Investment Manager Michelle Schenk speaks on the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa


The following is an interview with Kiva Labs Partnerships Manager Michelle Schenck, who manages a portfolio in Africa and the Middle East. Some of the responses have been edited for clarity and brevity. 


Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in your current role at Kiva.

My career has always focused on Africa, though I initially focused on wildlife conservation and volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute on an eco-tourism project in Uganda straight out of college. From there, I went on to study the role of poverty in bushmeat hunting in Gabon for my Master's thesis and my interest continued to shift more towards development and microfinance. That's how I ended up doing a Kiva Fellowship in South Africa and Zambia in 2013. I was really impressed with how Kiva was branching out beyond working with MFIs to provide credit financing to non-profits and social enterprises and was thrilled to join as a Kiva as a Field Support Officer in Nairobi after my fellowship. 

My role then transitioned into Portfolio Manager and eventually Labs Partnership Manager for Africa and the Middle East. I love working on the Labs team because we manage Kiva's most unique partnerships with NGOs like CAMFED (The Campaign for Female Education) where young women repay their loans with "social interest". We also manage social enterprises like Jibu and African Clean Energy (ACE) that use Kiva funding to set up local entrepreneurs with clean water franchises and sell clean cookstoves on credit in Lesotho.


Since you’re based internationally, we imagine that there are many different perspectives that you can offer the Kiva community. What is daily life like where you live, and how have things changed since COVID-19 and quarantine started?

I spent my first 3.5 years with Kiva based in our Nairobi office with a few colleagues, but now I'm what I call "remote remote" in South Africa. We don't have an office here, but I do have a free membership to the Johannesburg Impact Hub and work from there about 50% of the time. I work from home or in coffee shops the other 50% of the time. 

That was before COVID-19. Now, I strictly work from home as everything is closed here and I spend my work day hiding from my 18 month old toddler who knows I'm somewhere in the house trying to work! I've hidden behind curtains and under desks and even worked in the driveway because once he finds me, he refuses to let me work and always wants mommy over daddy or his nanny.


What is the overall situation like in your country? Are people wearing masks? How soon might the local economy pick back up?

The lockdown in South Africa has been one of the strictest in the world and it hasn't been easy. For the first five weeks of lockdown (Level 5), we weren't even allowed to go for a walk in our neighborhood. We could only leave for groceries or medical needs, and you couldn't buy any "non-essential" items at the grocery store. For example, no birthday cards allowed! And no food delivery or takeaway. 

For the next month under Level 4 lockdown, we could exercise only between 6-9 a.m. and only within 5km of our homes, and parks were still closed. Some stores were open but had ridiculous rules about what they could and couldn't sell - winter clothes were allowed as we were heading into winter, but stores couldn't sell a t-shirt unless it was going to be worn under a sweater! Closed toe shoes were okay, open toe - NO! Food delivery was now allowed, but no takeaway. 

Now under Level 3, we can exercise at any time and stores are allowed to sell everything. They’re also about to open saloons and hotels, but parks are still closed. We cannot cross provincial borders and international borders are completely closed. We are required to wear masks at all times when leaving the house. This is very strict and there is someone making sure you have masks on when entering a store and they spray your hands with sanitizer.

All of this has been annoying and difficult, but the real problem is that this is pushing so many people into even worse poverty. People have been unable to work, especially in the informal economy and there is real concern about how deeply the economy and most vulnerable will be affected. For me, the biggest challenge is suddenly not being able to go home to visit my family, especially with a little one that I want them to see grow. I have lived abroad for seven years and have never faced a situation where I couldn't get to my family. I was supposed to go home in July and now wonder if I'll even be able to go this year at all. 
 



With all of the shutdowns and economic downturns caused by COVID, how are the Field Partners and borrowers in the portfolio you manage doing?

Outside of South Africa, most of Sub-Saharan Africa has not been significantly hit by COVID yet. There have been varying levels of lockdowns, which have impacted Field Partners, but many countries are opening things back up. South Africa definitely has the strictest lockdown in SSA, but we don't have any active partners here. In Ghana the lockdown was mostly in urban areas, and our Labs partners that do ag work- iDE Ghana and Dr. Bronner's/Serendipalm work in more rural areas. However, iDE Ghana also does toilet loans and they are trying to increase use of mobile money payments as they can no longer go door to door to collect repayments. We are looking at a Crisis Support Loan for them and possibly technical assistance to help them increase mobile money.

We have also provided a Crisis Support Loan to Jibu, which provides clean drinking water in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and DRC. During lockdowns they had to quickly increase their water delivery as people could no longer come to their stores to pick up water. Their CSL from Kiva helped support franchises to increase delivery and pivot their businesses.

DDD is another partner receiving a CSL, which will help them cover salaries and pay for home office expenses while their employees must work from home in Nairobi under lockdown.


Is there any partner whose work or needs you’d like to highlight?

CAMFED and KIEDF created COVID-19 recovery loan products to help their borrowers survive lockdowns.

Some lenders and volunteers are dissatisfied with how long it has taken for Kiva to share more information from the field. In response, we have tried to explain that working in ~80 international countries is complicated, and the spread of information is often slow. Knowing that, how long has it taken you to get a handle on what's going on in your portfolio, or do you feel like your understanding is ever-evolving?

Ever-evolving is the key word. In Africa, we are still waiting to see what will happen. In March, there was so much fear that this would spread quickly across African countries that couldn't handle the caseload, but we haven't seen that happen for the most part. So I'm still wondering if and when it will happen. 

Most of my partners are still operating either because they're focused on agriculture in rural areas where lockdowns haven't impacted them, or they've been deemed essential services - Jibu with clean water delivery or ACE with cookstoves. I have shared all of my COVID partner stories with marketing, but I'm not sure what is happening with them from there.


What brings you a sense of hope during this difficult time?

I am so grateful to work with Kiva at this time and feel like I'm in a position to help our Field Partners and borrowers. Kiva is truly driven by impact, and we have done a great job of quickly introducing new products like CSLs and COVID-19 recovery products to support our partners as much as possible.
 



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.


About the author

Anna Gravois