Last fall I heard for the first time a term for a new type of Fonkoze client that almost made me giggle – “Madam Saras”. It turned out to be Fonkoze at its opportunistic best – responding in an entrepreneurial way to three developments:
- its excess liquidity (i.e., more savings deposits, on which it pays a nominal rate of interest, than it has in microloans outstanding),
- the problems its poor women vendor clients were having getting merchandise because the wholesalers they bought from were not able to import enough after the earthquake, and
- many of the wholesalers were savvy businesswomen (known in Haiti as “Madam Saras” which refers to birds that make a lot of noise and always move in flocks) who had lost inventory in the earthquake and had their credit lines reduced or cancelled by the mainstream banks.
The dynamic leader of an association of 15,000 of these wholesalers, Marie Yannick Mezile, approached Anne last year as one of their critical buying seasons approached and asked if Fonkoze could give them the loans they needed to resume importing on the scale required. Anne and some of her colleagues went back and forth with the Marie, saying they were reluctant to lend poor clients’ savings unless they could be sure it would be repaid and also help relieve the bottlenecks that impacted on Fonkoze’s traditional loan clients. Ultimately, they worked out a deal that began with a pilot where 30 “Madam Saras” borrowed around $50,000 each (based on my back of envelope math), and later this was expanded to 104 and 117 clients who received loans repayable in up to three months. Today, the director of what is now a full-fledged Fonkoze loan program has a file cabinet full of new applications – so there is significant growth potential.
Yesterday I met three Marie (far right in the photo) and two of her colleagues: Elissaninthe Bonhomme Joseph (not pictured) and Marie Jacques Rene (far left). Since the 1980s, they have been travelling to places like Panama, Taiwan, the U.S. and China to import as many as four containers worth of merchandise at a time. They used to travel in groups of about 10, but now as small as 3-4 women. They have an association of 15,000 and a federation of 43,000 – I am not exactly sure of the difference between the two – and they do business with AID, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the country’s major banks. They walked me through the process they have worked out with Chinese vendors and regulators, and a similar process in Taiwan, and my head was spinning. There is a pecking order: the most advanced women importers are called “limenna” (meaning unknown to me), the next most advanced are “Madam Saras” and then there are “timachaan” (retailers, of which Fonkoze clients probably constitute the smallest, most rural types). Their association is composed of about equal numbers of each of these three groups.
Why would partnering with Fonkoze – who now lends them (collectively) about $5 million four times each year for various buying/selling seasons such as back to school and Christmas – make sense for these women? I asked them. First, they said that they felt “left in the lurch” by their previous lenders (even though some are now trying to reacquire their business). Second, there is Fonkoze’s interest rate (2% per month), which, in their words, “can’t be beat.” Third, Fonkoze does not have all sorts of hidden/annoying fees that the other banks seem to have. Lastly (and this is my theory), they like being part of an institution that does the bulk of its business with female entrepreneurs of more humble means and feels women-led and truly “Haitian” in its work style/culture.
After wrapping up my interview with the three women (who kept getting calls that would lead them to bark a few instructions before hanging up) I met Ludmiya Garraud, who was recruited in April from one of the country’s mainstream banks to run what is now called “Kredi Cho” under the direction of Fonkoze/SFF COO Georgette Jean Louis. (Actually, her portfolio is a bit bigger, comprising some loans to two IT companies if I understood correctly, and is called in English “Special Loans” division.) She seems to be adapting well to the fast-paced, entrepreneurial organizational culture here at Fonkoze.
They set up a website to spread the word about their odyssey and raise money to support their modest expenses here – I am going to make a contribution for sure! Both Vanessa and Caleb have been reading my blog even as they have been put right to work – Caleb did a day trip to Jacmel on his first day on “the job”; Vanessa seems happily occupied herself. Check them out on Facebook (search for “live from Haiti”) as well as their website (which is also listed on their colorful business card pictured below). Vanessa introduced me to Stephanie Garry, who is also a Fonkoze intern focused on social media – she says she’s been using the “content” in this blog to spread the word. Terrific!
