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Anything but typical: A day in the life of an Accion Ambassador

I think it is important to note that the typical day in my life as an Accion Ambassador is anything but typical. My day starts at about 6a.m., when I wake up. I usually get to work between 8 and 8:30 a.m. Once I get in, I create a list of things I would like to accomplish for the day. Some typical items on the list – going on client visits, visiting staff at branches, meeting with loan officers and branch managers, meetings with management, etc – are usually remnants from previous days.

On a day I am to visit branches, I plan to leave the office at 9 a.m., but the company driver is usually not ready till after 10 a.m. because he is probably on assignment and had to fight the incessant Lagos traffic to return. As I step out of the air-conditioned Accion Microfinance Bank (AMfB) building, I am instantly hit with the Lagos heat. I also take in the air and sound pollution fueled by the never ending Lagos hustle and characterized by honking cars in traffic, booming generators, and seemingly countless street vendors and pedestrians. I am to spend the next few hours taking all this in while I visit several AMfB branches.

Our driver, Fred (name disguised), then takes me from one branch to another so that I can interview AMfB customers and staff. Different branches exhibit different personalities – for example, the Ikeja branch is big, with a spacious waiting area while the Akowonjo branch could use some more space. The one thing that is constant in every branch I visit, however, is the constant activity in the bank. There are always customers in the waiting areas; staff swiftly pacing all over the bank; and people constantly coming in and going out. On the way back to AMfB headquarters, I patronize a street vendor selling gala – a popular Nigerian snack made with baked dough filled with sausage.

I return to AMfB headquarters at about 3:30 p.m. after having spent most of my day in traffic. It is now time to review my list of tasks for the day and check items off, but not before I am greeted with small chops – a small aluminum wrapped container filled with snacks, like spring rolls, samosas, fried plantain, puff-puff, and a couple of pieces of meat. At this point, I am wishing I had not purchase the gala.

One interesting thing about AMfB is how family oriented the work environment is. Every week since I started work, we have celebrated at least one person’s birthday with the distribution of small chops and complete meals. I also enjoy the open door policy of everyone, including the Managing Director. I have literally walked into her office without an appointment to ask questions about my project. But, perhaps what is most special about AMfB is the sense of purpose that has been distilled into the daily activities that the staff engages in. It truly is special.

My day usually ends promptly at 5 p.m. so that I do not keep our family driver waiting too long in the unpaved parking lot next to the AMfB building. In my many conversations with him, I recognize that he also has a life, and family, and dreams, and perhaps someday, he could be an AMfB client. Continue reading

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Lending Ladies: A story of female loan officers in India

Sipping chai in the one room Wadala branch office, Pratibha completes her morning paperwork before lifting her wiry glasses and swinging a plastic chair around the table. Two ceiling fans buzz tirelessly overhead to fend off the intruding humidity as she cheerfully explains her daily routine.

Although the industry has evolved to empower women, Pratibha is one of the very few female loan officers employed by Swadhaar FinServe Pvt. Ltd. (SFPL).

SFPL loan officer Pratibha outside the Wadala branch office.

SFPL loan officer Pratibha outside the Wadala branch office.

The SFPL portfolio includes over 96,000 active clients and spans across four states – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Of the 436 people employed by SFPL as of May 2014, only 22% were female (including head office and administrative staff). Women were better represented in Maharashtra (28%), but only accounted for 12% of staff at SFPL’s smallest operation in Rajasthan.

Although Swadhaar gives equal opportunities to women employees and encourages them to join, very few women opt for loan officer position and this trend isn’t limited to SFPL. The same is true for other organizations across India.

Being a loan officer is undoubtedly a demanding job. (Great loan officer profiles can be found here and here.) Spending 12 straight hours away from home, in the boiling heat. Speaking with total strangers in semi-unfamiliar neighborhoods. Carrying around large sums of cash payments. Continue reading

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Hannah Fosu’s success in Accra’s Tudu market

For those who were lucky enough to travel on the African continent and experience a real African market, Accra’s Tudu market is no exception to the vibrant environment you are faced being in any one of them. Tudu market is one of the main markets in Accra, offering business activities ranging from clothing to vegetable selling all along a wide and long road, which, now that I am thinking about it, doesn’t seem  wide anymore with its numerous street vendors and car drivers trying to make their ways through.

