Microcredit undoubtedly represents a creative and original response to poverty. But I think that somewhere along the way, the innovativeness of the idea seems to have translated into an expectation of novelty and ingenuity for all “small-scale entrepreneurs.” I was reminded of this recently while reading a report published by IBM that described microcredit recipients as “creative” and “entrepreneurial.” While I’m certainly no expert on the subject, my time in the field has reinforced my belief that microloans do not generally enable budding entrepreneurs to realize innovative business ideas. Although there’s always an exception to the rule, the loans seem to help ordinary individuals start or expand one-(wo)man enterprises that resemble many other businesses in the marketplace. I don’t believe that this fact diminishes the significance of the loans. Yet I do think that the common media portrayal of microfinance’s potential is out of line with the reality on the ground. I have to wonder if this gap between expectation and reality (as I see it, at least), will eventually hinder the microfinance movement.
Personally, I have to admit that the first time I looked on Kiva, I was a little disappointed. The opportunity to make a loan directly to another individual excited me, of course, but the nature of the projects seemed so provincial. Profile after profile showed conventional businesses with the loan purpose listed as “expanding her business” or “purchasing more goods for sale.” I had wanted to help someone who was doing something new and different. Something more than simply buying goods in bulk at reselling them for a small profit. Perhaps I’m all alone in this respect, but I suspect that many Kiva lenders have the same initial response. Working with CRAN this summer, however, I have had the opportunity to witness borrowers’ modest businesses firsthand, and to learn from them about the nature of work in the informal sector. It has been an eye-opening experience and has helped me to understand the importance of “purchasing more goods for sale.”
In my interviews with clients (most of whom are traders), I always ask how they got into their line of work. I hear two common choruses. Either they inherited the trade from a parent, or they observed the market, noticed a particular set of goods selling quickly, and decided to start selling it themselves. In doing the latter, they instinctively respond to market trends—which always impresses me, but there’s no apparent attempt to define a new niche for themselves or to offer creative solutions to conventional problems. Take the sale of bread, for instance. Generally speaking, there are 4 types of bread in Ghana: sugar bread, tea bread, butter bread, and brown bread (all of which are delicious). And on any given commercial street in Cape Coast, you’ll likely find one or two bread stands, two or three breakfast stands, and seven or more general stores, all selling some combination of these four breads. Why, I’ve wondered, if bread is so popular, does no one experiment with other types of bread? Perhaps a loaf with a crispier crust, a heavier dessert bread, or a good ole fashion banana bread? Why hasn’t CRAN helped a client open a banana bread stand, when all of the ingredients are so abundant?
I suspect that there are many explanations for this—and I’m interested in learning more about them—but I think that the risk involved in any entrepreneurial undertaking represents one major factor. Innovation seems to require that both the buyer and the seller have some breathing room in their expenses. Someone living at or below the poverty line can likely not afford to charter a new path in the bread market. If a poor baker invested all of her capital into an experimental batch of bread that flopped, the result could be disastrous for her and her family. With minimal savings and no official safety net, it could mean that her children go without much food or schooling indefinitely. Furthermore, if the start-up capital came from a microloan, then she’d be saddled with debt too. And from the buyer’s perspective, testing out a new kind of bread may seem risky and unnecessary. Why take a chance with the unfamiliar when a second loaf of bread cannot easily be bought, and when the conventional loaf fills her children’s stomachs just fine? Without the cushion of savings or disposable income, the price of innovation seems to increase significantly. Experimentation seems to become a luxury reserved for the well-off.
So, the risk of innovation may encourage poor individuals to open businesses whose success has already been demonstrated. Beyond the risk factor, however, I think that the nature of the informal sector also encourages the duplication—and the constant desire for a loan to “buy more goods for sale.” The informal economy in Cape Coast comes as close as I’ve ever seen to perfectly competitive market. The barriers to entry, for one, are almost non-existent. Although profits generally increase as one’s supply increases, someone can start a business with only enough inventory to fill a small basket. Such women carry the baskets on their heads and walk door to door searching for customers. With no red tape or minimum requirement of capital, hundred of sellers in the marketplace, and nearly identical products, everyone ends up a price taker. They charge the market price and not a pesewas higher; if they do, they’ll lose their business to the person half a block away selling the same thing. As a result, everyone ends up with slim profit margins. Yet expansion provides a straight-forward way of making more money. With a slim profit margin on each good sold, her profit slowly accumulates as she sells more of the same stuff. The basket carrier seeks to set up an informal stall; the stall owner wants to open a sturdy kiosk; and the kiosk saleswoman aspires to expand into a modest shop.
So that’s what I’ve seem in the field so far. Individuals don’t take out loans to start new, creative businesses. They access credit in order to enlarge their inventory. The traders want to buy more goods for sale; the fishmongers want to buy more fish; the bakers want to purchase more ingredients. It’s not glamorous but it seems to be the pragmatic reality of microfinance. Expecting more from the financial service may be dangerously wishful thinking.