Small is Beautiful
The day starts with an early rise. I get picked up at 5am in the obligatory Lada (a small hardworking Russian car) to head out to the remote region of Fuzili. It’s a 4 ½ hour drive from Baku and we want to beat the traffic. I’m spending the day with Komak Credit Union. With me are Afa (Kiva Coordinator) and Farhad (loan officer and designated driver for the day). Along the way we stop off at a mosque that is being renovated to leave a small donation and pray for a safe journey.
The sun rises around 7.30 to reveal the most glorious sight. There is a mist covering the land and the combination of the orange glow of the rising sun and pale silver light projected from the moon, still visible overhead, gives the landscape an almost ethereal quality bathed in translucent light. It is quite eerie but very beautiful.
Komak is a small credit union. It only has 4 offices and one loan officer per branch. But you know what size is not everything. What they lack in stature they more than make up for in how they go about their business. Credit Unions are non-profit and owned entirely by their members who are also their borrowers. After all expenses have been met any income left over is either reinvested to improve the service or passed back to members in the form of a dividend. It’s a great model.
The Komak office in Fuzili is tiny with a roughly hand painted sign above the door. There is a desk for the loan officer, a safe, 2 chairs for customers and that’s about it. A map of Azerbaijan is hung on the wall with a butterfly pinned over our location.
Afa is wonderful. She is 22 and put her education on hold to work with Komak for a couple of years. Her father was one of the founders of the union and she wanted to find out for herself what it was that her dad felt so passionate about. She is intelligent, articulate, full of energy and has a real passion for what she is doing. She has this quality to make people feel at ease and get them to talk openly and laugh. Sometimes Kiva borrower visits can be a little formal to begin with. People are worried when they learn a foreigner will come to visit them. They immediately think they have done something wrong or why would someone travel all this way. You have to work hard to earn their trust and put them at ease.
Not so when Afa is around. With her these visits really come to life and you get the opportunity to connect fully with the borrowers and find out all about their lives, challenges, hopes and aspirations.
I meet a number of Komak’s borrowers. Like Gorban, an industrious farmer who raises cattle. He shows me with pride his old army identify papers and photographs of him in uniform from when he was young. He owns two cows bought with the help of a Kiva loan. One of them is pregnant which is great news. He tells me that his dream is to grow his herd to 10 animals and start to produce milk to sell.
We meet Narida an elderly lady who also looks after cattle. She proves to be great fun and has an infectious laugh. However she gets serious for a moment when we talk about her grandchildren. She worries about them as it’s very difficult to get work in the area. We hear this same story from other families some of whom have children who’ve had to leave and go to Baku in search of employment.
However not every young person leaves. Zohrab is an aspiring entrepreneur (23) who drives a taxi ferrying fruit and vegetables. He required a loan from Kiva to repair his car. He makes the long journey to Baku and back 3 to 4 times a week and feels blessed when he does because it means he has work for the day. I vow never again to complain about having to make a long car journey.
I learn that we are right on the border of the conflict zone and that at night gunfire can be heard in the distance. A young soldier was killed here last month when there was an inevitable skirmish between rival armed forces. It’s very sad. Life here is very hard without the added complication of armed conflict.
I meet numerous borrowers who are shopkeepers. There are no supermarkets here, the corner shop rules. Villages are very remote and most people do not possess a car or have the ability to drive. The corner shop is essential to pick up day to day necessities. These shops are amazing they are an exercise in how to pack a lot into a very limited space. I feel certain that if I asked for something odd, like green shoelaces, they would be found on one of the shelves.
The day finishes with a long, but enjoyable, journey home. Farhad treats me to some traditional music on the car stereo. He puts the steering wheel between his legs so he can wave his arms and snap his fingers in time with the beat. Afa accompanies the singer (badly but she doesn’t care she is happy) and tells me about her future plans to go to university to become a designer.
I arrive home at 10.30 pm tired, but happy and full of great memories. It was fantastic to see first-hand the great work that Komak does in the field. They may be small but their social impact is enormous.
Kiva Fellow, FK25, Azerbaijan