A view of the busy Tudu Market.

A view of the busy Tudu Market.

In the middle of the smell of fuel and honk noises, voices of merchants trying to attract customers or customers trying to bargain products, is a lovely 3 by 4 meters shop decorated by a colorful mix of different kind of clothing materials, with Hannah Fosu as a proud owner.

Hannah Fosu

Hannah Fosu

Hannah Fosu is one of the 1112 clients of EB-Accion in Tudu Market. She is a joyful woman around her forties, married with a 22, 16 and 9 year-old sons, and she has a twin sister that often comes to help her run her activities (they look exactly alike by the way). When she moved from the central region of Ghana to Accra twenty-five years ago, she used to carry a bin with few pieces of clothing materials on her head along the street of Tudu market to sell them in order to make enough money for herself and sister, “now, look at me, I own this shop and my business is doing good”, she adds with a proud voice.

She has been a client of EB-Accion for four years now and that partnership has helped her in a lot of ways:

  • Upward trend loans: She started with a small loan of 3000 ghc in 2010 and now she is in her 7th six month-loan cycle with a current loan of 35 000 ghc.
  •  Business expansion: “With EB-accion’s loans, I am able to travel to Lagos, Cotonou, Dubai and China to buy more goods for my shop”, she joyfully tells us. She was also recently able to buy a new shop to expand her business. “I am receiving clients from Kumasi, Cape Coast, the Central region so I need a bigger shop”, she says.
  • Children’s education: In addition, she was able to put one of her kids and three of her relatives’ kids to university. “We also own our own house. We started building it 5 years ago and now we are just left with the roof”, she adds.

Continue reading

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Learning while doing: Guja’s experience measuring impact in Guatemala

As I’ve been knee deep in technical office work the past couple of weeks, I decided it would be more interesting to share someone else’s story.  My colleague Guja Lucheschi is doing a three month project with Genesis this summer and generously offered to share a bit about her experience with the blog readership.  Guja is from Italy and spent the last year getting a masters degree in microfinance at Solvay Brussels School in Brussels.  Prior to that she worked in regional politics and studied political science and international relations.  The following is an excerpt from a conversation we had discussing her time in the field:

Me: So, what attracted you to microfinance in the first place?

Guja:  I’ve always been interested in poverty and development and have been quite disillusioned with the other possibilities, so I thought I’d try something different like microfinance: selling something to the poor to make them richer.

Me: How did you end up at Génesis Empresarial?

G: My professor and another NGO from Luxembourg are conducting a research project on “green” microfinance.  They are conducting a large general research on microfinance and specifically on payment for environmental services throughout Central America.  They had already done a lot of work in Nicaragua and they wanted to evaluate how a certain project worked in other countries.  The general purpose is to evaluate the impact of the project, both for rural development and on the environment.  They had a contract with Genesis and asked the class if anyone was interested in doing this research, so I applied.

Me: So how are you trying to evaluate the project?

Yeah, that’s the big question!  I kinda work on two levels. One is how the project is implemented and the second is the effects, how have the clients been impacted: environmental awareness, changing production behavior, and diversification of income. But there could also be other effects that weren’t foreseen. It’s hard to measure the impact because it’s hard to find the nexus between one of the components of the program and the behavior of the clients. I think about things like is it because there is money that they change their behavior? Will it have long term effect?

What do you see you  final deliverable looking like?

For Genesis it will be, here is what happened and here are my recommendations for the future.  For my thesis, it’ll be more complicated.

What did your typical day look like when you were in the field?

