Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dreaming of University

To many in the world, Nepal is a distant and enchanting place. A small nation of 28 million people, it is surrounded by two giants with China to the north and India to the south. Nepal is home to eight of the world’s highest mountains including Mount Everest, known locally as Sagarmāthā, which have been attracting travellers and explorers for hundreds of years.

The Nepalese people mostly practise a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism and the countryside and sky high mountains are dotted with the colourful Tibetan prayer flags that float freely in the cool Himalayan breeze (such as those in the picture at left, above Kathmandu Valley). At any given moment, walking down a pathway though a town or village in Nepal, the low and soothing chant of monks can be heard in unison with the prayer bells rung by worshippers.

In spite of Nepal’s rugged beauty, high peaks and spiritual vibrance that draw in travellers from afar, the country is also home to some of the world’s most impoverished people. Almost half of Nepalese children under the age of five are malnourished, a higher proportion than in countries commonly associated with famine, such as Sudan and Ethiopia. Child mortality and maternal mortality are also on par with some of the most impoverished African countries, one in ten people still don’t have access to clean water and the life expectancy is lower in Nepal than anywhere else in Asia.

In the midst of this, one Kiva borrower has managed to overcome the confines of poverty and emerge as a successful and proud business women.

Five years ago Gun (the "u" in "Gun" is like "full") Keshari Maharjan (picture at left) wandered the footpaths of the Kathmandu Valley, working as a street hawker. Street hawkers are common in Nepal and typically sell fruit or household items at a small markup. This is one of the lowest paying types of employment in Nepal.

Gun Keshari sold a small collection of household items, such as kitchen utensils, that she would push down the street in a small cart. Gun Keshari’s husband, Shibadas Maharjan (picture at right), was working for a very small wage in the handicraft industry where he was making religious idols. At that point in her life, Gun and Shibadas didn’t even have enough money to feed corn or rice to their family, the cheapest foods in Nepal, which would have cost just a few rupees each day (equivelant to about one US quarter).

In 2005, Gun Keshari heard through a number of women in her community about an organization called Patan Business and Professional Women (BPW Patan). This organization was lending an initial amount of $150 to women in the Kathmanu Valley area. Gun had an idea to stop selling kitchen items from a cart on the street and to open a grocery store in the village of Thecho.

Thecho is a village that is home to a large community of Newar people, including Gun Keshari and her family. The Newar people are the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley and have a culture that is quite distinct to the typical Nepali culture. The Newar language doesn’t have any overlap with the Nepali language and, for some of the poorer Newar people, they may not have ever learned to speak Nepali. Newar food is also different than typical Nepali food; while many Nepali people are vegetarians, meat is an important part of the Newar diet (in particular buffalo meat). The architecture, dances and festivals of the Newar community also add a lot of flavor to the Kathmandu Valley and are appreciated by many foreign tourists.

Having grown up in the Newar community in Thecho, Gun Keshari was well aware of the types of food and goods that would sell easily to members in her community. When she was approved for a loan, and as she set up her shop, she made sure she had large supplies of maize, rice, lentils and spices that go well with buffalo meat. She also resourced some women in the community who could supply her with milk and eggs in the mornings so she could sell the freshest produce to her customers. Gun Keshari also realized there was a market for selling sweets and chocolate to children, as they pass by her shop every morning and night to get to and from the nearby school. On her front counter, Gun Keshari displayed a colourful assortment of plastic bins containing many different types of treats for children.

Within the first year of business, Gun Keshari was experiencing unforeseeable success in her grocery store. Sales had exceeded her expectations and she found herself with profits she could invest. As a Maharjan, Gun Keshari and her husband belong to a caste that is renowned for their farming skills and hard working ethic. With a knowledge of farming that has been passed down through the generations, Gun Keshari decided to invest her profit into what she knew, and she rented two small plots of land in front of and behind her grocery store. On these plots of land, her husband began planting vegetable seedlings and fruit trees.

When her first loan was repaid, Gun took out a second loan with BPW Patan, for $450. This loan was funded by 18 Kiva Lenders from the United States, Canada and Luxembourg. While $450 is a nominal amount of money for many people, for a woman in Nepal, this loan amount is approximately half the average annual income. With this much money in her possession, Gun Keshari wanted to ensure she invested it wisely. She divided this money between new stock for her grocery store and fertilizer for her vegetable and fruit farm.

After just a few months of hard labour on the land and many sales in the grocery store, Gun Keshari and her husband saw their profits rise considerably. They were able to achieve what had been unimaginable just a short time ago; they were able to take their son out of his public school education and enrol him in a private school.

Soon Gun Keshari and her husband found they were growing more vegetables and fruit on their land than they could possibly sell in their small grocery store. They needed to make their produce available to a wider market. Rather than simply selling their produce to a local supplier, as most Nepali farmers tend to do, Gun Keshari cut out the middle man and took matters into her own hands.

Everyday at 5:00am, Gun Keshari wakes, prepares breakfast for her family and collects her fruit and vegetable produce and at 5:30am she boards a microbus and travels into the heart of Patan; one of the three major cities in the Kathmandu Valley. Here, she sells her vegetables and fruit, along with eggs and spices from her grocery store at a busy morning market. The profit she is able to make from this is much more than what she could ever make if she sold to a supplier.

On the 15th of July this year, Gun Keshari repaid her first Kiva loan. The very same day she took out her second Kiva loan, this time for $400. This loan was funded by 16 Kiva Lenders from 10 countries around the world: the United States, Sweden, Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and France. Gun Keshari intends to use this new loan to continue to expand the types of stock in her grocery store and also to buy new fertilisers for her vegetable and fruit farm.

The changes that have occurred in Gun Keshari’s life over the space of just a few years and three loans have been remarkable, but have not been without hard work. Gun’s husband is very busy doing all of the farming himself and so Gun Keshari must juggle selling the vegetables while also running her grocery store. When I asked about vacation days, the concept was completely foreign and she said she never takes a day off unless there is a festival that closes the whole city down and, even then, she still works for a few hours in the morning selling her produce at the market.

Despite the difficulties of working so hard, the benefits are clear to see. Gun is now able to provide her family with nutritious food and her son is receiving a good quality education. When I asked her what her dreams are, Gun giggled and said she would like her son to go to university overseas and be able to become whatever he wants. She said she still finds it funny that this is even a possibility since only a few years ago she couldn't find a way to feed her family a nutritious meal.

I have visited Gun Keshari on a number of occasions now, and each time she insists on giving me fruit from her orchard and cannot stop laughing and smiling throughout our conversations. On my last visit I asked her what the value of a loan meant to her. She grinned from ear to ear and said, “Money is not everything but it is a very special thing which has changed my life”.

- Polly Banks is a Kiva Fellow, and has been working with Patan Business and Professional Women since May 2009.