Natalie Sherman | KF 17 | Cameroun
They have an air-conditioned waiting room, tiny espresso mugs, an executive director that knows how to make a good joke, and a long-standing record of excellent customer service. They are a poverty-busting force to be reckoned with. Yep, there are some new kids in town. Who are they? ACEP Cameroun, one of Cameroon’s top four microfinance institutions, Kiva’s newest pilot partner, and the MFI I get to work with closely over the next four months of my Kiva fellowship.
ACEP Cameroun’s headquarters in Yaoundé
Aside from its pilot partner status, ACEP Cameroun is not really “new” at all. The bank has been around since 1999, was privatized in 2005, and has grown to serve over 8,500 customers since. With branches in Cameroon’s largest urban areas, Yaoundé (the capital), Douala and Bafoussam, ACEP provides loans to clients that are owners or managers of “Très Petites Entreprises” (TPEs), or “Very Small Businesses.” Whether you are a tailor, a beignet vendor or a hardware store owner, you can apply for an ACEP small business loan to help with planning, to purchase equipment or for plain ole’ working capital.
The head honchos of ACEP.
Walking into headquarters, one gets the sense that ACEP operates very much like a traditional bank. There is a reception area, a payment window, separate offices for different departments, and the staff is always dressed very professionally. What aren’t so obvious at first glance, however, are the bank’s underlying social objectives.
ACEP seeks to assist customers who would not otherwise have access to traditional banking services. Their mission (translated from French) is to “support the development of small and medium enterprises in Cameroon’s urban centers by providing small lines of credit, fight against poverty by extending funds to the most vulnerable, and ensure the security of savings.”
ACEP’s board of directors is keen to work even harder to serve this mission. As a result, it has teamed up with Kiva so that ACEP can offer a new loan product to an especially marginalized group of Cameroonians. This loan type will be targeted to groups of single mothers living and operating small businesses in very urban areas. The amount lent will be smaller than traditional “TPE” loans, with no fees or other service costs charged. In addition to the loan itself, ACEP hopes to provide ancillary services, such as business management courses.
It has been especially interesting to learn about and work with the all-male team of ACEP Cameroun’s senior management and board as they work through the implications of taking on this new Kiva partnership and new loan product. ACEP Executive Director M. Jean Zombo is an impressive character, as are his management team cohorts. This group’s obvious passion to run an operation that is effective and client-centric is apparent.
With a loan application and approval process so thorough and tailored to its clients that it took me almost three hours to completely understand, ACEP also demonstrates a deep knowledge of its clients and their businesses. It is this process that undoubtedly contributes to the bank’s high repayment rates and excellent customer service feedback.
When I requested to go out with a loan officer “in the field” to meet some borrowers, the staff was very excited to provide this opportunity. We joked about how comfortable I’d be riding on the back of a “moto” across the traffic-ridden (understatement!) and unpaved routes, but in fact I’m quite looking forward to the adventure.
I feel lucky to have been placed with ACEP for my Kiva Fellowship, and look forward to seeing how I can help the bank and its clients succeed and grow their businesses and livelihoods. We will have the chance to learn from each other, both professionally and personally… all while providing new opportunities for Cameroonian businessmen and businesswomen. Who wouldn’t feel great about that?
Natalie Sherman is a Kiva Fellow working at ACEP Cameroun.