I would meet up with an asesor (loan officer) or a facilitator sometime between 6 and 8 am depending on how far the community was.  It would be between 1-3 hours of travel, mostly on motor bike.  We’d have a list of clients that we had prepared the day before and we’d go house to house interviewing the clients.  Most of them spoke Q’eqchi, so my colleague would have to translate.  I would interview between 2-7 clients per day, depending on distance between clients, availability of clients, actually finding them, and of course the weather.  For instance, women are a lot easier to find than men since the men are often working in the campo.  Also, an interview could last between 20 minutes and an hour since sometimes the conversation would stick just to the questionnaire and sometimes they would talk a lot and offer lunch.  They like to ask me questions too like my mother’s name, if I’m married, about my family. Then I’d go back to whatever town I was staying in and would basically go to bed so early because I was so tired!  I’d put the interviews in the computer so I didn’t forget anything, and then go to bed to be ready for the next day.  We’d go out 3-4 days a week and the other day(s) I’d review what I did during the week.

Guja interviewing her first client in Caín, in the north of Guatemala.

Guja interviewing her first client in Caín, in the north of Guatemala.

Sounds exhausting!

Yeah, but it was a good exhausting. Continue reading

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Traffic and Microfinance in Lagos, Nigeria

Last Sunday, I set foot for the first time in Lagos, Nigeria, accompanied by my two great supervisors, Francis (from Uganda) and Kwashie (from Ghana ).

What a busy and lively city, was my first reaction after the 45 minute flight from Accra.

We landed to the Lagos’s Murtala Muhammed airport (MMA). MMA is a bit larger than the Accra Kotoka airport, and, according to the federal airports authority of Nigeria (2006), it is the country’s busiest airport with nearly 900,00 passengers traveling through the domestics and international wings in just a three month period. Some construction was taking place to expand the airport when we arrived, mainly to the parking lot. The city of Lagos is among the most populated cities in Africa with a population of approximately 21 million. I was in awe when I realized that the population of Lagos is almost equal to the population of my whole country, Cote d’Ivoire, which has approximately 22 million people. Lagos is made up of a collection of islands connected by bridges. You can see a multitude of transit buses called “danfo” or “molue” (like the troto in Accra) getting people from one end to the other, but also intriguing are the keke napep tricycles on the same straight roads where others wait at bus stops.

One thing that surprised me as soon as I got into the city, was how some churches and mosques are very close to each other, only separated by one street, in some cases. And, I was even more surprised when registering for a mobile sim card, I was asked to specify my religious affiliation.

Generally speaking, the financial service industry in Nigeria is very developed, with many established banks and financial institutions. I was pleased to see how the Nigerian financial institution, United Bank of Africa (UBA), where I interned last year from the Dakar office, is leading the market in Lagos with its many branches throughout the city.

But, more importantly, I was there for the Training Need Assessment (TNA) of staff in the Nigerian microfinance industry, the project that I have been working on from Accra since I arrived. It was here that I would brave the intense traffic of Lagos to conduct the assessment. The TNA consists to gathering information around the training needs of select heads of staff from leading MFIs in Ghana and Nigeria. Then, that information is used to develop new programs, customized mainly for middle management, to address the needs that were identified in the TNA. The goal is to strengthen and develop the skills and capacities of the staff at local MFIs. Better staff lead to better operations, and that is good for the clients.

The methodology for the first part of the project is pretty simple: either send the online survey by email, conduct a phone interview, or, interview the MFI staff in person. It is the latter that brought me to Lagos. As we all  have experienced, face-to-face interaction is the best means of communications. In just five short days, I visited seven different Nigerians MFIs (including Accion partner, Accion Microfinance Bank), and  interviewed staff from all areas of their work: the heads of  the Human Resources department, the Operations department, and the Credit department, and the Branch managers of four institutions. Everyone I met with was very accommodating to the project and provided great input from their personal experiences and job priorities related to their own training needs and those of the MFI in general. At some places, I was faced with additional security measures, because of the latest attack in Abuja. Roads and streets have written names, signs and numbers to ease your driving, although when driving in Lagos traffic, patience is key.

