Saturday, June 13, 2009

First (successful) Interview with a Microlending Client

I was finally able to put together some questions, with help from Whole Planet, and do an interview with one of Banrural Grameen's clients. I attempted to stumble through an initial interview on Wednesday, only to discover that her Mayan-tinged-Spanish accent mixed with a familiarity of hearing said accent along with the typical Guatemalan accent did not bode well with my Gringo-marred-Argentine-influenced accent and likewise accent comprehension. The interview was pretty rocky and based on her seeming unwillingness to submit to an interview, I let it go and didn't take any pictures. In my defense, it was a small group that day and none of the women seemed extremely willing to tell their story to an American, one pointing out that she spoke no English. Anyhow, that was a bit of a discouraging event so I went out again yesterday (Friday) and attempted once again. This time I was able to speak with the center president and she was very happy to both have a visitor to the center and talk about her story—and the accents chose not to intervene so heavily.

This particular center is located about 45 minutes by motorcycle from the bank branch in Panajachel. The path from Pana winds up through the mountains giving way to views of steep waterfalls and thick forestry. A few fleeting views (marked as scenic viewpoints by the rest areas congested with roadside stands selling everything from bracelets to shirts) of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes always takes my breath away and I don't think I'll ever get tired of taking pictures of the sight.

As you emerge from the mountains the ride becomes much flatter and the signs of rural poverty are immediately apparent. Some communities obviously fare better than others but it's not uncommon to see a starving cow hitched to a post salvaging what it can of the stark roadside vegetation or someone lying on the side of road. I'm not trying to be snobby or presumptuous here, poverty is a harsh reality in Central and Latin America, and Guatemala is no exception. The landscape is beautiful but its history is not. The people here make the best of what they can and I've not heard anyone complain. Things get rough, but the only way to live is to keep on keepin' on (I'll admit the fault in the reference to rock lyrics…).

We finally reached the center in the small town of Camanchaj, and ducked through the branches of several apple trees straining under the weight of its offering for the season, a plausible sign that things are good here. Through a small apple forest we reached the place for the meeting: a decently sized square building, modestly constructed of bamboo walls and a tarp roof. This center is smaller than the others, a total of 10 members divided in three groups. The ideal center, again, is 6 groups and 30 members; no doubt this one looks to grow. As the field loan officer and I sat down I nervously looked around to the members present and asked if I could do a quick interview. We established that I was from the States and very interested in microcredit lending and just wanted to know a few things about how someone had used their loans.

One woman volunteered. Manuela Riquic Xaper, is the president of the center and has received one loan from Banrural Grameen. As president her responsibility is to arrive ten minutes early to the center and ensure that everyone is on time to every meeting (bi-weekly). She also must encourage the members do their best to pay on time and do everything she can to ensure the center runs smoothly in order to assist the loan officer. One of her first questions to the loan officer I was with was, assuming my Spanish was not functional, "does he export clothes and the like back to the states?" True mark of an entrepreneur in every sense of the word. She informed me that she had no children and the woman sitting next to her was quick to point out that that was because she is single.

Doña Manuela has lived in Camanchaj her whole life and attended primary school until the fourth year. She now lives in a small but functional house near the main road of the town. The location of the previously mentioned bamboo meeting space is located in her backyard, and the apple trees are hers. She informed me that the apples will be ready in August, they were still a bit young now.

She has received only one loan from the bank, amounting to 1000 Quetzales (roughly $125) and used the money to buy more fruit to stock her stand. Manuela runs a fruit stand both using the fruit she is able to grow at home and buying some from the market. She also sews blouses and hats in the local Mayan designs. Upon the end of the question and answer aspect of the interview, she brought me out a small basket of plums and apples with a small bowl of salt for the fruit. She told me the fruit was still a bit sour as it had not reached full ripeness but that it was still good. I happily took some of the fruit and quickly ate three small plums, each as tart and juicy as the next. Being a bit of a sweet tooth and not always having the ability to indulge here, the fruit was a very delicious gift.

After the meeting, I asked Manuela to show me some of her handicraft work. She only had a few hats at that time so she went inside and brought out some examples. I bought a couple of them both as a thank you and because I thought they were cool and have a story behind them for me now. Manuela told me of how she hopes to keep increasing her business so as to open up new stores in other parts of the country and to send her work to other parts of the world. She explained that the microcredit loans from Grameen bank give her hope that this dream may someday be achieved and expressed great appreciation of the bank for her current economic situation. The bank made her life greatly easier, she said, and allowed her to purchase more fruit for her stand, which in turn increased her customer base. Of her customer base she said she knows her customers well and many of her customers return time and time again.

Talking to Doña Manuela, I felt a certain sense of excitement. It was my first real one on one talking time with someone who has received a microcredit loan. She seemed genuinely excited about the whole loan process. It's really been an experience to get to see everything in action and days like this day make me all the more glad that I've had this opportunity.

