By Karen Buxton, KF10, Liberia
Cecilia Wilson was born in Grand Kru County, Liberia, in 1964. She graduated from Tubman High School in Monrovia when she was 18, and by the time she was 30 years old, she had two children and she found herself selling rice and oil on the sidewalk at a market just outside of Monrovia. With the goal of improving her business by moving it off of the sidewalk, Cecilia took out her first microloan of $50 USD from a newly established microfinance institution (MFI) in Monrovia called Local Enterprise Assistance Program (LEAP). She used the loan to purchase additional rice and oil to sell. That was 1994. Four years later Cecilia was hired as a loan officer at LEAP. In 2009, she was promoted to being the supervisor of all five loan officers at LEAP’s Harbel branch. And in January of 2010, Cecilia became the Branch Manager of the Harbel branch.
How did a LEAP borrower become a LEAP branch manager? What is the background to this story? I was so curious when Cecilia nonchalantly mentioned she had started out as a LEAP borrower that I had to learn more. When Cecilia speaks with borrowers, she always shares her story with them.
The Monrovia LEAP staff told me that I was one of the best group leaders. They believed in me. I always spoke up at our meetings. Our group took out four loans with LEAP, and our repayments were always on time. They saw that I was a natural leader. In 1998, the staff asked me to be a loan officer at the Harbel branch. I didn’t even apply! I accepted. I was excited but nervous. When I was hired I didn’t even know how to use a calculator!
LEAP has over 20,000 active clients in Liberia, and Cecilia acknowledges that her level of success is not common compared to most borrowers. But she says she likes to share her story to give borrowers inspiration and to encourage them to set goals for themselves. Interestingly, LEAP does have a track record of recruiting from ‘within.’ There are 12 branch managers in total, and in addition to Cecilia, the Branch Manager in Gbarnga also started out as a LEAP borrower. Cecilia points out that three of the loan officers at her branch started out as LEAP borrowers as well. She says it makes sense to recruit borrowers as employees because they can relate so well to the borrowers and truly understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of a microloan. I asked Cecilia what she liked best about LEAP and how it could improve.
I like that borrowers are required to put money into savings. If you really train people about savings, then they can build their lives. LEAP takes good care of its clients. Many people are able to send their children to school because of these loans and are getting on their feet. It makes women especially strong by adding responsibility and making women independent. Women are no longer dependent on men to do everything for them. I hope that one day LEAP will become a bank. That is how it can improve and grow.
Cecilia says that her single biggest challenge is teaching borrowers the value of savings and long-term planning. When we spoke, she highlighted the importance of LEAP requiring each member of a group loan to save 10% of their loan, which is not available for withdrawal until the end of the loan cycle. She says she emphasizes to borrowers that if they manage their money well by saving every month, ideally a little bit every day, then they can be successful. The key is to think about the bigger picture rather than the short term monetary gain. She stresses that people have to be focused and know what they want.
I believe in microfinance – especially for those who are serious about it. Sometimes people don’t understand microfinance and it doesn’t work right. If people are serious, it works.
I asked Cecilia what LEAP can do to make more ‘Cecilia’s.’ She says that LEAP should continue training borrowers about business literacy and the importance of savings. Additionally, she says that LEAP needs to encourage borrowers to take on leadership roles, such as being a strong and reliable group leader. As a final question, I asked Cecilia what she was most proud of during her 12 years of working at LEAP.
I am proud of myself. People don’t praise themselves enough, but I am proud of myself.
Karen Buxton is a Kiva Fellow at the Local Enterprise Assistance Program (LEAP) in Monrovia, Liberia. Karen is thoroughly enjoying getting to know the LEAP staff and its borrowers. Make a loan on Kiva today!