Bright Lights, Big City (Mexico City)

By Sally Bolton, KF11, Mexico

Imagine life as a Kiva Fellow. Imagine living in some remote location far removed from the distractions and temptations of modern city life. Imagine struggling with slow internet connections and power outages. Imagine rustic housing and domestic compromises. Imagine a life not unlike what you have been living for the past year in Timor-Leste, the young half-island nation still struggling with the challenges of post-conflict development.

Instead, you find yourself in Mexico City, a grand swirling explosion of a metropolis. Or perhaps even a megalopolis, a word you learned in seventh grade geography and have not had a chance to use nearly as often as you would have liked.

In Mexico City you have high-speed internet access at home, work and on your mobile phone, if you want it. You have world-class museums, film festivals, theatre and music at your fingertips.  You have a neighbourhood filled with tree-lined boulevards, cafes, old-fashioned ice cream parlours and a fantastic bike-sharing program, Ecobici, which has been enthusiastically embraced by the local community.

Ecobici in the Condesa district of Mexico City

Bicycles and icecream parlours, two of your favourite things

For the modest annual sum of 300 pesos (less than US$30) you can join Ecobici and have free use of the bikes – with bike stands on almost every second block of this neighbourhood – for up to 30 minutes at a time. Perfect for short trips to the supermarket, or for swinging by a local cafe to catch up with friends, right? Only 300 pesos is not such a modest sum for the working poor, who are essentially excluded from the program anyway as you need a credit or debit card to become a member.  Less than 25% of Mexicans have a savings account, and fewer still have credit cards. With average annual interest rates as high as 50%, you wouldn’t want a credit card here.

You wonder what the residents of Chalco make of the bright city billboards extolling how much fun it is to go out to lunch or the movies using Ecobici. (And here you choose to end your tribute to Jay McInerney).

This week I am working with Kiva’s field partner Fundacion Realidad A.C. (FRAC) from a branch office in Chalco (Valle de Chalco Solidaridad), a working class community on the south-eastern outskirts of Mexico City. At least I think it’s on the outskirts. It’s hard to tell where Mexico City really ends.

Chalco’s endless rows of simple concrete box houses are in marked contrast to the high-rise buildings of the downtown financial district. Yet it is very much on the radar of Mexico’s robust microfinance sector. FRAC’s loan officers can quickly name ten or 12 competitors who are also working in Chalco, and I pass many of their modern, brightly painted offices on my two hour morning commute. 

Downtown Chalco, on the outskirts of Mexico City

Lucerito Group, Kiva borrowers from Chalco

So why are borrowers choosing loans from FRAC?  The borrowers, primarily women, tell me that it is because of the personal relationships that FRAC builds with its clients, FRAC’s willingness to work with borrowers who are starting new businesses, and their moral commitment to helping borrowers ‘get ahead’. Well that and the fact that they offer lower interest rates than the other institutions. Most new borrowers come to FRAC through personal recommendations from friends and family.

I will be working with two Kiva field partners in Mexico: FRAC and CrediComun. Both partners have their headquarters in Mexico City, and both have a network of field offices serving rural and semi-urban communities across a large number of states. Both FRAC and CrediComun are in the pilot phase of working with Kiva.  I will be working with them over the next three months to help them move to the active phase, which will mean more loans from Mexico on the Kiva website.

To support entrepreneurs in Mexico  visit the Kiva website to find loans in Mexico that are currently fundraising or to join a lending team such as Para Mexico,  Friends of Fundacion Realidad, Friends of CrediComun and Increibles de FVP.

About the author

Sally Bolton