and skills. Accordingly, it motivates them to not only be responsible borrowers but also become more successful entrepreneurs.
So, thank you to all the Kiva lenders for giving these women confidence. Please continue to do what you do— being a catalyst in changing these women's attitudes and lives and being a source of empowerment.