I admit my interviewing skills need some practice, but I'm assuming that will come with time and learning from previous mistakes so as to get at least a little more information than I might normally get. Alomgir, the head guy at Banrural Grameen, handed me a Grameen Trust newsletter as an example and requested that I type up an article to present in this magazine. I'll be working on that along as some things to put together for Whole Planet Foundation in the next couple of weeks.

Hope everyone is well!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A little more on training and life around the office

Just to start off where I ended last time, here's the last paragraph from the previous entry:

That day we visited three centers (each loan officer is encouraged to take on a load such that they visit three centers every day Monday-Thursday, I'm not sure yet, but I think there's between 4 and 6 loan officers at the branch). The next day I was able to visit another two centers and a capacitación, or training of a new center. With Grameen Bank, the women must attend 7 different training sessions so this was only the first that I got to go to.

This training was about 45 minutes by motorcycle outside of Panajachel in a small community outside of Sololá, Guatemala. David, the loan officer I went along with, and I rode into the village only to realize he had no idea of the location of the house where we were to meet the women who wanted to start a new Center. David made a few calls and we ended up having to ride around asking if anyone knew of the group. We were soon directed up a hill to a small house. The owner of the house welcomed us in and informed us that she had told everyone the meeting was at 330, instead of 3. This was at 2:45. David was in a bit of a rush to get back to the office and asked the woman if she could call around.

The group slowly filtered in, and David began explaining the process of the loan distribution. He explained that they must train in a couple different sessions and then all travel as a group to the main office in Panajachel to fill out paper work and receive their loans as well as loan booklets. He handed them each a piece of paper with the 4 promises on it and told each group of women (group=5, center=5-6 groups) that they must have the four main promises memorized when they come to the office. Some of the women were already familiar with the program and were able to help the others. David instructed them to get their kids, or their friends, to read the promises and help them to memorize them if they were unable to read. David handed out some papers with the information on them and told the women to choose their groups and their presidents and we were on our way back to Panajachel.

The women came in last Saturday where David and one of the Bangladeshis who works in the office, Borhan, sat them down and explained everything in detail. I wasn't able to be at this part of the training session, unfortunately, so I can't really go into detail about it.

Other than that, it's been pretty much the same day to day. Some days I'll go out to visit the centers and other days I'll stay in the office and help out with whatever I can. I've been doing quite a bit of translating for Alomgir as he had a Microcredit Summit for Latin America and the Caribbean region this week in Cartagena, Colombia.

I just got an updated document on things I can put together for Whole Planet while I'm here and it includes a lot of interviewing of the clients about their business and life and the extent of the impact of the loan on their lives. Hopefully I'll be able to put some of that up here, along with some more pictures (I'm finally ready to take the Canon Rebel out…) and make this a little more interesting…

PS. Here's an interview with Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi who started Grameen Bank and won the Nobel Prize for it in 2006. I haven't listened to it yet, but pretty much anything by NPR is pretty good:

"Nobel Prize Winner on the Power of Microcredit"


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So far…

I'm not feeling terribly inspired to write now but figured I ought to at least give those who were curious a small run down on how things have been going. I'm writing this on a Monday night and as of right now I have officially been here one week.

The country is beautiful, but it's immediately palpable that things are not easy here. Driving from Guatemala City to Panajachel (about a 3 hour ride) gave view to a vast array of abundant farmland—my bus driver pointed out the cauliflower, pumpkin, carrots, coffee, ma and various other crops—but at the same time the deep levels of poverty are quickly evident. Driving through the lush greenery that one would expect of Central America, it's hard to miss the polluted streets and rundown shacks of corrugated metal and wood that serve as homes. As we got further from the city the landscape quickly change from hilly, rolling (or otherwise treacherous mountain scenery to those hailing from West Texas) farmland into winding mountain roads. It's a bit muggy here and I had to concentrate pretty hard going through the snaking mountain pass to hold my stomach. The private driver I hired to bring me to Pana brought his sisters along for the ride, who spent a small deal of the ride asking me what I thought about my current situation and my first impressions of Guatemala. The younger of the two, still probably in her mid-thirties, cordially invited me to visit her in Antigua to go salsa dancing one weekend—albeit to the chagrin of her brother, the driver. I politely handed her my pen and paper and assured her I would call her soon. We'll see…

We finally broke through the pass and the lake became immediately visible. It was cloudy that day so I couldn't see the full landscape, but it was still very impressive. We wound our away around down into the town and the driver pulled aside on a street and let me get out. I called Alton, the man I was supposed to meet to take me to my host family's house, and he met me on the opposite side of town so as to show me the key areas of interest on our way to the house. He showed me a few bars, showed me where the Spanish school is (I'm hiring my room through them and have to pay them weekly…) and then brought me to my house. My house is a lot nicer than I was really expecting and my room is simple but very comfortable. I've got a bed, a table, a lawn chair and a computer desk. Nothing more. My room is situated in the middle of the house in such a manner that I have windows facing one area and my door faces a larger atrium, through which I must pass so as to pass through another door which leads to the area opposite of the windows in my room. Too many prepositions, but you get the idea. I can hear EVERYTHING in the house. I wake up every morning at 530 AM to the shrill chirp of some ungodly pet bird from the upstairs apartment (my host mother's sister's apartment), and was witness to some sort of argument between my host mother and father on the other side of my windows at about 1 AM last week (I'm still unsure of the exact issue, he either cheated on her or was fired…). They're both very nice people; he works while she stays at home with her 7 month old baby and their 6 or 7 year old son Juan Carlos. They've both got college degrees so they're more or less automatically part of the upper class of Guatemalan society.

