Kiva on the border
My name is Max Schoening, and I’ll be a Kiva Fellow in Malaba, western Kenya for the next six weeks. I’m part of a team of six students from Brown University that will be posting updates onto Kiva.org, as well as making a short movie about Kiva to show at the Clinton Global Initiative Summit this fall. Along with being Kiva Fellows, we are also the Brown chapter of a national organization called Students of the World. Students of the World (www.studentsoftheworld.org) is an organization with a mission to send college students to developing countries in order to document creative solutions to problems affecting the developing world. After extensive research this year, we chose Kiva because of its innovative approach to micro-finance that addresses a lack of capital that microfinance institutions have to work with. Three of the students will be volunteering with KMET, located in Kisumu, a small city off of Lake Victoria. The rest of us are working with Peoples Micro-credit & Investment Bureau (PEMCI), a small but rapidly growing micro-credit institution servicing previously ignored communities in the Teso District.
For starters, I’ll introduce the team working with PEMCI. Justine McGowan is a rising senior who will graduate concentrating in both Development Studies and Gender Studies, an appropriate intersection of focuses for our work at PEMCI, as women’s empowerment is a fundamental aspect of the development work being done here. Justine is also a great resource for traveling, as she has traveled most extensively out of all of us. Last summer she had an internship with an NGO in Khartoum, Sudan, in the fall she studied in Morocco, and has also spent time in Tanzania teaching English. It’s pretty much a daily occurrence that I ask her “can I eat this.” Ryan Heath graduated from Brown in 2005 with a degree in Biology, experience in leadership education, and an interest in international work. He joined Students of the World last year on a trip to Addis Ababa to film a documentary on Voluntary Counseling and Testing for HIV, and spent this year helping organize this year’s project. Lastly, I’m a rising junior studying International Relations. I’m especially interested in how global media interacts with international issues, and have also developed an interest in documentary photography while doing Darfur advocacy for the past couple of years. Being a Kiva fellow presents an incredible opportunity for me to practice documentary photography and put it to good use, and Kiva is a relevant study on how the internet and media production is affecting development, building transnational connections, as well as hopefully changing the way that the developing world is perceived by the first world.
We arrived in Malaba, population approx. 7,000, on Sunday, May 27th. Malaba is a border town with Uganda, and the office is literally a 10 minute bike ride from crossing over. Torroro rock, a beautiful mesa shaped mountain in Uganda, protrudes from the skyline, and while riding through the countryside visiting entrepreneurs, the motorbike drivers often point to a valley dotted with reflecting roofs and say “there’s Uganda.”
As a border town, there are constantly trucks on the main strip, called Uganda Road. During the day, they pass through chugging out exhaust, and as it gets dark, drivers fill the Malaba center strip with their parked cabs. Malaba is a central exit point for cargo that enters Kenya in Mombassa, a port city on the eastern coast. The trucks pass through Nairobi and then exit Kenya through Malaba. Carrying huge loads (occasionally illicitly huge, as drivers sometimes bribe customs officials to surpass the weight limit—a corruption felt when you bump your head on the ceiling of the car while passing through town), these trucks depart from Malaba for Uganda, Southern Sudan, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and sometimes Malawi. It’s pretty interesting imagining yourself in a main artery that connects the flows of East Africa.
As we’ve also learned about border towns, much of the business (obviously not Kiva business) is conducted illicitly, and at night. Whether capitalizing on a disparity in prices, or taxes between Uganda and Kenya, avoiding customs taxes, or the prostitution that services the truck drivers who must spend the night, there is definitely a shadow economy. This gives Malaba a distinct feeling of place also characterized by constant movement and transport. By far, however, the overwhelming majority of business in Malaba is hard honest work.
As far as we can tell, we are the only white people in Malaba, so when we walk through town all eyes are on us—at least for now. Children, and even some adults, shout “Mzungu”, Swahili for “white person” as we pass by. Even though it is not meant in a derogatory tone, it can certainly make you self-conscious. The surprise, and sometimes pure shock on the faces of the young children when we pass through the smaller towns in the Teso district is understandable. As the loan officers at PEMCI have explained, we may be the first white people they have ever seen.
