By Andrew Whiteman, KF8 in Benin
One day, I walked into one of Alidé’s offices in Cotonou to work with the loan officers. Right inside the gate, in the outdoor waiting area, I saw about thirty women seated patiently in perfect rows. Everyone was wearing their best pagnes, brilliantly colored Beninese fabrics, so I could tell that it was an important day.
After working for a little while, I started to hear drums and shakers. The sounds were sporatic at first, as if the drummers were warming up for a performance. Soon enough, I heard lively chanting and a quick-paced rhythm. It was very close by. The neighborhood around the office is often noisy, so I assumed that the drumming was coming from some other building. I had to go outside to investigate because the music was too good. Low and behold, the drumming and chanting was coming from the women who I had seen earlier. All of them were dancing and moving to the drumbeat, smiling and having a great time. One woman was leading the rest in front of the group, in a call and response fashion. The space was full of energy. With thirty people dancing their hearts out around you, it is impossible not to want to join in.
I had to ask what all this was about. Drumming and dancing was not something I would have expected from a microfinance institution. An Alidé employee explained to me that these women were part of a women’s group and had all recently been granted Alidé loans. The woman leading everyone in the singing and dancing was the group’s president. They were expressing their gratitude to Alidé for the ability to have access to credit. For some reason, I found it hard to imagine singing and dancing happening in the United States when someone received a loan. Well, I guess maybe these days.
Women’s groups like these are very common in Benin and in the world of microfinance. Their purpose is to help women manage their money. The members help each other sort through the loan policies and to remember to repay each month. In this way, the mutual support and subtle pressure helps prevent borrower default and delinquency. During the meeting I witnessed, the president stood up and spoke very sternly to the group about a few women who had not paid their loans back. Groups like these are responsible in part for the low loan default and delinquency rate on Kiva. Alidé’s clients are about 90 percent women and many are members of such groups.
The singing and dancing soon stopped and everyone took their seats again. Two of the loan officers approached the front of the group and started speaking rapidly in Fon. The Alidé employee sitting next to me told me that the loan officers were now giving a training session on Alidé’s policies. After borrowers are approved for loans, they are required to come to the office to learn all of the necessary information about interest rates, loan terms, and repayments. The loan officers also gave some practical advice. They stressed that the women should discuss their loans with their husbands and take care of their health.
These groups, with the help of loan officers, are helping women to better take control of their lives. Virtually all of Alidé’s borrowers on the Kiva website have received more than one loan from the institution, meaning that they are reliable customers. Each new loan means a little more money, greater inventory at the business, and greater profits. The singing and dancing I witnessed showed me how important the access to credit is to small business owners here in Benin. It was a heartfelt, genuine thank you from people in need. I am convinced that microcredit an important service that can only be expanded to more people. Since witnessing my first Beninese thank you, I have seen several others at Alidé offices. These types of experiences keep me in love with Africa and its rich culture.
Andrew Whiteman is a Kiva Fellow (KF8), currently working at Alidé, a Kiva Field Partner, in Cotonou, Benin./>