Walking down Ring Road on Monday (the main road that encompasses the cities of Kathmandu and Patan) it felt as though there had been a mass evacuation and I was the only one who didn’t receive the memo. On a road that is usually so congested with traffic that I allow myself five minutes extra travel time in order to cross it, there was not a single vehicle to be seen and ndhonly a scattering of people here and there. The fruit sellers that usually ‘Namaste’ me on my walk into town had vanished and the usual strip of corner shops selling everything from lentils to coca cola had pulled down their shutters. Tyre barricades burnt to the ground around the city and, as usual, a number of people who got in the way were attacked by protesters. A city-wide ‘bandh’ (a public protest) had been announced and Nepal closed shop for the day.
Bandh’s are quite regular occurrences in Nepal and they effectively close down the cities of Kathmandu and Patan. The protesters threaten any individual who dares to use a mode of transport other than walking on foot and any business owner who negates to close their shop for the day is open to attack. For the children of Nepal, a bandh is a holiday from school but for the rest of the population, a bandh disables the workforce and puts citizens livelihood at risk.
Four days into my fellowship with Kiva and I have quickly realised that productivity is a relative concept in Nepal. BPW Patan, the partner institute that I am based with, is comprised of a highly dedicated team, many of whom are volunteers and donate several days a week of their time to the organisation. The team travel long distances and endure hazardous conditions in order to reach out to women borrowers living in remote pockets of Nepal. And yet their productivity is compromised by barriers entirely beyond their control.
Last Saturday, my first official day with BPW Patan, we paid a visit to a group of women living in a hill area just 20km from Patan. About half of the BPW Patan team boarded a bus headed for the village with the expectation that it would take an hour or so to travel the 20km. Three and a half hours later and five stops to allow the overheated engine to cool, we arrived at the village. This journey, in which we clutched at the edge of a cliff while rocks fell from above and passed fallen boulders that could crush a car, will need to be made time and time in order to collect repayments from the borrowers and to gather Kiva journals about the women’s progress in their various businesses.
BPW Patan volunteers walking part of the way to the village as we waited for the overheated vehicle to cool
Having overcome a bandh and a death defying journey, I was looking forward to seeing my new office where I will be working for the next three months. I arrived at the office for the first time yesterday morning all set to post my journals online, create a new lending team with the loan officers and send through a top notch press profile I recently came across. I was briefly stunned to see that no-one but myself, with my trusty laptop in hand, had computers. Not to worry though, I assumed I could just plug my own computer into the internet and we could work together from mine. Alas, the office is without internet and, I quickly discovered, all too often without power. I spent the afternoon sifting through papers and watching as five loan officers recorded loans with paper and pencil in a room without light.
These are the typical challenges faced by my MFI; city-wide protests that close down the workplace, driving through threatening terrain to ensure our loans reach far away borrowers and an office setting that lacks the basic facilities of internet and computers that I tend to take for granted.
Driving back down from the mountain after my first field visit (only two and a half hours on the way down!) I began discussing interest rates with BPW Patan’s President Urmila who was saying that BPW Patan offers borrowers one of the a flat rate of 10% interest. From my research of Kiva partners, I believe that this is one of the best interest rate offerred to any Kiva borrowers. Furthermore, the organisations requires compulsory savings of 50 rupees a month (roughly US $0.60) and gives borrowers 5% interest on their savings, which they receive in full when they finish their relationship with BPW Patan.
Considering the challenges my MFI faces on a daily basis, I find myself nothing short of in awe of BPW Patan. I realise now that the lengths they go to and the conditions they endure are so that they can keep these interest rates low and ensure that the borrower comes first. I look forward to watching first hand the impact this MFI has on women borrowers in Nepal over the next three months and will keep you updated on my findings./>