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What Green Means in Mongolia

a massive silver statue of Chinggis Khan looms 40m high on a site where, as legend has it, he found his golden whip

a massive silver statue of Chinggis Khan looms 40m high on a snowy spring morning at Tsonjin Boldog, east of UB

Spring may have arrived in Mongolia, but for two Kiva staff who visited me in April, winter gave one last hurrah and dumped the largest snowfall I’ve seen since being here (a whopping 2 inches!).

If you’ve had a chance to read some of my past blog posts, you’ll already know that winter in Mongolia is a big deal—even for a Canuck like me. While precipitation is generally light in the winter, temperatures can range all the way down to -50oC (-58oF) in many parts of the country.

a typical ger in a city centre

a typical Mongolian ger in Choibalsan (left), kept warm in the winter with a coal-burning stove

So Mongolians must do what they can to stay warm. If you’re lucky enough to live in an apartment building in a city centre, your home is centrally heated. But if you live in the outer ger districts or in the countryside, the story is quite different: You must use a stove to keep your home warm. And to ensure you and your family stay warm all night long, someone—usually the mother—must get up several times in order to keep the fire stoked.

And it’s not just about keeping warm. Half of all the air pollution in UB is attributed to household heating in the ger districts, with an average family using approximately 4.5 tons of coal per year for heating and cooking (costing them about $565 USD annually). As a result, UB has been named the second most polluted city in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and one in ten deaths are attributed to cancers, respiratory illnesses, and other health problems related to pollution.

a not-so-clear winter morning in UB

a not-so-clear winter morning in UB

Enter green loans

I had the pleasure of hosting Stev and Josh from Kiva’s headquarters here in Mongolia in mid-April. They came here for one week to work with one of our partners, Credit Mongol, and to learn more about their green loans program. Credit Mongol has been offering loans that support environmentally-friendly uses since the beginning of 2012, and these loans currently make up about one-tenth of its $11 million gross loan portfolio.

Credit Mongol's headquarters in UB

Credit Mongol’s headquarters in UB (photo courtesy of Stev Witzel)

When Westerners think ‘green,’ we tend to think of solutions that involve some pretty sophisticated technologies and equipment. While the use of wind farms and solar panels does exist here and is gradually expanding, the reality in Mongolia is often much simpler. Green loans here can be used to purchase of low-emission, ceramic-lined, cast-iron stoves that are designed to have better airflow control and therefore improve combustion, allowing users to reduce coal consumption by 70-80%. The loans are also often used to help individuals purchase insulation and building materials (including double-paned windows) that reduce the amount of coal needed to heat the home, which has a positive impact both in terms of cost savings for the family and reduced pollution for the community. Another popular use of green loans here is for individuals purchasing hybrid or natural gas vehicles to operate taxi businesses, which provide an additional source of income for many Mongolian families.

an example of a well-insulated window in a Mongolian house

an example of a well-insulated window in a Mongolian house (photo courtesy of Stev Witzel)

So the Kiva team at Credit Mongol helped us plan a trip to one of their rural branches out in Dornod, the easternmost aimag (province) in Mongolia. Our mission was to visit some of Credit Mongol’s Kiva borrowers and to learn more about their green loans. And so the adventure began…

An epic journey

Less than 24 hours after Stev and Josh arrived from the other side of the world, we were off to an early start. Six a.m. was a bit too early for my liking, but we had 650km to cover, a journey we were told would take about 8 hours in Credit Mongol’s Land Cruiser.

