To the Ends of the Earth
By Eric Rindal – Sierra Leone – KF15
I am writing this blog by hand today as I sit at my desk in Makeni, Sierra Leone. There is no power for the whole office. When I ask, “isn’t there National Power from the grid?” people just laugh (it only comes on at night for a few hours). When I ask, “What about the generator?” people just shrug (it runs on petrol). The town is actually out of petrol on this cloud-tumbling Monday morning. With finicky fuel costs, scarcity of fuel, and an inflation rate of 17.7% there are many reasons for days like this. The MFI (Microfinance Institution) staff is fidgeting to power up their computers and begin working on the ebb and flow of loans, clients, and monthly reports. Such is life in rural Sierra Leone, where verdant tropical forests blanket the region and scattered mountains are sleeping like behemoth tortoises.
So, what is it like for an “upcountry” MFI to partner with Kiva?
Salone Microfinance Trust (SMT) has five branch locations, and only one has internet by sharing three USB modems (with speeds equivalent to shouting at a satellite). This is a slight issue when one of my objectives is to upload more Kiva borrowers each month to Kiva.org (yeah, using the internet). With no shortage of microloans to offer clients and no shortage to post on Kiva.org, I’m analyzing the operations and systems in place to achieve this. In one way or another I have adopted the personas of both Sherlock Holmes and Abigail Van Buren to seek out clues and offer support and solutions. Meeting a monthly posting goal is not my MFI’s unique plight, but is very much a challenge of working in the rural areas of the world. If you have ever searched on the Kiva website for a country with remote locations (e.g. Sierra Leone), you may have wondered how those loans get posted.
If there is any confusion, Kiva.org is not a do-it-yourself website where entrepreneurs in developing countries fire up their Mac Book Air in the marketplace, take a snappy self-portrait, and then write a 3rd person description of their life, family, and business.
I am beginning to understand the sheer dedication and effort MFIs make in order to post loans from rural entrepreneurs “out there”. They go to the ends of the earth, and it takes quite a bit of effort to get an entrepreneur’s loan up on the Kiva site. SMT receives a “delivery” of Kiva questionnaires (used to write Kiva borrower profiles) once a month from branch locations 2-6 hours away (this delay could be averted if they had internet). I was introduced to this remoteness today as I left the rural city center and visited a branch office in a village. As we drove retrogressing from cement homes to mud brick homes and finally to palm branch sided and roofed homes, I was in awe to see the lives of Kiva borrowers. With few to no other MFIs in the rural villages where SMT works, it was evident how imperative business capital is for the rural working poor. I felt SMT was like an ink dye dropped into water and I witnessed it dispersing plumelike through rural Sierra Leone. It was encouraging to know SMT worked in these areas, and even more amazing to know remote entrepreneurs are being profiled on Kiva.org.
Have I solved the issue of posting? Not really. The posting of loans truly happens when rural MFIs value the Kiva partnership and believe their effort will improve the livelihood of their clients. When this is the case, it does not matter how far a loan officer has to drive, how long they must walk, or how patient they must be with the internet. I have invariably found that MFIs are willing to walk two miles instead of one, in pursuit of changing a life. And you know what? They expect Kiva lenders to do the same. Maybe that means to share the story of “your” borrower with a friend, or give someone a Kiva card (I got one last Sunday for my birthday), or whatever way you see fit to walk two miles instead of one for an entrepreneur living at the ends of the earth.