By Heba Gamal - KF15, Lebanon
It is not hard for a Lebanese to detect my disguised Egyptian Arabic accent, so it’s been quite common for me to be asked how long I have been in Lebanon, whether this is my first time, and of course what I’m doing here in Lebanon every time I meet someone. Most recently this happened to me at a local Resto-Pub in Hasbaya after a 10km hike. The Resto-Pub owner, Fayez, and I quickly got to talking and as usual it wasn’t long before I was aked ”What do you do here in Lebanon?” Although, I’m fluent in Arabic explaining what micro-finance means is really hard!
Microfinance in Arabic translates literally to: Small Funding (التمويل الأصغر) or Small Loans (القروض الصغيرة). To the average Lebanese (or Arab for that matter) this is not something that they are used to hearing. So, I usually get a couple of raised eyebrows, puzzled looks and then the follow-up questions start streaming in: “Oh so you work at a bank? In the loan department?” or “You mean you’re an accountant?” or the more sophisticated in the series of follow-up questions “Yes, those loans for small business owners, right?” I usually struggle a bit; I take a deep breath and I start explaining what micro-credit and micro-finance is. I tend to throw in words like: “lack of access to the banking system“, “Mohamed Yunus” and “giving the poor financial stability”. But even after a little bit of explaining, I still don’t know if I’m getting the point across. And I often find that when I say “loan” people immediately ask “How can I get one for my business?” These regular occurrences made me start wondering what do Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) around the world to overcome this challenge and lack of knowledge on the subject by the general public? And how important is it for the common person to really know and understand what microfinance really is?
In my search, I decided to turn to Al Majmoua to see what they have done in the past and are doing about the subject of microfinance awareness in Lebanon. In a country of 4 million people and 18 recognized sects it is hard to maintain a non-religious, non-political, independent face. During my last field visit, while Wisam, the Loan Analyst and I were waiting for a borrower to come home we started chatting with a shop-owner. He asked us what we were doing and who we worked for. Wisam went on to explain who Al Majmoua is and what the mission was. The shop-owner looked at us smiled and said “Sounds good, but who are you with?” A question that is extremely expected and normal in Lebanon, most organizations have some sort of political and religious affiliation, but Al Majmoua doesn’t and plans on keeping it that way.
Aside from local municipality billboards, a limited number of radio ads, and an innovative Taxi-side ads, Al Majmoua has never been involved in large scale promotion campaigns using TV ads or billboards mainly because of the high cost of such campaigns. Beyond that Al Majmoua’s awareness campaigns about microcredit have been focused on policy makers, funders, and universities through local community meetings. Additionally, being out in the open and marketing heavily means people will start asking questioning Al Majmoua’s political and religious affiliations.
These are some of the many challenges that Al Majmoua faces when it starts thinking about it’s marketing and awareness campaigns and strategies, especially since the organization has been very cautious and succeeded since day-one with its own staff and clients to remain non-partisan, apolitical, non religious and non discriminatory organization in Lebanon. Top 3 things Al Majmoua can do to market its mission without getting too many questions:
- Town-hall: hold town-hall meetings in communities they don’t currently operate in to educate potential borrowers about microfinance and Al Majmoua’s mission.
- Non-financial Services: start a referral program to the non-financial services it offers to other NGOs who work with diverse communities.
- Microfinance Clubs on University Campuses: partner with universities to help start and establish Microfinance Clubs/Student Groups on university campuses where students can act as Al Majmoua Ambassadors.