By Meg Gray, KF11 United States
Since I started my third stint as a Kiva Fellow at Opportunity Fund, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between microfinance in the USA (Opportunity Fund is located in the Bay Area) and microfinance in Central America (I previously worked in Nicaragua and Costa Rica). Then I met Monica, an Opportunity Fund client, and was immediately overwhelmed by how similar her business was to other businesses I saw while I was abroad.
Monica sells shoes at the Berryessa Flea Market in San Jose, California. She is using her loan to buy more merchandise so she can expand her business. Monica is proud of her business and is particularly happy that her business has enabled her to send money to her help support her parents and to pay for her sister’s education in Mexico.
Monica’s business is strikingly similar to José’s business in Masaya, Nicaragua. Besides the thousands of miles between them, the only major difference between their businesses is that José makes the shoes he sells. José is a client of Kiva’s partner CEPRODEL and he has been making shoes for over 30 years now. He used his loan to buy more raw materials, so he could increase the number of shoes he can sell. With his profits, José hopes to fix up his work area and his house, which in turn will improve the lives of his three children.
Or there is Irene, a 39-year-old mother of two in San Jose, Costa Rica. She has been selling shoes, cosmetics, underwear, and other items through catalogs for years now. Earlier this spring, she received a loan through Kiva’s field partner, Fundación Mujer, so she can expand her business into selling shoes as well. When I spoke to her, she carefully explained that shoes are one of her fastest selling items and expanding her shoe inventory should be incredibly profitable. She enjoys working for herself since it gives her the time and flexibility to take care of her children.
So yes, I still think that microfinance is very different in the United States. Factors like better infrastructure and a more developed formal banking system create a very different landscape for microfinance institutions like Opportunity Fund to work within. Meeting Monica, however, was a refreshing reminder that while microfinance is very different in the US, microfinance clients and their businesses are often remarkably similar around the world. One of the most important similarities that I have seen is that entrepreneurs and small business owners around the world are generally working with the same overarching goal in mind: to improve the lives of their families.
After six months as a Kiva Fellow in Central America, Meg Gray is currently a Kiva Fellow at Opportunity Fund, a microfinance institution that provides financial services to small business owners in the Bay Area. Learn more about their work at http://www.opportunityfund.org/ or join the Friends of Opportunity Fund Lending Team to get more frequent updates from Opportunity Fund staff: http://www.kiva.org/team/friends_of_opportunity_fund