As a Kiva Fellow volunteering for a Microfinance Institution (MFI) in Puno, Peru, one of my responsibilities is to interview women entrepreneurs who have received loans from the MFI, Manuela Ramos, and Kiva. During the interview the goal is to obtain their photos, learn how the woman used the loan, and gather more information about her life – her hopes, dreams and hardships. With this information I can, and other fellows and MFI employees can, provide a follow up to the people who have made loans to these entrepreneurs through Kiva’s website, creating a stronger connection between the lender and the borrower, who are living, for the most part, on opposite sides of the world. While I truly believe that the journaling process is vital to Kiva’s values of transparency and fostering connections, until I arrived in the field and took my first trip to conduct interviews I had no idea how challenging this process could be!
Do you remember the children’s story, “Are you my Mother?”, that follows a freshly hatched, lost baby chick on it’s quest to find it’s mother (I believe it was mandatory reading to obtain your kindergarten diploma)? The chick begins it’s journey by asking animals, “Are you my mother?” and after a series of defeats, eventually results to asking inanimate objects, until finally a power shovel delivers it safely home. As I stepped out of the “condi” (a small bus that resembles the old VW vans that were once so popular in the U.S) I couldn’t help but feel like this wide-eyed baby chick – a little lost, a bit confused and highly ambitious in my seeking. Staring down at my “address” list, which contained districts, but no actual streets or numbers of the entrepreneurs’ residence, I rolled up my jeans and started hiking up the hill.
Like the baby chick who begins it’s journey in a somewhat guarded manner by asking similar looking animals, “Are you my mother?”, I looked through the poor quality, black and white photos of the entrepreneurs I was meant to interview and the district map and decided to walk through the town in search of these women. When I saw a woman who resembled one from the photos I would simply ask, “Are you my Entrepreneur?”, a practical approach in theory, but, as I would soon discover, not in reality.
Walking up the hill in the increasingly heavy rain, I encountered the first woman that I felt matched a photo I had in hand and, after a customary “Buenos días señora” asked, “Are you Paula Mamani de Sanizo?”. After her initial confusion, which I imagine stemmed from being approached by a strange looking, rather pale foreigner with a thick accent, she smiled and let me know that she was not this woman, but I could find Paula in the blue house up the road. She pointed up the road, which seemed to stretch for miles, directly up hill, and I smiled, thanked her for her help and set off.
As the haze of blue dots started to become structures with roofs and doors I decided that it was time to ask again, “Are you my entrepreneur?”, but this time, with wider search criteria. No longer relying on the photos for guidance, I began asking every woman I spotted if she was one of the women on my list, hoping that if she wasn’t, she might at least point me in the right direction. After a series of, “no, me disculpe señoritas” I broadened my search yet again to include inquiring to any moving object. Just as I was getting really discouraged the rain subsided and I saw a young boy on the side of the road. Although he resembled the women in my photos as much as the power shovel resembled the baby chick’s mother, I resolved to not give up. Changing my question to, “Do you know my entrepreneur?”, I approached the boy. Not only did he know one of the entrepreneurs, but one of the women was his grandmother and another his grandmother’s sister, who both happened to be peeling potatoes behind the house we stood in front of. Just like the power shovel, albeit a bit cuter, he took me by the hand and delivered me safely to two of the entrepreneurs. As I basked in the brightening sun and spoke with the women about their loans, their families and their dreams for their children, I knew this experience was well worth the difficult journey. My day unfolded in this fashion, until I had interviewed over half of the women on my list and decided it was time to let the condi deliver me back to Puno.
The following day when I arrived at the office, I asked the Kiva coordinator, who is an employee of Manuela Ramos and is in charge of posting the borrower profiles to Kiva’s site, if my experience was standard. She replied that although my day sounded a bit more chaotic than normal, as the town I visited is one of the most rural on Manuela Ramos’s list, it can be very difficult to find an entrepreneur outside of the loan officer’s bank meetings, where 12-30 women in the same community bank come together once a month to take out and pay back loans. So why doesn’t she simply go to the loan officer’s bank meetings where all the women are together? Because a picture is worth a thousand words (or at least $25 minimum loan!) and the photos on Kiva’s website that are taken of the women in their place of business, which is often their home as well, is what Kiva lenders have repeatedly indicated is what they want to see. While going to the community bank meetings assures that the women will be present, it doesn’t allow their photos to be taken in their individual places of business. As my work here consists mostly of writing journals, not borrower profiles, which are the initial descriptions and photos of the women who are requesting a loan, I will be able to visit some bank meetings to conduct interviews because the importance of the photo carries less weight. However, the Kiva coordinators who are in charge of posting borrower profiles in Manuela Ramos’ seven branches throughout Peru will continue conducting their interviews by traveling to the entrepreneurs’ towns and, with or without exact addresses, attempting to find the women in their homes and businesses.
So what did my experience teach me? First, although Kiva provides interest free capital, the funds don’t come without some work on the MFI’s behalf. Conducting a cost/benefit analysis of Kiva for Manuela Ramos is actually one of my projects as a Kiva Fellow and one that I will take very seriously! Second, a plastic bag can act as a rain hat, a protective cover for your documents and a small blanket to sit upon when necessary. And last, with a little embarrassment, a lot of persistence, and the help of others, just like the baby chick you will find your way.