The Heart of Kiva – A Guest Blog from Mexico

Emmanuel M. von Arx | KF 16+17 | Mexico

Kiva is all about stories. What draws us all in and inspires us to lend are the stories of courageous micro-entrepreneurs that speak of hard-ship and success, challenges and dreams, love and dedication. Single mothers who request a loan to provide for their children; fathers who are able to finance their kids’ education with a business that was started originally with a Kiva loan; and youths who are the first to study in their family, thanks to the generosity of Kiva lenders (such as in the loans of Kiva´s Field Partner Strathmore University in Kenya whose students write their own Kiva profiles).

The breathtaking view from a window of FRAC's Headquarters on the 14th floor of a Mexico City skyscraper encompasses Chapultepec Park and the Castle.

But Kiva is not just about borrowers and their stories. It is also about the people behind the scene on the ground – the staff of the close to 150 field partners of Kiva – who screen loan applicants, grant, administrate, and look after Kiva loans, and make sure that Kiva borrowers are treated respectfully and fairly. Their stories are almost never told. Yet, the local staff of Kiva´s Field Partners are those people who make the magic happen – they are the ones who make Kiva possible. If Kiva Fellows are called the “eyes and ears in the field”, I propose local MFI staff be called “the heart of Kiva,” making sure that the fresh blood continues to flow and keeps the body alive and healthy. Local loan officers are the ones who decide whether to accept or reject a loan applicant; they are the ones who interview them to turn their stories into a borrower’s Kiva profile; and they are the ones who provide advice and support to Kiva entrepreneurs throughout their loan period. MFI staff has insights into the conditions on the ground, the local mentalities, and the practical aspects of microfinance that can rival (and – I have no doubt – normally exceed) those of Kiva staff and Fellows. Yet, their perspective is seldom heard and they are almost never offered the opportunity to tell their stories in their own voice.

Just how much local field partner staff have to tell and share with the world I learned during the brief three week period during which I had the pleasure to be the Kiva Fellow for Vision Fund Mexico (also known as FRAC or Fundación Realidad) in Mexico City. FRAC’s official Partner Page on Kiva provides all imaginable numbers and the statistical background. Here is the gist: FRAC has a risk partner rating of 3.5 stars out of 5; it has managed Kiva loans for over 9,000 entrepreneurs to whom almost 3 million dollars have been transferred since 2009; its delinquency rate is a low 3.38%; and 86.13% of its loans go to female micro-entrepreneurs.

Yet, what these statistics don’t mention is the dedication and love that FRAC’s young and idealistic staff brings to their work day after day. FRAC, has over 200 employees – they encompass 200 breathtaking stories and lives from all over Mexico, coming together in FRAC’s vision of wanting to provide financial and non-financial services to those families who do not have access to formal banking services in order to improve their quality of life.

This Kiva Fellow's office space, complete with breakfast: the greatest tamal de salsa verde in the world - I am not exaggerating!

During my work at FRAC’s Mexico City Headquarter, the organization´s staff turned out to be an endless source of inspiration for me. There was not one person I talked to whose story and motives wouldn’t be worth sharing. Within a few brief hours I felt not just surrounded by close friends, but soul-mates – I discovered that everybody around me was at least as passionate and enthusiastic about FRAC’s and Kiva’s work and the impact of micro-finance as I am.

As soon as I told FRAC’s staff about the Kiva Fellows Blog, I was bombarded with requests of staff members to publish their thoughts and their experiences in their own words. Many have a particular pet project they feel most passionate about; others have made an experience at work they are keen to share. Thus grew the idea of creating a little guest blog within the Kiva Fellow Blog. I offered to all staff to publish their thoughts and words on the Fellows’ blog as a way to make readers aware that Kiva doesn’t just connect lenders with borrowers, but that it connects lenders with local staff with borrowers with friends with staff with borrowers with lenders with… stop! Let’s just say: Kiva connects people through lending!

