Tuesday, March 20, 2012

When you loan to a woman: A firsthand account from the field

This guest post is by author and journalist Bob Harris. This is the third of a series of posts celebrating Women’s History Month and the incredible ripple effect women can have on their families, communities and countries when they have access to the right resources.

Want to see what power and hope look like in person? Jump in a car in León, Nicaragua, and ride into the countryside for about an hour.

Soon, the paved highway will end. Gravel is next, followed by dirt rutted by rain and drought. You’ll see few if any other cars attempting this road. Pedestrians, yes, and a bicycle sometimes, and even a motorbike once every 20 minutes, plus a few riders on horseback.

Finally you arrive, as I did last week, at the village where women belonging to Kiva borrower group Mujeres Responsables (“Responsible Women”) live and work. The Responsible Women live near a rich source of volcanic mud suitable for making pots, platters, and piggy banks. This is a whole neighborhood of working moms and grand-moms who put food on the table by first making the plates themselves.

Members of the Mujeres Responsables in Nicaragua.

I watched as Celica, a tiny woman with an easy laugh, spun her hands in well-practiced circles, turning earth into craft in mere minutes. Her portion of the latest group loan received through Kiva was about $150. Used to buy raw materials, these funds are repayable at less than a dollar a day.

Celica cranks out her handmade platters steadily enough to care for her kids, even when rain makes it difficult to fire the clay. In this rural village, her main advantage is literally the ground she walks on, but she’s also helped by the community. In fact, all of the Responsible Women share their skills, projects and experience to grow each other's businesses and offer their children better lives.

You’ll see the same tenacity and perseverance if you go to the small town of Compostela in the Philippines. Ask around, and you’ll soon find Jinifer, who runs a sari-sari convenience store out of the front of her family’s home.

Jinifer at the convenience store she runs out of her home.

She works hours I could hardly believe when I first heard them. She’s up at 3 a.m. every morning to begin cooking meals she sells to quarry workers starting at 5 a.m. Breakfast turns into snacks, sundries, lunch, after-work beverages and dinner. Her mom helps in the afternoons, but Jinifer doesn’t get to bed most nights until 10 p.m. Seven days a week.

Jinifer tells me about her schedule with a mix of fatigue and happiness. She may be tired, but as her business continues to grow and diversify, her young son will enjoy more opportunity. Her store has been so successful that her family is even planning to hire neighbors to start a delivery service. The loans that helped Jinifer establish her business are already sending positive ripples through her neighborhood and the local economy.

But women borrowers aren’t the only ones empowered by microfinance. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, women who work at Kiva field partner Zene za Zene (Women for Women), are helping to rebuild entire communities that have been under-served for years.

Director Seida Saric has helped finance many small businesses through Kiva. In the wake of violence and conflict in the Bosnian countryside, funds passing through her office have also helped her organization offer much-needed social services to survivors. Through Zene za Zene, women provide other women with education, training, networking opportunities, and more. Investing via Kiva isn’t just about business -- it is also about supporting the people and social missions that make even bigger differences.

These women, and many more that I’ve met during my travels, can seem powerless from a distance. But when you meet them, and see the circumstances they face firsthand, you realize the tremendous power of the hope and love that drives them every day.

That’s what real power looks like.

Right now, mobile technology is providing even more women around the world with the financial tools they need to empower themselves. Education and infrastructure are sure to follow, in even the most remote regions -- allowing women like Celica, Jinifer and Seida to touch more lives than ever before.

Just think what their energy and strength will create in the future.

Bob Harris is a Kiva lender, the Oz-like powerless figurehead atop Friends of Bob Harris, and author of an upcoming book called The 1st International Bank of Bob (Bloomsbury, 2013), detailing his visits to Kiva clients all over the world.