Some people in Haiti believe that there is a reverse brain-drain underway – that a growing number of Haitians from the diaspora are returning to help rebuild. Others assert that a new generation of the super-rich families here are showing social responsibility and commitment to improving the country, rather than simply further enriching themselves and strengthening their links to the U.S and Europe. It is not clear whether these represent wishful thinking or promising trends, but I have certainly seen some anecdotal evidence of both. (Disclosure: I am an optimist by nature.)
I got Vanessa to speak on camera about her motivation for coming and did a fair job of editing one of her responses after a lot of effort. She obviously believes that the brain drain continues; however, she wants to contribute to a reversal.
I have learned so much about Fonkoze‘s journey over the last three days that I hardly know where to start with this blog.
On Wednesday, I returned to Marigot and re-interviewed Iliamene with the assistance of Linda Boucard (who continued the interview while I had to take a call about my “day job” with Grameen Foundation that I formally remain on sabbatical from until August 1). I learned a lot more about her toughness, her humble origins, and shuffling between households in Marigot and Port-au-Prince before settling into a productive life as a wife, mother, community leader and entrepreneur. (She became even more productive after joining Fonkoze.) But due to a series of miscommunications, we had less time with her than we otherwise could have. Thankfully, Linda agreed to return in the weeks ahead to go deeper, since her story has real depth and complements Mariyn Bayonet’s tale well.
Then we went to the Central Plateau, checked into our modest hotel, and had dinner with Steve Werlin — who helpfully filled us in on his early interactions with Iliamene (which were tense) when he became the branch manager in Marigot in 2008. I almost neglected to ask him about her, but when I did it alleviated my distress at not having been able to learn as much about her as I had hoped on that day.
On Thursday we spent the day at a summer camp for 140 children of CLM (ultra-poor program)clients, which will be repeated over the coming weeks such that 5,000 youngsters will benefit from three days of nutritious meals, fun, learning and interaction with their peers — quite a revolution for such marginalized families. The children were divided in three groups based on age. The sessions were led by “case managers” and their supervisors and in the case of the oldest kids, by a specially hired arts and crafts teacher who announced she would teach them some skills so they could earn money for their families making decorations to sell to people organizing weddings and funerals in their communities. I am not sure how valuable that was for my book but it gave me the chance to interview CLM’s director (more on him below).
When the earthquake struck, Paul was at home with his wife in their apartment, which was on the second floor of a three-story building. He was trapped on the second story by part of the ceiling that collapsed, even though much of his own floor had also fallen. He was not freed until 11am the next morning, and when he did he was dazed and thought he was among the living dead, having passed into the afterlife since he could not believe he had survived. His daughter was pulled by her legs through a wall by a neighbor at 11pm, six hours after the quake. His wife fell through the floor but somehow survived.
Paul, who sustained multiple fractures in his legs, and six family members, went to Fondwa and then Jacmel for treatment — but could find none except for a pair of crutches. About 26 hours after the quake he got a call on his cellphone from the leader of a Fonkoze solidarity loan center that had met — really! — earlier that day and collected their payments and given it to her since Paul had not come (as he normally would have). They were going to meet again on Thursday and hoped he would join. Upon getting this call finally realized he was still on planet earth, not some kind of afterlife of zombies and “living dead”. On Thursday, he found his way back to Bizonton (about 40 miles from Fondwa), got on his motorbike, and met with the center — crutches and all — amidst smiles, tears, songs and much emotion. The following day he and his colleagues went to the Head Office for a day of prayers and planning.
By Monday, his branch was up and running, with a mobile van donated by Alternative Insurance Company (a Haitian insurer that is a strong partner of Fonkoze’s) parked in front of the collapsed branch office serving as the new one. That entire week, the staff facilitated clients — many looking injured and bereft — withdrawing savings and receiving wire transfers from abroad. The following week, center meetings resumed and the branch operations shifted to the playground of an elementary school — where it would remain until the school re-opened in September.
