What Do You Mean By “Profit”?

The word “profit” does not translate easily into foreign languages. I’ve now tried to convey the idea both in Swahili and in Kinyarwanda and I often come up with nothing more than blank stares or long pauses. The difficulty lies in what “profit” includes (or doesn’t). A client may answer my question as to what their monthly profit is with a confident declaration of “30,000 Francs”, but when I ask what she uses the profit for, she answers that she pays the rent and pays off her loan. If that is the case, then her profit is not in fact 30,000 Francs but rather is 30,000 Francs minus rent, loan repayment, and other expenses. Unfortunately language barriers consistently stop me from explaining this coherently.

I understand the confusion. It serves as a reminder that many of these business-owners do not have any formal training in accounting or personal finance. Afterall, for much of their lives there was probably no need for this knowledge. They began businesses with survival and advancement of their families in mind, not as a result of thorough market research or financial backgrounds. Yet despite confusion on what, precisely, I’m asking, after some quick calculations every client is able to give me some number. The only problem with the figure is that I really am not sure what it represents. I have often included these numbers in Business Profiles and Journal Updates that I post on Kiva, but I recently realized that they may be misleading so I am beginning to hold off unless I am sure that the question was properly understood.

This is not to say that clients are oblivious to their earnings. On the contrary, they are very much aware of how much is coming in and how much is going out. They price their goods extremely carefully and perfectly in line with market rate. This is particularly essential since many shops sell the same goods, and a shop that tries to sell for more than market rate will quickly lose its customers. My point is merely that a balance sheet is not something that many shop owners have learned to rely upon. Training at many microfinance institutions is improving upon this as they teach their clients basic bookkeeping before disbursing loans, but it’s not yet ubiquitous. This is why I was particularly surprised when I met Aimable, one of Vision Finance Company’s clients.

Upon first glance, Aimable’s ease with numbers was noticeably absent. There was a significant pause when I asked the size of his loan. This is particularly unusual, as this number tends to live on the tips of the tongues of microfinance clients. As Aimable produced a notebook with detailed accounts of all costs, purchases, and sales, I understood how he was able to allow these numbers to slip from the front of his mind. He kept them on paper instead. In the U.S., we might view such paper bookkeeping as archaic. What’s paper? But here, even microfinance institutions often lack computer technology and do most, if not all, of their paperwork by hand. Therefore Aimable’s meticulous calculations make him ahead of the curve, not behind.

Aimable's Balance Sheet--he meticulously tracks all expenses and income

Aimable's Balance Sheet--he meticulously tracks all expenses and income

Aimable in front of his shop, bursting into the street with his many goods for sale

Aimable in front of his shop, bursting into the street with his many goods for sale

As you can see from the photo, Aimable’s business is booming. In fact, he is bursting out of his small shop with his quantity of goods for sale. I can’t say that this is the result of his careful bookkeeping, but I don’t see it as a coincidence that he has both been very successful and keeps close track of his income and expenditures.

Across the board, microfinance clients are impressive in their ingenuity, drive, and ability to survive within the marketplace. With a little bit of training on bookkeeping, they could likely be even more successful. I am optimistic that in the future, such training will become the status quo. I look forward to the day when my excitement at Aimable’s papers fades as balance sheets crop up all over and eliminate the confusion over that pesky word: “profit”.

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Julie Ross is currently serving as a Kiva Fellow at Vision Finance Company in Rwanda. She recently completed her first placement with BRAC Tanzania.


About the author

Julie Ross

Julie focuses on developing the primary technology that Kiva's field partners use to interface with Kiva, whether it be to manage their Kiva finances, post new borrower profiles, or maintain their relationship with Kiva.  She is thrilled to support the work of Kiva's partners by using her field experience and partner knowledge to create easy-to-use, streamlined, and beautiful tools.  Prior to working on the Product Management team, Julie was the Kiva Fellows Program Manager following time spent first as a Kiva Fellow, then as a Coordinator for the program.  She served as a Kiva Fellow in 2008-2009 with Kiva's field partners in Tanzania and Rwanda.  Prior to joining Kiva, Julie worked on Capitol Hill. She graduated from Tufts University in Medford, MA with a degree in English Literature.