PEMCI, the MFI we are working with, is a newly started micro-credit institution. Margaret Karuri, a Kenyan woman with extensive experience with development in Africa, started it two years ago with a vision to serve communities and businesses that had been previously neglected by commercial banks and even other MFIs. For instance, when we made a visit to businesses in Chemasiri, a small town on the outskirts of the Teso district, a successful farmer explained his town’s new experience of micro-credit. As he described, other banks and MFI’s had never served his town. He gushed about the powerful impact PEMCI’s loans have had on his community, especially the newfound hope felt by people in a town that had been previously isolated from capital to catalyze growth. He said that even in a short period of time the community has been connected with PEMCI, he has been able to notice an increase in quality of life—with decreased poverty, increased food production, and even a reduction of health problems. Personally, with a PEMCI loan, he had been able to increase his maize production to 6 acres, which lowered the price the local schools paid him.
Our daily work with PEMCI consists of going out into the field with loan officers and meeting with small businesses. Because PEMCI serves people throughout the entire Teso district, visiting borrowers can be up to a 30-40 minute ride on motorbike. These rides are probably one of the most fun parts of being a Kiva Fellow. Riding on the back of the bike with the loan officer driving, we go far into the countryside, many times on back roads. The landscape is stunningly beautiful with lush green hills and valleys, tall maize fields glistening in the noon sun, and red dirt roads. As we drive, we pass all sorts of people walking the roads, whether it be primary school children in bright blue or yellow uniforms, mamas carrying a baby on their back and grain in their arms, young men herding cattle, or an old man in a suit.
Once we arrive at the small towns, we meet with the loan groups. Loans are given out to groups of about 10-15 people. The communal nature of the loan giving allows for people to pool money together so that they can have enough seed money for a loan. The way the group works is that there is an order in the group in which members can receive loans. Once the first loan is given out, the second person in the order can only receive a loan once the first recipient makes loan repayments consistently on time. Following in the same pattern, the third person can only receive a loan once the second person has consistently made repayments, all the way up to the last person. From what I understand, this is the basic standard for micro-credit. The group format is crucial in many ways. It provides a support system for people to be able to make their repayments. If one business has a tough week, others in the group can contribute to their loan repayment, because they all have self-interest in each individual repaying their loan. Also, the groups create peer pressure to manage the business wisely, and make loan repayments on time. Moreover, from what I have been told here, the cooperation and mutual support that the loan groups establish transcends loan repayment and affects the ways that businesses interact in the community. It builds on an already established notion of common fate and mutual support in many of these rural communities, and facilitates cooperation and common interest among the business community.
Because PEMCI works with businesses that may have never received loans before, a large aspect of their work is geared towards teaching people how to borrow, save, and grow their businesses. The loan officers who go out into the field every day work extremely hard, and sometimes even seven days a week to help teach and organize businesses. The group setting for loan giving provides a good setting for the loan officers to be able to teach a larger audience, and it also allows for people to learn together and eventually teach each other.
Meeting with the Kiva entrepreneurs for one week, we have already heard many inspiring stories. People are overcoming tremendous personal challenges in places where much of the population makes a dollar a day or less. With Kiva loans, Rose Amoit has grown her clothing business to a point where she was able to purchase the land to buy her own store, rather than rent, and also expand the business to include a salon. This is a recently widowed woman who faces the responsibility of raising her child on her own. Peter Okibayi started a shop in Moding this year in order to provide for an enormous family. Already supporting eight of his own children, when his brother passed away three years ago, he took on the responsibility of the 19 children he had had through two wives. Already overcoming a childhood as an orphan that forced him into casual labor, Peter is working hard with Kiva’s help to expand his business and provide for 27 children.
We all look forward to continuing to meet with the people of western Kenya who have already been so welcoming. We’ll continue to relay our experiences through journals and the blog.