happy at the SMEP office during my first week

Most of you have figured out from reading our posts on the fellows’ blog that most of us start out wide-eyed and optimistic about of fellowships and about the deeper understanding of microfinance that we will gain at our placements. Then, after some time, we all go through a process of re-evaluating our situations, we question, we ponder, and we do so openly on this blog, Facebook status updates, and emails to friends and family. Then towards the end of our fellowship we settle somewhere, either on the side of continuing to believe that microfinance is a valuable tool to help eradicate poverty, or that it’s a sticky, sticky business and we’d like to go home now, thanks.  I’ve mainly been optimistic about microfinance’s ability to really change lives here in Kenya, but I also wanted to share with all of you some of the funnier and not so-great experiences I’ve had here too.

As a fellow, I’ve had to learn to take the romantic notion out of microfinance. Kiva partners are not blowing pixie dust at their clients, and changing paradigms with a single loan. In fact, change can be painfully slow.

Many fellows have commented on the fact that they continue to see the same businesses over and over again, with very little innovation and in some instances little thought that goes into which business to start and why. I’ve visited 6-10 clients in a day, and all of them had some type of small general store. This was not the sexy microfinance borrower I was expecting.

We also see that microfinance is costly in terms of time and resources – loan officers have to travel great distances, and we along with them trek along via whatever form of cheaper shared transportation is available in that host country. (the matatu, complete with blasting reggae music in Kenya) Fellows in Peru and Ecuador climb mountains to visit clients, in Krygystan, one wades through piles of snow, and in Samoa and the Phillipines, you endure cyclones and tsunamis.  My personal challenge has been mud and sun, sometimes simultaneously.

The task of bringing people together in a group to make loans to them is not without its perils. There was a robust argument occurring at one group meeting I attended in Rongai, almost a fistfight, over the group secretary’s lack of taking minutes for the group meeting due to his constant drunkenness.  In Kenya, with its myriad tribes and local languages and affiliations, tensions can run deep in mixed groups where stereotypes sometimes affect group dynamics.

These are just a few of the more interesting observations I have had since working with SMEP. Don’t get me wrong, this experience has been one of the coolest and fulfilling of my life. But as the title of this blog says, when the sun is hottest in Nairobi, you can expect some rain. (Actually, you can expect a torrential downpour) Microfinance isn’t always the lovely, inspirational, butterflies and hearts thing that we like to think it is. It gets complicated and gritty and dirty here in the trenches sometimes. But then again, there’s beauty in that too.

Avani Parekh-Bhatt just completed her placement with SMEP, based in Nairobi, Kenya.  She is thankful for the family she found here in Kenya, and for the support of Kiva staff, friends, and the Kiva Fellows. She hopes to settle in Kenya one day, and carry her babies around in a shuka.

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