Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Passport Series: Kiva and breaking the cycle of poverty in Benin

This is the second of a three-part series taking a deep-dive look at Benin, its history with microfinance, Kiva's role in expanding opportunities for the Béninois, and what it's like to participate in the country's economy as a borrower, lender and field worker.

“Working in Benin reminds you that many of the things you take for granted are actually luxuries.”

This is the first thing Kiva fellow alumnus Frederic Billou tells me during our talk about his time in Benin. These luxuries include things like running water, trash collection -- the ability to read. These things are not available to the majority of Béninois. Which begs the question: How do you explain the Internet to someone who doesn’t have electricity?


Kiva overcomes several hurdles working in Benin. While French is the official language, there are four other national languages -- a major barrier when it comes to explaining basic loan terms.

This communication barrier is further complicated by confusion between Benin’s state-run microfinance program, private microfinance institutions (MFIs) and services provided by NGOs. This lending agencies overlap at many points, so explaining the differences can make people skeptical and wary of borrowing.

Frederic recalled that often, in order to complete new loan applications or collect repayments, he would have to enlist the help of previous borrowers, community leaders or local government officials. This struck me. So often Kiva strives to streamline the lending process, but in this case, including more people is the only way to fully understand borrowers’ unique needs the cultural protocol.

Kiva’s field partners in Benin, Alidé and Finadev Benin, are deeply entrenched within borrowers’ communities and use a network of influencers to help identify borrowers, explain loan terms, establish group loans and build better businesses.

Finadev is the oldest microfinance institution in West Africa, but in many ways is one of the most forward-thinking. It focuses on boosting micro-entrepreneurs into a position where they can hire more people and invest in education and poverty reduction expenses. By encouraging borrowers to think of themselves in more enterprising ways, Finadev is helping them work toward more empowered, financially-savvy futures.

In the Fon language, Alidé means “a path always exists (for the poor).” And this MFI has certainly taken its name to heart with its strong anti-poverty mission. Alidé has designed its programs to bring hope and opportunity to Benin’s most marginalized communities -- initially serving two of the poorest neighborhoods -- Placodji and Akpakpadodomé -- in Cotonou. It also reaches out to some of the country’s most underserved groups, including women, the disabled, and HIV-positive individuals. During a terrible flood in 2010, Alidé offered water-purifying tablets to its customers in the most-affected areas, and rapidly expanded its affordable insurance options.

Often, a loan means -- for the first time -- that a borrower can think about finances in a less urgent, immediate way. Breaking the cycle of living day-to-day gives borrowers the time and space they need to learn how to better manage their finances, and actually save money.

We’re proud that both of our field partners in Benin offer accessible savings programs to borrowers. These programs buffer borrowers and their families against unexpected expenses like medical bills and home repairs. Saving is an important part of looking toward the future.

Kiva’s also excited about Benin’s recent progress toward equality, especially recent efforts to extend opportunities to women. Offering programs to encourage education and healthcare will help ensure that Benin’s push for improved access to public education, economic opportunity and stability will include women too.

Thoughts? Share them with us!

photos courtesy of: WFP, globalhort, World Bank and theresac