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Product Manager Rachel Chang speaks on the COVID-19 pandemic in Taiwan and Sierra Leone

December 1, 2020

The following is a transcript of an interview with Kiva’s Protocol Product Manager Rachel Chang, who is currently based in Taiwan. Some of the responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in your current role at Kiva.

I started at Kiva back in the summer of 2014 as an intern on the Product Team. I had just graduated from UC Berkeley and was studying Business Administration. I knew I really wanted to work at the intersection of tech and nonprofit work, and when I found Kiva, it all sort of clicked for me. Shortly after, I was brought on full-time.

Throughout the years I worked on many different projects, including Kiva’s strategic partnerships, marketplace, and internal tools. Finally, after a few years of working on all these projects, I moved over to the Kiva Protocol project in 2018. Kiva Protocol was a fairly new development, but I was really interested in how we were expanding the Kiva mission beyond microloans and crowdfunding. We were moving towards improving the infrastructure for allowing financial access. Once I saw the opportunity open up on the product side, I jumped at it.

What are you working on now as part of your current role? In what regions(s) or countries do you work?

I’m currently working as a Product Manager on the Kiva Protocol team. Kiva Protocol is a secure, open-source platform that enables identity verification for financial institutions. We launched our first country-level implementation in Sierra Leone, providing citizens with access to a digital national identity. The reason why we're doing this is because having this digital infrastructure is so core to financial inclusion. Microfinance institutions and smaller community banks alike need to verify someone's identity to be able to provide financial services. You typically need to provide a national ID or other type of formal identity in order to open a bank account.

We’re using decentralized identity systems, along with established open source technology to enable countries to provide digital identities to citizens for financial access. It’s really exciting to see us get so far with this technology.

Earlier this year, we launched at one of the rural community banks in Sierra Leone as part of our pilot. We were very excited to finally see this technology being implemented and used on the ground. It’s a very simple process in which an individual just types in their national ID number and then uses a fingerprint reader. They don't actually need a physical document. It then pulls up your information and shares it with the institution in a secure, privacy-preserving manner.

How has your work on Protocol been impacted by COVID-19?

When COVID hit in March, our team decided to pause our current pilot because we were unsure how the pandemic would affect people’s day-to-day. This gave our team the opportunity to continue building on the core technical infrastructure from afar. We’re keeping tabs on the situation, and continuing conversations with our stakeholders and partners on the ground.


You’re currently in Taiwan, and had to travel there from Sierra Leone. How was traveling during this time with all of the travel restrictions?

Sierra Leone started closing their borders from international travel in mid-March, so the team decided to go back to our respective home countries since it was unclear when borders would open again. We got on one of the last flights out, and I had a decision to make: do I go back to San Francisco or do I stay with family in Taipei? I think it's more or less equal distance both ways. At that time, the US was seeing a big spike in cases. My dad lives in Taiwan and suggested that I stay with him for a while before going back home, just to see how things go.

It was a 40-hour affair in total to get to Taiwan. I started in Sierra Leone and traveled to Turkey for a layover.

When I got there, it was chaotic. People were rushing to catch their next flights, and there was a sense of panic.

There was an issue with receiving my ticket for the next leg of my flight given that I had booked so late. It also turned out that Taiwan was talking about putting a travel ban for foreign nationals, but it was unclear what the protocol was. I had to prove that I had a return flight from Taiwan to San Francisco, so I just bought one on the spot. After a lot of back and forth, I finally boarded that flight. From there, I flew to Singapore and didn’t experience too many more difficulties. I finally landed in Taiwan and found out that they had, in fact, banned all foreigners from entering Taiwan that morning - hours before I arrived.

Right when I arrived, I went straight to quarantine registration at the airport, where I had to fill out a form that included my home quarantine address and a local phone number. Luckily I had a local SIM card and was able to register it. To verify this, the officials called me on the spot. Then they looked up my address to see if it was real. I was eventually approved and moved on to the immigration line with a ton of Taiwanese local residents. The line is usually packed to the brim with travelers, but in this instance it was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. I walked straight to the immigration officer and explained my situation. Because I had initially been en route to Taiwan a day and a half ago, they let me in. It also helped that I had a permanent address and family. I was really lucky.

