I arrived in Dar es Salaam in early June, a hot and sweaty mess, after 24 hours of flying time. It is my first time on the continent, meaning that every sight, smell, and experience is a new one for me. This has thus far made for an incredibly interesting, challenging, but ultimately enriching experience. While I have had moments where I have questioned my decision to embark on this journey (several hours on an over-packed dala dala, or local bus, in traffic will do things to your head), I have also experienced some seriously incredible, out-of-this-world moments, that reaffirm why I am here and have made all of the other sticky (literally) situations, worth it.
For those wondering, I am spending my summer working with one of Kiva’s oldest and most established partners, Tujijenge Tanzania Limited. Tujijenge is a traditional microfinance organization, meaning that they disburse the standard micro-loan product, which is typically between $500 and $1500 USD, used to invest in small businesses. Considering that the average yearly income in Tanzania is $1900 USD, you can see how a loan of this size can have a significant impact. Tujijenge has five branches in Dar es Salaam alone, and then another four in northern Tanzania near Lake Victoria, making it a fairly prominent microfinance institution in Tanzania. While Tujijenge, or Tuj for short, currently only offers basic group and individual loans, it is looking to expand to offer different types of loan products, particularly in the areas of water, solar and agriculture.
Over the past four weeks I have been visiting several of the other branches in Dar, in an effort to strengthen the relationship between Kiva and Tujijenge’s many field offices. These journeys have taken me to parts of Dar that I would not have otherwise visited, exposing me to the vast diversity of this city and the different lifestyles that exist within its domain. In order to understand Los Angeles, for example (my hometown, so indulge me), you cannot simply see Hollywood; rather you must visit Venice and Long Beach, Pasadena and Glendale, Compton and Brentwood, in order to begin to understand the diverse needs of its citizens. In my trips I have seen both the Beverly Hills as well as the Inglewood of Dar, and as a result I have a much clearer, more comprehensive understanding of the Tanzanian people and the ways in which Kiva and Tuj can work together to serve its citizens.
This past week I ventured to the sleepy, seaside town of Bagamoyo, which is about 60 kilometers outside of Dar, or 2 hours by dala dala. (Yes, they average 30 kilometers per hour). Tujijenge just opened a new office there nearly 3 months ago, to serve the people of this small town, and I was going to check on its progress and meet with some of their borrowers.
The office is small, a single room about 10 by 12 feet, with nothing inside but three desks and six plastic chairs. There is no sign out front, and if the branch manager, Fahami, had not chase me down on the street, I would not have found it! The branch has no internet access, no computer, no running water. To use the bathroom I walk down the street to the local pub. Despite these challenges, the Bagamoyo branch staff of three are currently managing 8 group loans and 11 individual loans, totaling over 50 individuals – a remarkable feat given their lack of resources. The sole loan officer, a young woman named Esther who just graduated with her master’s degree in economics, distributes loans and collects repayments from these 8 groups entirely on her own. Given that they have no access to email, Fahami physically takes the pieces of paper containing handwritten borrower information on the dala dala two hours to the head office, in order to post new loans on Kiva. Talk about dedication. It's old-school, inspiring, and I will never again complain about a slow internet connection!
After our meetings to discuss Kiva policies and procedures, Esther took me and my Kiva coordinator, Jonathan, around to meet some of the Kiva borrowers of Bagamoyo. As we walked down narrow dirt roads, squeezed between houses and ducked under clotheslines, past chickens, goats, and friendly passersby to find the shops and storefronts of our borrowers, I was reminded once again why this is my favorite part of my job as a Kiva Fellow. Each time, I – a total stranger -- was greeted with a smile and welcomed into the business or sometimes home of the borrower. I tried to think of the last time I invited a stranger into my home.
A successful businesswoman, Kanza, who runs a busy beauty salon squeezed me into her bustling shop, plunked me down in a plastic chair, and started playing with my hair before I could even get a word out. Did I want braids? Twists? A weave?! I immediately felt the sense of community and excellent customer service to which Kanza attributes the success of her business. With each borrower, I get to step into their world, and have a conversation with them, about their lives, their struggles, their triumphs. I ask what his or her life was like before taking out the loan, and how that compares to his or her life now. What motivated him or her to take a financial leap of faith, to engage in financial services, especially when the practice is so uncommon and unfamiliar in some of these areas? Most often the answer is extreme need, combined with the determination to build a better life for one’s family.
I love this job because I get a glimpse into the lives of people who are very different from me. Unlike so many jobs where you are several steps removed from the actual people your work affects, here I am in the home and business of Kanza, and in fact she’s putting beads in my hair – (ok, really Kanza, that’s enough). At first glance, Kanza and I are very different; yet the more time I spend with her the more I realize that we have more similarities than meet the eye. With every borrower I meet, we immediately have one thing in common, which is that we both are invested, emotionally and financially, in Kiva. And as Kanza plays with my hair and tells me how it is sometimes difficult to make the repayments on her loan, I suddenly relate to her as I recall that sinking feeling in my stomach when, at the end of the month I struggle to make my student loan payments. That feeling, and our mutual love for hair styling, reaffirms to me that at the end of the day and despite our differences, we are all, as Kanza says, dadas (sisters).
After all our work for the day was done, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Esther and Fahami. We walked down to the local fish market, where we picked out our lunch from one of the many vendors offering fresh fish, caught on the beach behind us, and cooked in the fryers in front of us. We walked along the beach until we found the perfect picnic spot under a palm tree, and laughed about the differences in our lives and in our home countries, our feet in the sand.
Whilst crunching on fish bones and scales (fried whole fish is actually quite tasty) I reflected on my day in Bagamoyo. I was so impressed by the ability of this branch to collect and manage clients, given the fact that they had nothing but pens and paper to work with. If someone had asked me if Tujijenge should open a branch in Bagamoyo, where they have nothing but three people and a few pencils, I would surely have said no. Yet Tuj went for it, and in doing so, they have proved almost all conventional wisdom wrong about the economics of starting a business, and, more importantly, improved the lives of over 50 individuals in the community. I came to Tanzania thinking that I could use my knowledge of economic models to assist Tujijenge; instead I’m throwing everything I’ve learned in school out the window and taking notes from people who have grown up in the field, know their clientele, and have a gnarly ability to trust their gut.
In university, I learned to use the Solow model to calculate the effect of the savings rate on long run economic growth. In Tanzania, I’m physically counting people’s savings in TZ shillings and seeing its effect on the economic prospects of their children. The one thing I know for sure is that this entire world is a classroom, and both Krugman and Kanza are my professors.
To learn more about the great work that Tujijenge is doing in Tanzania, or to lend to borrowers like Kanza, please visit this page.