The following is a transcript of an interview with Kiva Investment Manager Lina Ramirez, who manages Field Partners Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Some of the responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Since you’re based internationally, we imagine that there are many different perspectives that you can offer the Kiva community. What is your daily life in Colombia like, and how have things changed since COVID-19 and quarantine started?
The first month of quarantine, I went to my parents’ country house, which is one hour from Bogota in a little town called Villeta. The weather there is really nice, about 75 degrees F. My girlfriend and I have cats, and we left them with my neighbor in Bogota, so after a month we had to return to our apartment and start living our lives! That’s how it’s going to be. You cannot escape from reality. So we’ve been here in the apartment, and things are going well. I thought it was going to be tough, because the apartment is not that big, and Bogota is cold, but at least we’re getting along and we’re both working. I think it’s important to keep yourself busy.
What is the overall situation like in Colombia?
We started our lockdown two months ago, and so far, most of the cities are doing ok. Bogota has the majority of cases, but people are aware of the situation and are taking care of themselves.
Quarantine was supposed to end this week, but then the government extended it for another month until June 30th. We still don’t have any commercial flights internally or internationally; everything is closed. In the coastal part of the country (i.e. Cartagena, Barranquilla), people really like to hold social gatherings. There, the virus is out of control. They have a thousand new cases every day. Our client there, Fundación Mario Santo Domingo, was telling me about the situation. It’s also very difficult for people there because not many homes have air conditioning, so it gets really hot. People go out into the street to talk to neighbors, to stay cool. For them, the risk is worth it.
How soon might the local economy pick back up?
In terms of economic activity, some sectors have opened up. They are already working in the construction sector. The retail and domestic service sectors will open up next week. The shopping malls are going to start opening too, but Bogota has sanitary measurements that they follow every day: one is regarding the public transportation system that we have in Bogota. Usually 3 million people in a city of 10 million take the metro bus to travel around the city. In order to have space to comply with all the health requirements and protocols, the capacity of the metrobus needs to stay under 35%. If that capacity increases, people are not going to respect social distancing. That means that we will go back to full quarantine again.
They are also measuring the intensive care units daily. If they reach 50% capacity, again, full quarantine. I’m sure that in July, we’re going to be completely open. But still, I think that we have to start learning to live with it, because I don’t know when we’re going to get the vaccine in Latin American countries. Our governments have to try to find that balance between economic activity and health for the people, because businesses are really impacted. Our major airline is bankrupt and another is approaching bankruptcy. So I understand why our government would need to reactivate the economy.
Are people wearing masks?
Here, it’s mandatory. If you don’t wear a mask, the police will fine you. You see a lot of policemen in the streets looking for people. So everyone has a mask at least. It’s kind of terrifying, I will say. I didn’t go out for two months, and then seeing everyone with masks and gloves was kind of scary. I was like wow, this is going to be our new life. But I guess in the end, we will get used to it.
With all of the shutdowns and economic downturns caused by COVID, how are the Field Partners and borrowers in the portfolio you manage doing?
The Field Partners that we have in Colombia are doing ok. The first month it was difficult, because the shutdown was really tough, and of course their credit officers were not able to go and visit clients. They were not able to post loans, so they were struggling a bit. But then, starting mid-April, everything started to open up a bit. They started going out and visiting clients. It’s slowly getting activated. It’s a little bit tough in Barranquilla, but our other Field Partner in Medellin is managing the situation very well, and they have already flattened the curve.
Costa Rica did a really good job as well. The government took great precautions and measurements. They don’t have a lot of cases. 15 days ago, they opened up the economy and everything back up again. We have two partners there, one in San Jose and the other 3 hours from San Jose in an agricultural area. In that area, they didn’t have any COVID virus at all! It’s business as usual for them.
In El Salvador and Honduras, they were not as lucky as the Field Partners in Colombia. The problem there is that they have major gangs. In El Salvador specifically, with all the lockdowns, gangs start reappearing and stealing, wreaking havoc… Fortunately, our Field Partners were ok. They are also still in lockdown, and will be opening up at the end of June.
In Honduras, one of the Field Partners is in the capital and they are doing ok. They are locked down, but they were still able to go out and visit clients. The other Field Partner is in the Northern part of Honduras, where the virus was really concentrated. They are still struggling.
As you can tell, some Field Partners are doing ok, and some are really going to be impacted. From the portfolio I manage, just one client is going to have liquidity issues because they are a small NGO and if they cannot go out and place loans, they aren’t going to get any income. The other partners are really solid financially. Of course their finances will be impacted, but they’re not going to have any issues surviving the situation.
What is Kiva doing to address the issues faced by COVID-impacted partners?
We’re working in two scenarios: the COVID-19 recovery loan theme and the Crisis Support Loan (CSL). The idea of the loan theme product is that Field Partners will be able to post clients and lend them money solely with the purpose of recovery. I know that many partners from the portfolio in Latin America applied for this loan theme product and they are using it. One of my Field Partners in El Salvador applied for this product. They already have 10 clients posting in our marketplace and they are already funded.
With CSLs, the idea is to directly post the Field Partners in our marketplace as borrowers. When you talk to partners, they want liquidity because of the liquidity crunch they will experience in the coming months. I was pleased to hear them say that Kiva is the only fund or impact investment vehicle that is helping them and giving them liquidity. All of the Micro Investment Banks (MIBs) and impact funds that used to lend to them in this situation, they really don’t want to lend or they want to wait to see how the situation is in the future, how every country manages things.
From my portfolio, one client is already posted on the Kiva platform. We already approved them for a 500k loan and since last week, they are in the marketplace and they have collected approximately 7% of the $500,000 ($40,000 has already been funded).
This week we’re going to have another client from Costa Rica with a 200k loan. And next week, we will have one client from El Salvador with a 500k loan. One thing that the Field Partners like about these loans is that they can use the liquidity for anything they want. Usually our loans have to be used for a specific purpose, but this liquidity… if they need to pay another lender, they can use it to do so. If they need to pay the payroll, they can use it for that. Or they can even lend to their own clients. I think it was a relief to have this additional liquidity to be able to overcome the situation.
What brings you a sense of hope during this difficult time?
I think that crisis brings opportunity. We’re going to have to learn to live with this situation, but I’m sure that it will make us better humans, more conscious of what we have, more grateful. This is a great opportunity to rethink our lives, to really start making some changes. The way that we were living was perhaps not the proper way, and that’s why life, earth, the universe are drawing our attention to the fact that we need to stop. I guess my message is, don’t worry, this too shall pass, and that we’re going to be okay, maybe even better than we were before. We just have to be patient and willing to help the people that need us at this moment.
Stay tuned for more interviews with Kiva's investment managers during the pandemic.
Eager to make a difference? Head to kiva.org/covidresponse to find out how.