After a very fruitful five days experiencing life, traffic and microfinance in Lagos, I left and headed back to Accra. Now it’s time to get to work on consolidating all of the information I collected … Continue reading

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Getting settled in Paraguay

My wife, Karen, and I arrived in Asuncion on Sunday morning on an overnight flight from Miami. We were tired, but ready for a complete change of daily living. Our introduction to the city began with a cab ride to our hotel apartment in traffic flowing without the benefit of stop lights or stop signs, and in deference to some impressive potholes.

On my first day at Fundacion Paraguay, I met with Sara, the office director who briefed me on generalities, and then with Don Miguel Angel, Manager of the support staff of the foundation. He described his interest in having me help set up a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) section within the agency, identifying staff requirements and functions. Considerable research has been done on their M&E needs that will greatly facilitate addressing this task. Specifically, focusing on local requirements that reflect the staff capacities and local realities.

During the week, I spoke with most major section heads and I was so fully briefed that lunch became a welcome break giving me time to digest the information and hear remaining questions in my mind. I asked for times in the coming second week to meet again with staff to clarify, correct misunderstandings and ask questions.

In addition, I had two site visits to the field: one to a school an hour away in the ‘chaco‘ and another to a regional microloan office also about an hour out of town in the other direction. The school was remarkable: the (high-school aged) students were extremely interested and focused—no horsing around at all! They were professional and interested in a presentation on how to make charcoal briquettes from agricultural waste that can then be used for cooking in place of the use of wood. These charcoal briquettes reduce smoke, save trees, and the method can be easily taught. The method can also serves to augment family income.

The second visit, to the microfinance office, included a trip to an outlying group of women — a committee where each member receives microloans from the foundation. Each committee elects a president to lead the others, and a loan officer from the foundation is responsible for each committee. This particular loan officer (or, ‘asessor’ as they say in Spanish) is responsible for the numerous committees in her area, totaling nearly 1,000 women. Continue reading

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Loan collections: Up-close and personal

Three weeks go by very quickly in a new place, and as I was lucky enough to arrive at Swadhaar during the monthly 6-day collection period, I was eager to dive right in! For years, I have discussed and even written about the role of the loan officer at a microfinance institution – arguably the most central role in microfinance, without which none of the work that we do would be possible – and I was ready to finally see one in action.

The caution I received came as somewhat of a surprise: I was welcome to join, as long as I could keep up. Little did I know this would be no easy task!

Microfinance is a ‘high-touch’ industry. While advances in mobile banking, digital field applications, remote point of service devices, and new lending models such as Accion’s own pioneering project Avanza can significantly reduce the resources needed to offer microfinance products, the simple fact remains that we are servicing a population that borrows less, saves less, takes less insurance – and yet the cost to service this population is as high as if they were making larger transactions.

Of course, in simplified terms this is the very reason the work that we do is so important. Regardless of whether you want to borrow $100 or $100,000, the cost commitment from the bank will be the same and thus these smaller sums aren’t worth their time. So microfinance steps in to provide financial access to those who, in reality, need it most.

Pots and pans neatly stowed in the home of one client near the Borivali branch, who used her loan to finance a small cooking business.

After working for Accion for three years, I know all of this. And yet I was blown away by the sheer effort it takes to service these clients.

Collections days begin early at Swadhaar. While as far as I can tell many businesses in Mumbai begin around 9:30 am, we (myself and fellow Ambassador Alexa Allen) were told to be sure to be at the branch office in Borivali, about 26 kilometers north of Mumbai, by 9 sharp. When we arrived the office was already bustling with pre-collections activity and it was clear that those present had been on location for quite a while.

Most Swadhaar clients have opted for a monthly collections schedule, which implies that all loan officers must transact with each individual loan recipient or joint liability group ‘leader’ on at least a once-a-month basis. (There are two exceptions to this rule: some clients do travel to the branch office to make their payments, and others participate in the Airtel mobile money pilot, an important and growing service that allows clients to make loan payments on their mobile device). Even still, at the end of a typical collections day at the Borivali branch each of the 6 loan officers have visited upwards of 30 group leaders representing nearly 170 individuals.

Continue reading


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