The same day I was introduced to the city, Alton took me to the Grameen office to meet the people. My main boss was out visiting clients when I came, so I briefly introduced myself to those there and we made our way back into the central part of town where Alton and I went our separate ways. I went back to the Spanish school to update my parents via Skype that I had arrived and to pay my rent and rent a cell phone. I went back to my room and read for a while and fell asleep shortly after dinner.

The next morning I woke up at 7 and had my breakfast (some sort of warmed milk liquid with cocoa crisps in it) and walked to work. Luckily, I live about 5 minutes by foot from work. I talked to Alomgir—the main boss—and discussed a few things and he gave me three books on Grameen Bank and microcredit to read. I spent most of the first day thumbing through those books and finished one of them. I was very bored that day and tried very hard to keep my patience about me, imagining things will eventually look up as I take a more defined role in what I'm supposed to be doing for them.

The next morning I had the opportunity to go out and visit a couple of centers. In the Grameen Bank method of microcredit, and more specifically the branch here, only women are allowed to take out loans. In order to receive a loan, a woman must find a group of 4 other women so as to form a group. To form a center, there must be a total of 5 to 6 groups, and the subsequent center aims to have about 30 members. The groups are formed as a means of social pressure on the repayment of loans. The loans are given without collateral and the basic idea is that each woman will feel socially and morally obliged to do her best to pay the loan back. The women must visit the main branch office in Panajachel to receive their loans and at that point after they are visited by a loan officer every 15 days and required to pay a small part of the loan they receive. For instance, and only estimating because I cannot remember the exact numbers, but on received loan they will pay somewhere between 75-120 Guatemalan Quetzales, depending on their plan (there's about 8 Quetzales to 1 US dollar right now). Twenty percent of that payment is taken as interest and another 2 Quetzales is put into a savings fund that the women can use in case of emergency. The twenty percent interest rate does seem high, but it is a fairly small amount in terms of what other loans may be available to women of such social status—e.g. some rates amounting to upwards of 300%. A microfinance institution is not inexpensive to run and these loans are truly aimed at assisting the women in building their businesses and breaking the cycle of poverty. The bank does not aim to tear the women down through the loans, the exact reason for the absence of a requirement of collateral.

The day before I was to visit the centers I met a loan officer, David, who offered to take me out into the country and told me to bring a jacket as we'd be traveling by motorcycle. I've always wanted a motorcycle but that first ride on the motorcycle, my first ever, scared me out of my mind. I got used to it after about 30 minutes and now I'm even more certain I'm going to have a motorcycle at some point. Anyhow, we traveled to the first center which was about 30 minutes outside of Pana. I followed David as he asked permission to enter the small clay house we had arrived at. The house was dimly lit, but as my eyes adjusted I was able to see all of the women of the center sitting, patiently awaiting David's arrival. David addressed them and introduced me as the American visitor and asked me to say a few words. A little surprised by the gesture and unable to put together a solid Spanish introduction for myself in such short notice, I muttered something along the lines of thanks so much for letting me be here, I'm glad to be here. The women giggled in a non-threatening manner and we continued on with the meeting. David asked the elected president of the center to begin the meeting and as she stood, the rest followed suit. They said a quick prayer and then went repeated after the president the promises they had taken when they received the loan: to begin and end the meetings punctually, to use the loans only to further the success of their businesses and not for personal reasons such as buying clothes or food, to try to improve their lives and that of their families, and to drink only water from tube wells or boiled water. After this they sit down and David began the process of collecting each individual's small booklet and loan payment. He noted each woman's payment and subtracted that from the loan total and made a note of the paid interest as well as the additional 2 Quetzal deposit into their savings account. He went through each group and after each handed back said group's booklets. He let me go through and write in the tallies on a few of the books so I could see how it worked. Once he finished with that, and the books were returned he prompted to the president to end the meeting and we collected our gatherings and took off on the motorcycle to two other centers where the situation was much the same.

That day we visited three centers (each loan officer is encouraged to take on a load such that they visit three centers every day Monday-Thursday, I'm not sure yet, but I think there's between 4 and 6 loan officers at the branch). The next day I was able to visit another two centers and a capacitación, or training of a new center.

I didn't realize I was going to be so long winded when I started this so for both your sake and mine, I'm going to break the rest of my week and weekend into another entry. Expect that at some point later this week…

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