Rosa Gonzalez is the first staff member of FRAC who agreed to share her experience. She was hired by FRAC as their English-Spanish translator a few days after I joined the organization as a Kiva Fellow. Rosa translates both borrower profiles and journals for FRAC borrowers before they are being published or sent to lenders. But let me introduce Rosa in her own words – you will immediately see that they are pure poetry:

“Almost 25 years ago my journey in this life began… I remember my father taking me to English classes when I was young. I remember me doing every possible thing not to go. I did not know that the path was probably already traced.

Rosa is sharing nopales or cactus salad with her team in San Felipe del Progreso.

“I decided to study Communication because that seemed like the only Bachelor that would not keep me in the same spot for too long, but also because I was seeking a way to express myself. What I did not know back then was that my mind would remain restless forever. Eventually, I realized languages were like a gate. I could not travel in time (sometimes not even to other places), but through languages I can absorb at least a hint of other cultures.

“I am a romantic person. Though I know that nothing can be perfect, I love feeling I am doing something to keep this world in balance. That is why I am pleased to work at an organization that makes the difference.

“What do you do for a living? – asked a kindergarten classmate I bumped into last week-end. I gave it a thought: languages and words are my passion, but the feeling they bring, that is exactly what matters the most. I also love small pieces of this world leaving an imprint on me, feelings, moments, people that leave me astonished. I AM DEDICATED TO DIG INTO LIFE WITH ALL MY SENSES.”

So much for Rosa Gonzalez’s gorgeous introduction of herself. A few days after joining Vision Fund Mexico as their translator and receiving a basic training on Kiva processes and the internal politics of FRAC, Rosa was given the opportunity to venture out into the field. She met with local staff – loan officers, Kiva story investigators (who are known at FRAC as “historiadores”), and branch directors – and clients in two outposts of FRAC. Upon her return from the field, Rosa wrote the following guest blog in which she shares her feelings and thoughts in the course of her visit of San Felipe del Progreso, a city near Toluca, two hours north-west of Mexico City. Her passion and the depth of her feelings speak of each of her words:

Within beauty:

“I have been in several cities in the world, I remember how amazed I was the very first time I left my country, I remember the last time I longed to come back to my Mexico.

The silent beauty of San Felipe del Progreso

“I also remember traveling to touristic cities in here, but last week I took a different trip to a place that I had never heard of: San Felipe del Progreso in the State of Mexico, or “San Fe” as its people say.

“I had no other expectation but to have a nice time, to have another great experience, and I did. As I usually say, experiences are what make our vision go wider, which is what makes us truly wise and more human.

“If you get the picture, I am only getting started. What made an incredible impact on me were the people, people in distant communities who usually only come to town for special reasons. Houses in communities are not big, you can easily see the lack of economic resources, but people living in them just give themselves fully to any visitor.

"El Ocotal" - one of the borrower groups that Rose met during her journey...

“I know there is a lot I need to learn from other people, I DO want to keep on learning. Though we will never live in a perfect world, some of us will continue trying to keep the balance. This time, I am the one who wants to thank Kiva and Vision Fund (FRAC)  for giving me the opportunity of getting to know the deepest beauty in our world.”

This series of guest blogs of FRAC staff members is to be continued – there are at least 199 more stories to share and voices to be heard. While waiting for the next segment, feel free to check out FRAC’s borrower stories and make a loan to FRAC´s amazing micro-entrepreneurs.

Emmanuel M. von Arx is a Kiva Fellow working with VisionFund Mexico (FRAC) in Mexico City.  FRAC provides innovative financial and non-financial services to families and groups that do not have access to formal banking services in rural and semi-urban regions and communities in 12 Mexican States. To learn more, please visit FRAC’s partner page on Kiva or join the Friends of Fundacion Realidad. This fellowship is Emmanuel’s chance to live out to the fullest his unhealthy obsession with tamales.

About the author

Emmanuel von Arx