As you can imagine, Paul was a bit reluctant to re-live this journey with me. It may have been the only time he did so since the earthquake except when he spoke to a Haitian psychologist who provided staff with post-trauma counseling (made possible by a grant from Fonkoze USA, whose board I chair, and American Jewish World Service). Like Linda and Helena the night before, he was willing to let me into his darkest memories which ended in a certain measure of triumph — but not before going to Hell and back.
Another powerful story to be woven into my still untitled book! Tonight I will have dinner with Fonkoze’s wunderkind James Kurz (referenced in an earlier blog). Tomorrow, I will try to write a book proposal to get the process of securing a publisher jump-started. Wish me luck.
On Tuesday, I spent six hours interviewing Marilyn Bayonet, the hard-luck, “grimly determined” Fonkoze client I met in June and blogged about. During the first three hours, and with the assistance of Linda Boucard, I basically got her life history – from birth up to the present day. After a midday break to allow her to prepare for going to the market to cook and sell, during which I had an illuminating interview over lunch with Linda herself, we went to the market and interviewed/observed Marilyn in action – cooking fried foods, selling drinks, and selling other products like toilet paper and condensed milk (some on consignment from other vendors).
I saw an entirely different side of her this trip. She seemed much more animated and, frankly, happy. When we arrived she was just back from the market where she had bought fish to fry up later that day, and she had her earpiece in both ears and connected to her new, $11 (!) cell phone. Earlier that morning she had pre-cooked some chicken and beef that she would fry up quickly when ordered by individual customers later that afternoon.
Some of the change in my experience of her was probably from doing deeper in the interview with a translator she knew and trusted. Probably another aspect was that we did not ask her the question that seemed to upset her the most last time – “Do you feel you will be able to rebuild your house anytime soon?” For sure, getting her new Fonkoze loan two weeks earlier had given a jump-start to her business and made her more optimistic. Finally, she said she felt that a hex that had been put on her by another vendor who was jealous of her success had been lifted and she was earning more money as a result.
In the photo below on the left, she is proudly showing off her pre-cooked beef.
And in the one on the right, she was happily posing in front of her just-purchased dresser (her first piece of real furniture since she moved into this tent 14 months ago) in which she stores (among other things) some of her stock of soft drinks. She did not invite me into her tent last time, but did on Tuesday.
As with most real-life phenomena, the cause of her apparent transformation eludes simple explanation. Perhaps in another blog posting, and certainly in my book, I will go in-depth about Marilyn’s life history, with an emphasis on how she got started in business originally (by following around her grandmother), her horrible yet somehow inspiring journey in the hours and weeks after the 2010 earthquake, and the daily ebbs and flows of her business and cash flow.
The things that stick in my mind most after spending so much time with her are:
- How poverty prevented her from pursuing education.
- How early she got started learning to run micro-businesses.
- How dependent she was on loansharks before learning about Fonkoze.
- How her relationships with the two men who fathered her five children defy easy categorization (though one – who happened to walk by and briefly talk with us yesterday morning – was clearly abusive when they were together)
- How much women micro-entrepreneurs in Haiti, or at least the ones I was with yesterday, help each other through a complex web of relationships.
When I get back to Port-au-Prince where I think I can upload videos, are I going to upload some short clips, “sights and sounds of the market” where Marilyn works each day, 4pm-10pm (and longer hours during peak periods).
Yesterday I spent six hours with Marilyn Bayonet, the Fonkoze client living in a tent on her grandmother’s land (which she inherited some years back) whom I interviewed in June. It was an incredible opportunity to delve into the complex, and improving, life of a microfinance client. Once I get to a place that allows me to upload photos and short videos, I’ll upload my blog about the day. I have written something but it is really not complete without the audio-visual enhancements. Thanks for your patience!
Today I am sitting in on a workshop of center chiefs in Marigot and then will re-interview “Madam Marc Josef”, the “mother hen” center chief from the mountain I blogged about last month. Since I last saw her, she went to the Fonkoze annual assembly in Port-au-Prince, and she and others in her center likely received the insurance payout from the damage they sustained from the floods in May. So there will be lots to talk about.