As we started driving east, the city melted away but the snow remained, slowing us down. We took in the enormous Chinggis Khan statue along the way, and then continued driving until we reached the city centre of Khenti aimag 4.5 hours later. Though it was barely 11a.m., we stopped for lunch, as Batchimeg (Credit Mongol’s Kiva Coordinator) informed us there would be no other places to stop along the way.

driving across the Mongolian steppes en route to Dornod

Driving across the Mongolian steppes en route to Dornod – clockwise from top left: (1) sheep running from the sound of our car, (2) our driver Tumurbaatar and Batchimeg, (3) chilling with Stev and Josh as we take a break along the way, (4) seeing camels and other animals inhabiting the steppe

Not even hearing this prepared me for what was to come next. As we piled back into the car, Batchimeg joked cheerfully, ‘No more sleeping!’ What followed was something I could only describe as dune-bashing in Dubai meets the Mongolian steppe (or perhaps this is what Mongol Rally is all about). The paved road ended abruptly, and was replaced by a dirt road that was anything but smooth. For the next 6.5 hours, we bounced along in our SUV, getting hurled around in the back seats and even becoming airborne on multiple occasions. This is pretty much as raw as Mongolia gets! I thanked my lucky stars for the invention of Gravol.

you rarely see other people along the way...

you rarely see other people along the way as you travel across the steppes…

At first, the road was flanked by low mountains in the distance, but these soon disappeared and were replaced by the Mongolian steppes: Flat plains of yellow grass stretching out for as far as the eye can see. We spotted the occasional ger, probably belonging to a herder, but we witnessed far more animals than humans along the way. There were sheep, cows, horses, deer, and camels, as well as one monstrous bird that, standing at about 4 feet tall, made us do a double take.

No less than eleven hours after leaving UB, we arrived in Choibalsan, the city centre of Dornod, just as the sun was starting to set.

Introducing Kiva’s green loan recipients

The next day, fully rested, we set off to meet some of the Kiva borrowers. They all welcomed us warmly into their homes, and some had even been waiting around all day for our visit. We were grateful for their hospitality and had a blast connecting with these awesome individuals and their families. Here are their stories.

Iijuu’s potato farm

Iijuu has been farming for 22 years and grows mainly potatoes, carrots, and beets on the plot of land he owns with his family. With his Kiva Green loan, he purchased potato seeds and planted them in early May. All of Iijuu’s produce is organic, as is all agricultural production in Mongolia. In early September, Iijuu will begin harvesting his potatoes, and he will sell them at the local market. When asked if he had a message to his lenders, he said with a smile, ‘Thank you to all of you for enabling me to grow vegetables. I wish you all success in your work and your life.’

Iijuu and his farm

Iijuu telling us about his farm and how he used his loan

Gombosuren’s new family home

When Gombosuren took out his loan, he was living in a small wooden house with his wife and two sons. The house was old and in rough condition, with a roof that leaked when it rained. The house required ten tonnes of coal to keep it warm throughout the winter, thus contributing significantly to the air pollution. Since it would cost him just as much to repair his old house as it would to build a new one, he decided to take out a Kiva loan to build a new house that is warmer, more comfortable, and requires less coal to heat. He and his family are quite happy in their new home.

Gombosuren's new home and the stove that heats it

the house that Gombosuren built, and the stove and materials that heat it in the wintertime

the goodies they prepared for us

the treats they welcomed us with

Gombusoren and his son

Gombosuren and one of his sons

Ariunbold’s move to the city

Ariunbold and his family used to live in the countryside, where they worked as herders raising sheep, goats, and cows. One unfortunate year, a harsh zud killed off most of their livestock, so they were forced to migrate to the city in search of employment. They moved initially to a place they rented adjoining a grocery store, but it was hardly a proper home. So Ariunbold took out a loan in order to purchase a traditional ger. With its felt-lined walls and stove, the ger will keep himself, his wife and infant son, as well as his parents, surprisingly warm during the cold and windy Mongolian winters. ‘Living in my own home certainly improved my living standard,’ he says.

