I’ve had a pretty frustrating day here in Beirut. To those who plan on traveling, a bit of advice…don’t loose your passport. Especially not in Lebanon. I felt like I was trapped in that scene from Battle of Algiers where Colonel Mathieu is unceremoniously perched atop his desk answering the questions of reporters either with an endless moral treatise or a flippant plume of smoke from his Gauloises and a shake of his head. Afan in the background blowing thick air around around the office, a woman in the corner pecking at a typewriter from the 20′s… Except in my case there were several dozen Colonel Mathieu’s,at least 10 office buildings, and more “regulations, Habibe” than even the aforementioned military man could have stomached. 

So, I’ll let my thoughts cool, and as per my last promise and inresponse to some comments (thanks for those, I love the feedback), a bit more about al Majmoua and the role Kiva plays in this whole microfinance thing…

(Disclaimer: I was not a finance major, so I shall do my best to relate the financial info as I have interpreted it to those who are still new like me. For those better versed, feel free to correct me where I go astray…)

Majmoua began as a microcredit program in 1994 under the stewardship of Save the Children. Until about 1999 alMajmoua lent primarily to women and primarily to solidarity groups, not individual borrowers. This of course followed the Grameen model by using the “moral guarantee” of a lending group where there was a scarcity of fixed assets from which to draw. Just before the new millennium however, al Majmoua began expanding its reach and opened up its loans to men and to individual borrowers. Now, with a staff of nearly 90 and $8 million in outstanding loans, al Majmoua has broken its operations into various departments tailored to the needs of very different populations. Under the microcredit umbrella, the Poverty group lending division dispenses loans starting at $100 which are mainly geared toward rural women who have few marketable skills. There is also a non-Poverty group lending division which focuses on those who have established businesses but still lack the capital needed to take out individual loans or loans from an established bank. Al Majmouaalso provides individual loans to more established customers, vulnerable workers (who aren’t borrowing money for their own business, but cannot access formal credit markets), seasonalworkers (in agriculture or tourism, who experience periods of access to capital and periods of no access to capital), families who request home improvement loans, as well as a few Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Alongside their credit services, al Majmouaalso provides their clients with financial education, business management assistance, and skills training. This last opportunity is unique in that al Majmoua tries to tailor their training to skills which will have an immediate and significant impact on their clients ability to work in their region. Many vocational schools here teach skills such as hairdressing, tailoring, or car repair that have already saturated the various markets. Training unskilled workers in these trades provides little benefit. 90% of these non-credit services are being given to women (about 4,000 people in total) and are largely subsidized by grants given to Majmoua from various international donors. That said, the credit side of al Majmoua has been self-sufficient since about 2004. Since then, a small profit has enabled the MFI to lower interest rates and expand their portfolio. Still, in order to sustain more growth, al Majmoua needs more money. 

Generally, in order to have enough capital to sustain growth, any MFIwhich is not grant-subsidized will need to borrow money from one of the huge international investors such as Deutche Bank, Merrill Lynch etc in order to provide loans to its developing entrepreneurs. When the MFI makes a profit (from interest on their loans), as Al Majmouadid in 2006, this money becomes available to increase the number of loans that can be given out, but often the demand for loans outstrips the amount of safely available capital. Thus the MFI must themselves borrow in order to lend. While they aren’t borrowing enormous sums by international banking standards, the MFI’s are still being charged 10% interest on these loans from the Big Banks. Let’s say Majmoua, for example, looks to borrow $1 million to replenish its stock of capital and keep expanding its reach within Lebanon. If that $1 million comes from a Big Bank, the MFI is passing on a $100,000 cost to its clients, who will see this in the form of higher interest rates for their micro-loans. If the MFI can obtain a Aaacredit rating from one of the few international credit rating agencies (basically the highest possible garunteethat the company has a stable portfolio of investments), then it can get its capitalfrom a local investment bank at a lower rate, say 6% interest. The Aaa rating is difficult to obtain however, involves its own costs in auditing etc, and is still a significant sum.

Enter Kiva. Kivaintroduces an entirely new concept by offering a source of investment capital for the micro-banks at 0% interest. Because Kiva is given free use of PayPal, there are no transaction costs either. That means that when an individual logs onto Kiva and donates $25, that $25 goes directly, in whole, to the MFI of choice, and is in turn lent out without any cost to the MFI. The money is shipped from the debit card of the donor in New York to the account of the MFI in Beirut to the hand of the dress seamstress on Abd al Wahabstreet. This is a truly revolutionary concept, because it gets rid of a whole lot of middle men. Yes, you say, but isn’t the MFI still making money off of poor people? In a way, yes. But the alternatives aren’t so great, the on-the-ground costs are still enormous, and as I mentioned they do much more than just lend money, i.e. job training. Wa’Allah, perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.

Next time: who are the Majmoua clients? Until then, m’aa salaama, with peace,

JJ, fee Beirut

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