My American Airlines flight had left the gate in Miami on time — for once! — and was seemingly about to take off, when the pilot said that there was a problem with the navigation systems and we were returning to the gate. This seems to happen nearly always when travelling to/from Haiti — I think American takes this route for granted. Anyway, we got here an hour late and Linda Boucard, who handles many of Fonkoze’s visitors and lots of other important things here, picked me up and we were off to Jacmel area for two days of follow-up research.
Having the gift of several hours with Linda, I fired a bunch of questions her way. In between making calls to various people to rearrange our schedule based on my requests, she shared some fascinating things with me. I asked about the language here. Many high school and college students speak Creole to each other, are spoken to by their teachers in French, and use English textbooks. Sadly, many children and young adults never learn to speak and especially write any of the languages used here — Haitian Creole (as distinct from related languages in Martinique and Guadalupe), French and (increasingly) English — well.
We talked about the second annual summer camp for the children of CLM clients, which is meant to teach life skills and prepare children ages 4-14 to re-enter the school systems (or in some cases, enter for the first time). It also gives these children who have lived on the utter margins of human existence a chance to get at least one square meal a day and have … a bit of fun! I’ll be visiting this summer camp — actually, a number of mini-day camps throughout the Central Plateau where CLM operates – later this week. Last year, there were 800 children involved. This year, 5,000!
I learned that Lebanese and Syrian immigrants to Haiti control much of the supermarket business and many of the restaurants. Also, that there was once a significant Chinese population here. And that Linda’s great-grandfather was from … Bangladesh. Haiti is more of melting pot than I ever fathomed!
We stopped at the University of Fondwa, Father Joseph’s bold initiative described in an earlier blog, and I talked with the President, Dr. Gessy Coicou. Especially after the earthquake leveled the small campus, she is fighting an uphill battle to make this seat of higher learning viable — but she and her husband (both Haitian-American physicians) are doing their best since they moved here last August. She is the eighth President in seven years (her predecessor was a Haitian-American who was badly hurt in a car accident on the mountain pass I crossed today) and seems to be doing this essentially as voluntary work in service to her native land. One gets the impression that the Fonkoze family of organizations, including its predecessor APF, sometimes has “eyes bigger than its stomach” when it comes to taking on new projects and/or reviving ones that are troubled.
I arrived in Jacmel a bit car-sick and anticipating the interviews to come in the days ahead. As I write this I am getting a second wind, over my queasiness, and wondering whether I will sleep tonight despite getting barely three hours of shuteye last night. Haiti, seen through the eyes of Fonkoze’s people, is nothing if not exciting.
I’ve had two weeks to get some perspective on my first trip to Haiti to research my book on Fonkoze. One was spent primarily interviewing people associated with Fonkoze who live in the Washington and New York areas. Some are fascinating people who will appear in the book. Others provided invaluable background and resources. Last week I vacationed — the one of my six weeks on sabbatical where I tried to unplug and enjoy friends, time with my wife, and California wines. During my time thinking about this book, I came up with more new questions than answers to ones I identified in Haiti.
My plan for this trip is extensive. I arrive later today (hopefully) and will interview a heroic credit agent who I was told was pulled from the rubble hours after the earthquake, and in less than an hour grabbed some crutches and headed off to see how his clients were doing. Then we head to Jacmel for two days, where Linda Boucard (serving as guide and translator) will help me reinterview Marilyn Bayonet and the ladies on the mountain. Then onto the Central Plateau, to visit the CLM clients and team there and also the other Fonkoze programs. Saturday night we return to Port au Prince, and Sunday I plan to draft my book proposal including a sample chapter that my agent will use to hopefully get a contract with a major publisher. Monday through Wednesday will be spent interviewing staff in the head office.
I have been encouraged by all the attention people have been paying to this project. The number visitors to this site crossed 1,000 soon after I returned from Haiti at the end of July. A listserv for advisors and social media friends of the project is up and running. I hope to post lots of pictures and videos during this week and have my first day ever with more than 100 hits — we got to 99 in June but never quite crossed the century mark.
Wish me luck and keep the advice coming!