Ariunbold, his wife, and their young son

Ariunbold, his wife, and their young son

Ariunbold's mother preparing tea for us, using the stove they sometimes feed with animal dung

Ariunbold’s mother preparing tea for us, using the stove they sometimes fuel with animal dung

inside Ariunbold's home you'll find a lot of familiar things...

inside a typical Mongolia ger you may find a lot of familiar things…

us Kivans with Ariunbold and his family, outside their ger

us Kivans with Ariunbold and his family, outside their ger

Insulation for Enkhtuya

Enkhtuya, a retired cook, has big plans to build houses on her property to help accommodate her children’s growing families. She is currently working on one, and her Kiva loan has helped her buy insulation materials such as fiberglass, planks, and steel. Her husband explained to us how they use mud, grass, and water to make blocks which will line the walls of their house to keep it warm. These types of blocks have been used since ancient times and are known to have excellent insulation properties. Enkhtuya expects that the new house will keep her family, and particularly her young grandchildren, warm and healthy throughout the winter.

the new home Enkhtuya is building

the new home Enkhtuya is building

insulation and other materials inside the new home

Batchimeg with Enkhtuya (far right) as she tells us about the insulation and other materials she’s using

Enkhtuya's husband describing how he makes the bricks that insulate his house

Enkhtuya’s husband describing how he makes the bricks that will insulate his house

Tserennadmid’s salon

Tserennadmid was busy with her clients when we stopped by her salon, but she took some time out to talk to us. She is certainly a popular stylist! Having worked in her profession for the past 8 years, she has plenty of business savvy. She and her husband are now planning to open and operate a grocery store in their backyard. She has taken out a loan in order to install an electric-heated floor in the new store, which will help reduce the amount of coal they need to burn in the stove. Her businesses will continue to help support her two young sons and her mother.

Tserennadmid working on a Mongolian (??) client

Tserennadmid working on a Mongolian (??) client

Байгаль орчинд ээлтэй (Baigal Orchind Eeltei): Being environmentally friendly in Mongolia

The next day, we were back on the rally-esque road for our long journey back to the capital. Before leaving Choibalsan, however, our colleagues took us to visit some of the war memorials. Outside the main city centre, the wind whipped around us and gave us a taste of just how cold it can get—and it wasn’t even winter anymore! The need for well insulated housing and clean-burning stoves in Mongolia became real to us in that moment.

even spring can be extremely cold in Mongolia

Stev, Josh and Batchimeg huddling for warmth beside a war memorial… even the spring can be extremely cold in Mongolia

Personal and business loans aren’t the only ways Mongolians are trying to have a positive impact on the environment. In UB, where traffic congestion is incredibly high, the government has instituted car restrictions since last September: Depending on your license plate number, people are only permitted to drive on certain weekdays. And one sunny day in April, Ulaanbaatarians poured out onto the streets as they walked about freely, enjoying the city’s annual No Car Day. And a couple of weekends ago, many of the city’s residents took part in Tree Planting Day, planting thousands of saplings throughout the Children’s Park and elsewhere.

joining the effort to make UB a greener place

pitching in to make UB a greener place

All of these efforts are important in the face of air pollution, desertification, and other environmental issues challenging Mongolia. Driving back across the steppes from Dornod, we took in the natural beauty around us. It wasn’t hard to imagine how green these landscapes would be in just a few more weeks. Hopefully the country’s various environmental initiatives, from the individual to the government level, will help to keep it this way.

With the whole gang at Credit Mongol's Kiva office!

With the whole gang at Credit Mongol’s Kiva office! (photo courtesy of Stev Witzel)

With thanks to Adam Grenier and Mathew O’Sullivan for their input.

About the author


Jane grew up in a town near Toronto, Canada. Born to Japanese parents but raised in Western society, she gained an early appreciation for learning languages and bridging cultures. She speaks English, French, Spanish, and Japanese, and is currently studying Portuguese. These language skills have led her to work in a variety of places, such as an investment bank in Tokyo, an NGO in Quito, and a development bank in Washington, DC. Her professional interests are in international economic development, poverty reduction, and capacity building. While she has learned a lot working as an analyst and economist over the past 10 years, she is eager to continue her work in the field in Mongolia, and to witness firsthand how access to capital can help people transform their ideas and creativity into economic prosperity. Last year, Jane began her own creative business designing and making greeting cards and invitations by hand. Some of her favourite pastimes are cooking, swimming, and outdoor sports (including biking, canoe camping, and cross-country skiing).