After leaving the airport, you could either take a taxi or have a relative pick you up. You had to get a form stamped before you could get into the taxi, so they could trace you and the taxi. Then they sprayed me down with disinfectant before I finally got into the cab and the driver drove me to my house.

From that point on, I had to do two weeks of quarantine during which I was told I could not set foot outside. I honestly should have tested this, but I didn’t really want to take that chance. I barely got into Taiwan, so why press my luck?

To comply with quarantine measures, I had to record my temperature and all my symptoms if I had any every single day for two weeks. And every day for two weeks, I got two phone calls from the local health department asking me how I was. On the second day of my quarantine, someone from the local health department came over and dropped off a pack of 14 face masks. I ended up self-isolating for another week after. For the first 10 days of my stay, my dad decided to stay in a hotel because he was very cautious. Everyone here is very, very cautious.

How are things where you are (in Taiwan)? Have you heard many updates on how things are in Sierra Leone?

It's been a crazy ride. At the moment, the number of domestically contracted COVID cases in Taiwan has dropped down to single digits. Things seem to be very contained, and most of the cases you do see are imported from other areas of the world. As a result, people flying in have to go through intense screenings at the airport before they leave the site. If those individuals self-report a fever or cough, they have to be quarantined and receive medical treatment right away. I think those types of cases make up the majority of cases in Taiwan right now.

Things are still very normal. People are going to bars, cafes, grocery stores… I feel like I have a semblance of a normal life here. We’re still cautious, however. I would say that at least 70% of people on the street and public transit bus are still wearing face masks. You definitely have to wear a mask on the underground railway called the MRT; it’s heavily enforced. I've seen people get yelled at for walking in without a mask.

Many buildings also monitor temperature with a screen that acts as a heat monitor and sets off an alarm if it detects high temperatures. One time I walked into a building and, because my hair got really hot after walking outside, I set off the alarm. That made me feel secure, like the measures Taiwan had in place are actually working. It’s not just a facade; it’s so embedded in the operations here now that no one even thinks twice about it.

So far partners and borrowers in Sierra Leone have been doing okay. Based on what I’ve been hearing from friends on the ground, there haven’t been any particularly large outbreaks of COVID in Sierra Leone. It sounds like most people are still pretty cautious. The reported numbers seem fairly manageable. They dealt with an Ebola outbreak in 2014, so dealing with a pandemic isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Right when we left in March, there were only a few cases reported there. At that point, many restaurants and hotels already had wash stations outside.

What brings you a sense of hope during this difficult time?

Working at Kiva during this time has given me a sense of hope. I was proud of how Kiva was able to provide relief to entrepreneurs and small businesses impacted by COVID-19, and to further support and highlight black-owned businesses in our own Kiva community. It was empowering to be a part of that response, even though I wasn’t in the United States. I was really proud of how these courses of action weren’t significant pivots for us. Our mission has to do with financial inclusion and uplifting people in lower-income communities and situations, but for Kiva to actually be a potential solution for so many small businesses is incredible. I feel really proud of the work that we're doing and that we are able to service individuals who were hit the hardest in 2020.

To learn more about Kiva Protocol through the story of a borrower, click here.

About the author

Anna Gravois

Anna Gravois was born and raised in small town Louisiana, surrounded by a mixture of Belarusian and Cajun-French influences. As a result, she has always been curious about the intersection of culture, language, and identity, and how these factors come to shape individual experiences.  This curiosity quickly evolved into an interest in communication between different cultures, which formed the basis of her studies (along with the French language) at Santa Clara University. This is where she first became interested in discovering a way to facilitate local and global connections within the scope of nonprofit work in order to work towards a more equitable world. She is excited to join Kiva as an intern, learn more about the nonprofit sector, and connect with the 430+ international volunteers that are a vital part of the Review and Translation Program.