Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Passport Series: The road less traveled in Benin

The upside of adversity: it brings people together.

We see this in many of the countries where we do business, but it's particularly pronounced in Benin where the historic vacuum of opportunities has motivated men and women alike to pull together to create, support, educate and pool funds. This foundation of self-reliance and community offers a strong base for microfinance to invigorate economic activity -- but it’s not always easy.

As I scroll through Béninois borrower profiles on Kiva, it’s hard not to note that the majority of loans are made to women and groups. A little number crunching revealed 92% of Benin loans are for women and 75% are group loans. This is one of the highest concentrations in any of the countries where we work. These groups are a reflection of Benin’s paltry women’s economic index, and evidence of their resilience and ingenuity.

While the group loan structure offers joint liability and support, which eliminates much of the risk of loaning to individuals without collateral or credit history, their rural locations can make it costly to collect repayments.

Visiting borrowers in Benin is a timely process. Our current Fellow in Benin, Allison Moomey, wrote a blog post likening borrower visits to a scavenger hunt:

While directions in Chicago may look something like this: "Go South on 94, take exit 49A (Division), turn right on Division and drive straight until you see the large sign for Milk & Honey,” directions in Cotonou, Bénin, look like this: “Go to the end of the market. Turn right. Continue straight some meters. Pass in front of the woman who sells smoked fish in the market. First intersection, turn toward the four booths. Head to the booth of the client facing the red booth and ask for Nina’s mother."

While some shortcuts do exist, as former fellow Frederic Billou’s video below shows, "shortcut" is likely code for a treacherous makeshift path.

While traveling, it is easy to feel isolated. The world you knew before is tens, hundreds, thousands of miles behind you and yet almost always, shortly after arriving to a new place, the activity, camaraderie and resilience serves as a reminder that -- on a basic level -- everyone just wants to prosper. The environment may be foreign, but the motive is universal.

Look at the stories of some of our current borrowers:

Salmimatou Alaké, who along with five friends formed the Akuegnon Group, had to drop out of school because of financial strain. The support of her group enabled her to open a store, and now her son is able to go to school.

Tokpanou Albert is a husband and a father of three living in Benin's capital, Contonou. He supports his family by selling auto parts and working as a mechanic. Loans have enabled him to grow his business, and thus better support his family.

Adéoniran Abdel, a hairdresser is a member of the artisan association group Apci1. He has six children and dreams of expanding the group's salon.

Comlan Irenée, a passionate photographer, who supports his family through his craft.

These borrowers remind me of something Thoreau once said, "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor." We are proud to support the conscious endeavors of these borrowers as they work towards a better future for themselves, their families, and Benin.

This is the final post of a three part series taking a deep-dive look at Benin, its history with microfinance, Kiva's role in expanding opportunities for Beninese, and what it's like to participate in the country's economy as a borrower, lender and field worker. We hope you've enjoyed it and look forward to showcasing Vietnam this month!