Time for a change

In the United States, my home country, our motto as of late has been change. I have been working at the Christian Rural Aid Network (CRAN) in Ghana for almost two months now, and I am just in time to witness some monumental policy changes of its own that will redefine the way CRAN does business and may even give President-elect Obama a run for his money.

Currently, CRAN has seven different branches in three regions of Ghana. Four of its branches are located near the main office around Cape Coast and Elmina, Ghana, two fishing towns that aren’t rural but aren’t urban either. On top of loaning to people in town, CRAN also lends to many rural communities around Cape Coast. About an hour away, CRAN has two more units running in rural fishing communities. Until June of last year, one of these units didn’t have electricity or computers. The other one still doesn’t. CRAN’s last unit can be found about a six-hour drive away in the Volta Region. Due to this branch’s distance from the head unit where a Kiva Coordinator uploads all the Kiva borrower profiles, none of the clients from that unit can be found on Kiva. This is something that CRAN would like to change sometime in the near future.

At each of the units, there is a manager along with loan officers, each of which has a portfolio of clients that he or she is in charge of. The loan officer is in charge of overseeing the loan and filling out all the paperwork. Since CRAN works only with groups, the loan officer talks everything over with the group’s president, secretary, and treasurer to make sure they know what is going on. The loan officer also visits all of the people at their workplaces to take photos in order to put the borrowers on Kiva. Other employees include the cashier and field officers in charge of collecting both loans and susu savings (a small daily savings).

As CRAN moves forward and attempts to make itself a sustainable financial institution, the employees are changing the way things are currently done to a new and exciting framework. Current groups have ten members or more, but from this month forward CRAN groups will consist of five members. This change is being made because right now many groups are scattered, hard to reach for loan collection, and hard to gather together. The loan officers often only know the president, secretary, and treasurer in a group and must rely on them to find the other members. Some of these groups have multiple family members or an employer and his or her employees comprising the group as well, so from now on group members must have their businesses located in the same area, and must not have any other family members in their group. Sometimes this is the case just because people find it hard to develop a group with at least ten people in order to receive a loan. A group loan is designed so that each of the members guarantees the other members—it is a lot more to take on with ten people.

The other caveat of any group’s membership is that every member must have health insurance. A National Health Insurance Bill that was designed by the governing New Patriotic Party and passed into law in 2003 by the parliament is an insurance plan designed to ensure that Ghanaian residents would have access to basic health care services without paying money at the point of delivery of the service. It has had some criticism, mainly by the opposing party that had implemented a cash-and-carry system. This cash-and-carry system, which was used since 1985 in Ghana, was replaced for various reasons, including a fall in clinic attendance. It required every Ghanaian to pay before receiving clinical care. Since implementing the new scheme in 2004, health care is free for children, pregnant women, and Ghanaians over the age of 70. There are also various plans for everyone else, costing as little as a few dollars and lasting for one-year increments. Because health care makes such a big difference in people’s ability to work, CRAN has decided that insurance is a must. Many Ghanaians get sick with illnesses such as malaria—a disease that can keep them from the workplace for a few days if treated but can even be deadly if untreated. This is, to make it economical, bad for business. A Ghanaian who can’t work can’t make money and needs to rely on help from others to sustain a business and a family. Health insurance will ensure that all Ghanaians who work with CRAN have access to the health care they need to be healthy.

Now, taking out a loan from CRAN is more than just taking out a loan. It is a commitment on the part of the borrowers that they will attend a pre-loan training that involves an introduction to CRAN and the loan disbursement. After receiving the loan, the borrowers attend a monthly training. It is not just one group of borrowers that meet, but many—totaling around 75 people, making it less of a time burden on loan officers to meet with their groups. During these trainings, they will make their monthly loan payments and also receive various lectures on topics such as health, fire safety, and money management. Near the end of the loan period, one of the trainings is dedicated to Kiva journals—ensuring that almost all of CRAN’s Kiva participants from this point on will have a journal. This will not only be a wonderful thing for Kiva lenders, it will also be great in terms of social performance. CRAN will have an opportunity to keep track of the people it loans to and the social progress that the loans make in their lives, which may also help CRAN to modify loans to make them better for the borrowers.

One of the biggest problems currently facing CRAN is high loan deferment rates—incidences where borrowers don’t pay back on time or at all. This new format will attempt to address this problem and will hopefully ensure that field officers aren’t constantly chasing down the people who need to pay—a waste of time, energy, fuel, and money for the organization. This new format—where attendance is close to mandatory in order to get a second loan later on—gathers the group on a monthly basis and gives the loan officer a perfect opportunity to collect the loan repayment.

One of the greatest strengths to this new system is budgetary. CRAN believes it will help the organization cut costs, which is imperative in CRAN’s long-term plan because it is a non-profit organization that runs off of loans. Any money loaned out to borrowers that isn’t from Kiva comes from loans from larger banks. Thus CRAN has interest of its own to pay, and when the borrowers don’t pay back, it negatively affects CRAN and how many other borrowers it can help.

My one big question as I have been introduced to this new system, which has been implemented at one of the units this month, is what will it do for the borrowers? I agree that it is best for the organization as it will hopefully lead to financial stability. However, in terms of borrowers, the recipients will be poor but probably not the poorest businesses in the area. The poorest people won’t be able to pay for health insurance and a susu savings (a small daily savings that is another new requirement of CRAN’s borrowers—so if borrowers don’t pay back CRAN will already have some money to take the repayment from).Thus, poor people will be helped, but some of the poorest won’t have the opportunity to develop their businesses through CRAN.

I do believe that this new system, especially the training, gives CRAN the opportunity to make an expanded social impact in the lives of its borrowers. And then once it is financially secure, it will be able to offer services designed for even poorer borrowers to help them develop their businesses.

This new system will involve a lot of change—from the organizational structure to what is expected of the borrowers, change in policy is revolutionizing almost every aspect of CRAN. These changes are being made in order to address and combat all of CRAN’s weaknesses as an organization and to put CRAN in a position to meet all of its future goals. While I am sure new challenges will arise with the new system, CRAN is working hard and intelligently to become a stronger organization.

ELECTION UPDATE: Ghana just had its presidential elections, which were very peaceful and well-run. Every other commercial on television the day of the elections (December 7) was about peace in Ghana. The country was praised by its African neighbors for doing so well. However, there will be a run-off taking place between the top two candidates on December 28. I will post an update following that in regards to the elections and whether Ghana is able to maintain peace.


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