Borrower Visits: Uncle Alex’s Tips from the Field
By Alex Connelly | KF17 | Colombia
(Bogota Graffiti Wall)
After 2 months in the field I have finally landed in Bogota, Colombia’s decidedly hip capital city and the location for the rest of my fellowship. Up until know I’ve been bouncing around the country visiting borrowers, living mostly out of a (admittedly very large) backpack and becoming a discerning connoisseur of Colombia’s budget-hotel system. Before shifting my focus to my work here in Bogota, I’ve decided to pass on some tips picked up from my 25 Borrower Visits, both for future Kiva Fellows and for anyone else interested in the process of verifying those profiles on your computer screen.
#1 Never Turn Down A Drink/Sandwich
Strictly speaking, a BV wouldn’t seem to be all that complicated. You go in, verify a list of information about loan terms and use, and you’re on your way. But following such a check-list approach would be a serious mistake. After all, every borrower has unique circumstances and motivations, and the best way to truly gauge the impact of Kiva’s loans is to tease these stories out. Luckily this couldn’t be easier, as virtually every person I met was extremely hospitable, eager to invite me into their homes and offer me a snack. Always accept! This is the perfect way to extend your visit and dig deeper into both the professional and personal aspirations of the borrower. A good example is Alexander, a young father and Kiva borrower I met in Barranquilla, an industrial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
(I can’t figure out which of his kids is more adorable)
My visit with Alexander lasted around forty minutes, maybe 15 of which were dedicated to gathering the info required by Kiva. The rest was just chatting over coffee on folding chairs outside his shop. He told me about how his Kiva loan had allowed him to set-up and stock the small corner-store next to his house, letting him spend the work-day next to his wife and two kids. He told me how, after paying off the loan, he had plans to request another one, both to expand his store’s selection and to build another bedroom for his growing family. He told me above all how optimistic he was, how far he’d come and how much farther he planned to go. I left feeling great about the role microfinance plays in transforming people’s lives, and I also left feeling deliciously caffeinated (see #5). A double-win.
#2 Bring Reading Material
My second week of visits I was sent to do a BV in Puerto Triunfo – a little pueblo about 4 hours outside of Medellin – notable mainly for its extreme heat and man-eating mosquitoes. I’d arranged to meet with Juan at 11am, but due to a variety of hiccups (car troubles, last-minute errands, possibly forgetting about the gringo entirely), he didn’t show up until after six in the evening. I hadn’t thought to bring a book, so I spent those seven hours largely drumming my fingers, pounding bottles of water, and setting ever more preposterously high records on my cell phone’s copy of Snake. Since that day a book goes with me everywhere, if not two. Lesson learned.
#3 Pick The Brains Of The Loan Officers
This one should almost go without saying. What we see for a few months as Kiva Fellows the LO’s see every day of their working lives: the complicated logistics of administering loans on the ground and the significant individual impacts that make it all worth it. It is always a thrill to walk into a LO’s assigned neighborhood for the first time, to see how every 50 feet they get stopped by a smiling borrower or invited in for a drink. Pick their brains, invite them out for a beer, dig deeper.
(Mario, an FMSD Loan Officer, with borrower)
#4 Get A Real Camera
Part of the BV process is photographing the borrowers, as well as whatever interesting images grab your eye. At least superficially, the scratched lens on my iPhone was up to the task. Looking back at my pictures you can indeed tell that there are people in them, and that they seem to more-or-less match up to the photos we have on file. But how much better it would have been to have brought a real camera! Instead of combing through the dozens of blurry photos for the one presentable one, I could be littering my blog posts with crystal-clear images from the field. So it goes.
#5 Think Outside the Box
Back-to-back 6 hour bus rides, cold showers, and hotel mattresses can quickly lead to exhaustion and even low-morale if appropriate countermeasures are not taken. When facing multiple BVs in far-flung locations, the intrepid Kiva Fellow will do well to come up with innovative ideas to maintain a high energy level and enthusiasm at all times. To get the ball rolling, I’ve attached three of my solutions, developed and field-tested over weeks of trial-and-error:
1) Espresso 2) Café con Leche, and 3) Coffee Slushies. Apply 4-6 times daily.
#6 Motorcycles Are Awesome
Not really a tip so much as a statement of fact. Motorcycles can get you quickly where cars or buses can’t reach, and they’re an absolute godsend in the field. Just be sure to put on a helmet and hold tight, cuz the roads are going to get bumpy.
Go get ‘em.
Alex Connelly is a Kiva Fellow working on education loans in Bogota.