View of Cotonou Benin

View of Cotonou Benin

Over the past two weeks, I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Alidé’s field offices.  These offices are where the heavy lifting of Alidé’s work gets done.  I often walk into an office to find fifty women waiting to be interviewed for a loan.  Each office has about two or three loan officers, so, as you can imagine, these interviews are very time consuming.  Interviews can easily last all day.  Nonetheless, the loan officers patiently sit down with each person until the work is done.

I am quite impressed by the loan officers’ dedication to Alidé.  I think that they have the most difficult and time-consuming job of the entire operation.  While the whole city of Cotonou takes a two-hour siesta during lunch, they often do not have this option. With so much to accomplish, they can easily work well into the evening.  Not only do they have to conduct interviews, they are also responsible for communication and follow-up with Alidé borrowers.  For one, this involves conducting training sessions on Alidé’s policies.  I can only imagine the difficulty of explaining finance to a group of borrowers who do not have a formal education or any previous experience with loans.  Loan officers also have to make sure that borrowers actually pay each month, which can require a special visit to those who are delinquent on their payments.  It is obvious that this work takes a lot of patience and hard work.

In the midst of this bustle am I.  In order to better understand Alidé’s work and to conduct interviews, I need to go into the field.  I have to work with the loan officers because they know the clients best and they can translate French into Fon, the local language.  They help explain to the borrowers the reason for my visit.  Such a link is crucial in a place where I am clearly an outsider.  Understandably, I often have to wait until the loan officers have a chance to fit me into their schedules.

An experience yesterday with a loan officer really stood out to me.  I was out in the field conducting borrower visits, with a loan officer named Gildas.  We finished enough for that day and he told me that we had a few errands to run before returning to the office.  We rode around the city, occasionally stopping to speak to someone.  After a few stops, I asked what they were discussing.  Gildas told me that he was reminding them of a meeting set to occur the next day.  The subject of the meeting would be Malaria Prevention.  Meetings such as these, he told me, were some of the social services that Alidé provides.  Gildas and I went around the city to make personal visits to at least fifteen people.

To me, this is remarkable. These guys are so busy and yet they are still enthusiastically offering these services.  It makes me really respect the work that they are doing and grateful for the time I have with them.  Alidé obviously has a lot to do and yet it still makes time to go beyond its normal call of duty. Although a financial institution, its mission is much broader than just making money. One of my colleagues is working on a plan to provide micro health insurance to borrowers.  On top of the health campaign, Alidé gives small interest-free loans to people who want to start business activities.

Alidé understands something important:  to have a well-functioning society, people need basic services like health care, education, and access to a little cash.  Everything is interconnected.  Alidé’s efforts may be small in the grand scheme of things, but I think they have the right idea.  The staff is very committed to the mission.  I give them a lot of credit.

Andrew Whiteman is a Kiva Fellow (KF8) currently working in Benin.

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