Standouts in Bolivian microfinance: Spotlight on Kiva partners ProMujer and Emprender

On my last post I outlined some of the difficulties of working and living in Bolivia. Marches, protests, and strikes from nearly every sector of the population make it hard for any organization to conduct business here in La Paz and its surrounding areas. Yet there are plenty of Kiva’s partners that manage to do a great job despite any and all local challenges.

Field meeting of the “Costeñitas” group in Senkata, along with loan officer Remedios (second from the left) and Kiva Coordinator Lourdes (third from the left)

ProMujer, one of the MFIs that I have been assigned to work with during my time with KF-18, has thoroughly blown me away with its staff’s commitment to regional development and women empowerment. Perhaps because it is a larger organization (with programs and offices in five Latin American countries), its range of services, financial and otherwise, are exhaustive and effective in reaching its target population: women, of course.

KC Lourdes, giving the Pentalfa group a monthly training session

ProMujer’s El Alto’s offices work in various regions in the Bolivian Altiplano, a part of the country known mostly for its high altitude and harsh weather, and since the start of their partnership in 2007, they have managed to raise a total of $3,914,850 on the Kiva website mainly by working with and posting group loans headed by women.

Many of the Andean women spend long periods of time out in the harsh Altiplano weather cultivating traditional local produce such as “chuño” and “tunta” (both being dried potato products made by a unique and age-old process of freezing the potato until its consistency changes), quinoa, linaza, and caring for their livestock.

In the process of drying potato and converting it to “chuño”

But because agriculture is not a year-round business and the land does not provide for a diversity of crops, the inhabitants of the Altiplano have also had to turn to the business of importing goods to sell in one of the many weekly fairs that are held in the streets of El Alto. In these fairs, everything from produce, to used clothing, to home appliances, is sold.

Every month, ProMujer’s Kiva Coordinator Lourdes Mamani uploads profiles for women’s groups such as “Flor de Lipe” and “Pentalfa”, both of which I had the pleasure of meeting, and several others that are drawn to do business with ProMujer due to its focus, not only on community development, but also on women’s health.

One of ProMujer’s goals is to better the health of the Alteña women by offering free medical check-ups and attention at most of their local offices. Doctors and nurses such as can  be found tending to ProMujer’s clients and administering vaccines and gynecological services free of charge, or even taking trips to the rural communities and visiting clients in their own homes.

Telma, part of ProMujer’s medical staff

In this part of the country, where police are not present or even admitted into local communities due to lack of trust, it is of outmost importance that loan officers first build up a good rapport with the public they are hoping to serve. For this reason ProMujer employs people who are familiar with the local customs and speak the local language: Aymara. As for the political climate, thankfully the areas of the Altiplano that ProMujer El Alto works in are not as affected by strikes or demonstrations, but the ever-present dangers are of theft, violence against women, and of course, bad weather.

Don Froilan and the handy ProMujer truck. His amazing driving skills have been getting loan officers to the furthest reaches of the Bolivian countryside for many years.

Even though the non-existent roads and frequent rain and snow in this part of Bolivia present a challenge for ProMujer’s loan officers and medical personnel seeking to reach the most remote Andean villages, it does not stop them from getting there, be it via bumpy car rides, slippery motorcycle rides, or, as it is most commonly done: by foot.

Remedios and Lourdes, trudging it out in the Altiplano

With all they have done for the local community, and especially with its focus on women entrepreneurs, it is no wonder that, during its five-year partnership with Kiva, it has earned five out of seven social performance badges. Great work ProMujer!

While in La Paz, I’ve also had the pleasure of briefly working with Emprender, a Kiva partner for over four years now. After visiting two offices and four clients, I was impressed by the friendliness and professionalism of its staff, a lot of them veterans in the field of microfinance.
Despite the fact that my time with Emprender, and with its Kiva Coordinator Angelica, was brief, it did coincide with one of the best days to be a Kiva Fellow ever: The anniversary celebration of one of its field offices in El Alto. I was very lucky to be present on this day, and I’m not saying that just because I got free cake.

Although I won’t complain that I did get cake

Actually, it was because it gave me a chance to see the Emprender personnel interact with its clientele in a social setting designed to make everyone feel as if they were part of a family.
Gift baskets were arranged and given away by raffle, and food was brought into the office by some of the loan officers and shared with everyone present at the time. Speeches were made, and everyone walked away happy. It was during these moments that I understood the role of this MFI within its community as more than just a financial institution.

Food, gifts, and balloons. Definitely a party

Emprender’s most loyal customers, blowing out the birthday candles

KC Angelica and I tried applying for a loan just to qualify for the gift-basket raffle… Well, not really, but it sure seemed worth it!

Emprender has so far been awarded the Family & Community Empowerment and the Innovation Social Performance badges thanks to the type of interaction that Emprender carries on with the local community and due to their creative and diverse projects. One of these projects is a water sanitation initiative that has been launched in Emprender’s Cochabamba offices and in partnership with the SODIS Foundation and which seeks to upgrade the quality of life of clients by providing them with loans for cleaner water and a better waste disposal system for their homes.

Other initiatives launched by Emprender include student loans, housing loans, and rural loans designed specifically for clients who are in need of funding for their agriculture-based businesses.

Emprender’s clients are as diverse as their initiatives. They have customers like Julio whose loan helped him expand his electronics repair store, or like Angela, who used her loan money to make home repairs to her kitchen and other areas of her house.

All in all, Emprender and its offices, located in three of Bolivia’s nine regions, do much to help the various needs of the people to whom they have been able to gain access. Best of all, its personnel has not only managed to ingrain itself in these communities, but has also secured the trust of its members with small but meaningful gestures such as the party I was lucky enough to be a part of.

How does Emprender deal with the ever-changing political climate in Bolivia? From what I observed, patience really is a virtue that the staff has learned to hold true to their person. Road blockage today: Accessible perhaps by foot tomorrow.

Score one for persistence.

Isabel Balderrama is a fellow  working with ProMujer, Emprender, and IMPRO in La Paz, Bolivia. If you’d like to help the a Bolivian entrepreneur join Kiva’s Emprender Lending Team, Friends of ProMujer, Friends of IMPRO or Team Bolivia. Also, check out which loans are yet to be funded in Bolivia by clicking HERE

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