Walking up the Mountain

Emily, Morgan and I had an incredible (and tiring) day yesterday.  We hiked nearly two hours uphill after crossing a river by foot (my shoes were soaked until the tropical sun dried them), and then something like 90 minutes back (downhill).  We were accompanied by an incredible American, Steve Werlin, who has been associated with Fonkoze since at least 2005 (when he started living in Haiti full-time after off and on living/working here since 1996).  Also in our group was Wilfix Derameau, the manager of Marigot branch who succeeded Steve in that role more than one year ago.  (Steve, who utterly lacks any trace of the infamous male ego, has been doing all sorts of different things from Fonkoze these past six years — his basic working principle seems to be, “put me where you need me”.  He speaks Creole fluently and his academic training is in textual interpretation, especially ancient texts!)

When Steve took over this branch in 2008, it had 1600 clients — many who were defaulting on their loans.  He cleaned up the portfolio by re-motivating the team, enforcing policies, bestowing kindness and leniency on those who wanted to turn things around, and working his ass off.  At one point the number of active clients dropped to 600.  Now, under Wilfix (who was a credit agent working under Steve who was identified as a high performer and sent for special manager training at the end of Steve’s tenure), it has 1680 clients and is still growing.

Iliamene (in the blue dress) with Wilfix (striped shirt) and Steve (orange shirt)

For Steve, who deflects almost all credit to the turnaround of Marigot branch to his former branch colleagues, this was a trip down memory lane, receiving hugs from clients such as the indomitable, force-of-nature woman named Iliamene Joseph Madam Jean Marc  (pictured here) who leads her local solidarity center and seems to coordinate the activities of nearby centers (including those where the entry point was the Ti Kredi product mix designed for poorer clients).  Iliamene is one of four women from this branch who will be attending the annual assembly of selected center chiefs in Port au Prince in early July.  The assembly is a key part of the Governance structure of Fonkoze. 

We met a wide variety of clients — very poor ones just entering a Ti Kredi center, and ones who seemed much more prosperous (who usually had been in the solidarity loan program for a number of years — Iliamene since 1996!).  On our way  back down the mountain we met two women who were cleaning vegetables they had bought earlier that day in a farming region much farther up the mountain.  They got up at 2am that day, went to the market town, bought produce, and were to spend the afternoon cleaning them before going to Jacmel by public transport the following day (today) to sell (we might see them since we are going there today). 

Some borrowers said that their life changes after joining Fonkoze were significant, in other cases, it was much more limited.  In some cases, the lack of impact was related to losing assets due to health expenses or natural disasters (such as the flooding that took place just a few weeks earlier, and for which the women are hopeful about getting insurance payout from Fonkoze since they paid premiums that were deducted from their most recent loans at the time of disbursement).

We learned a ton of things from Steve about the current state of Fonkoze.  He writes a great blog about his work here and I read all his posts as preparation for this book.  But the best thing about yesterday was, for a few hours, walking in the shoes of credit agent through the dusty mountain roads of Haiti, and talking to women who had experienced the benefits and limitations of microfinance provided in the unique way that Fonkoze delivers it in this most challenging of environments. 

I am still trying to upload videos taken Tuesday (and my attempts to crop the photo here proved frutless) — thanks for your patience!

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  1. July 21, 2011 at 2:27 am

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