Building a Base

The center in Kòray Lamòt is much farther from Marigo than any of our other centers. It’s more than 45 minutes beyond the second farthest, which is in Mabriyòl, and almost twice as far as the already-distant centers in Ravin Pal and Chodri, along the ridge east of Segen. Fonkoze probably shouldn’t have opened it in the first place. Though our mission is bring financial and other services to rural Haitians, we need to do it sustainably, and the trip to Kòray twice every month is hard to sustain. We should have worked first to penetrate the market for microcredit in the areas closest to Marigo. Once the office had a strong core, further expansion would have been easy to manage.

It’s easy to understand why it was opened, though. At the time when the Marigo branch was opened, the watchword at Fonkoze was “rapid growth.” Senior management had a sense that the institution could accelerate its jump to sustainability by greatly expanding the number of borrowers it serves. Lots of branches were opened quickly and lots of credit agents were added to existing branches in an effort to dramatically speed up expansion. Under those circumstances, when a woman from Kòray came to the branch, requesting that Fonkoze begin offering credit to her and her neighbors, it was too easy to say “yes.” The center grew quickly, until it was serving thirteen solidarity groups of five women each. It was what we consider a very big center.

Then the problems started. Attendance at meetings deteriorated, and reimbursement rates did as well. By the time I got to Marigo in March, we were lucky to get fifteen members to come to a meeting, and the delinquency rate was high. Things were so bad that a woman who had come to the reimbursement meeting twenty gourds short – a trivial sum even for the vast majority of our borrowers – of a payment for more than a thousand gourds was unable to find someone in the center to lend her the other twenty gourds. She thus incurred a 120-gourd late payment fee. Her story became one of my set pieces to explain the importance of solidarity when I visited other centers.

I probably should have simply closed the center, thus cutting Fonkoze’s losses, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. A couple of months of visiting Kòray with Bob, the credit agent, or sending my assistant director with him, didn’t seem to improve things very much, however. So we decided to try another approach. We would send Bob once each month, but he would spend the night. That way, he’d still be holding his two meetings with the women each month. Tuesday mornings would be for discussions, and Wednesday mornings would be reimbursement.

I talked about the idea with Thomas, Fonkoze’s premier branch director. I doubted whether he would like the idea, because one of the hallmarks of his consistently successful approach has been to strictly implement Fonkoze’s simple method. I thought he might dislike the change from two trips each month to only one.

But he immediately responded that he thought the change might be just the thing for a place like Kòray. Microcredit, Thomas explained, depends completely on developing very close relationships with the borrowers. The twice-monthly trips weren’t doing that, and he wasn’t surprised that the center was failing. The length of Bob’s trip meant that he had to leave as soon as his business was complete. Getting there and back in a day involved over five hours on a motorcycle. By spending the night, he was freeing up a lot of time he could then use to get to know the members well.

I went with Bob this week, and was pleased by the progress I saw. After drop-outs and write-offs, the center is down to about thirty members. Over twenty were at the meeting, and they had news of several of the others, explaining why they hadn’t been able to attend. As I followed the discussion, I could see that Bob was getting to know them well. He addressed them by name, drawing quieter ones into the conversation through gentle teasing. The center’s chief was feeling sick, but she was present and active. He now knows where almost all of the members live, can talk about the different neighborhoods they are from, and knows where many of them do business as well.

We spoke at length with the women about the new approach, and they were very enthusiastic. They think it a big improvement over the old way, and their explanation was clear: Though they all nominally live in Kòray, they can’t afford to spend much time there. It’s a very rural area, a long way from any center of population. There isn’t much buying and selling to be done. A few of them hike from rural market to rural market with their merchandise on a donkey, a mule, or their head to make their living. But for many, their businesses are in Pòtoprens or Jakmèl or Ansapit. The buy agricultural products in Kòray, and get them to places where they can be sold. Having to come home for their meeting just once each month makes things much easier for them. If their improved attitude towards the center can combine with their improved relationship with Bob to make their center strong, I’ll have a lot to be pleased about.

But it will still leave me with a problem. The center currently has, as I said, about thirty members. We will lose a few of those. They are women with very old debts they have not been able to repay. Bob and I spoke to a few of them, and heard the usual stories: Sickness or death in the family, pregnancy, merchandise lost at sea. There are lots of ways that a market woman’s business can fail. Bob has recently started the process that will enable him to add a new solidarity group or two, but it’s hard to imagine the center growing to , say, forty reliable members any time soon, and I have a hard time justifying this very expensive trip for that small a number.

So I asked Moïse to join Bob and me on our trip this week. Moïse is the agent responsible for Tikredi, or “Little Credit,” the Fonkoze’s program for poorer borrowers. It’s an intensive six-month combination of credit and training designed for women who would fail if they entered into standard solidarity-group credit directly. From my perspective as a manager, it seemed perfect, since it functions by recruiting a whole center of women – generally thirty-forty – at once. If it works, a the Tikredi members would graduate by July, at which point we’ll suddenly have two good-sized credit centers for Bob to visit each time he makes the trip.

The Kòray center’s elected chief arranged for us to meet with her husband, the principal local elected official, along with several other local leaders. We explained the program both to the members of the center and the guests who joined us, and the response was very enthusiastic. The center chief made a long speech in which she described the different sort of women she thought could benefit: young mothers who haven’t ever been in business but whose sudden pregnancy has left them with the need for income, older women who’ve lost their husbands and now need to run their households on their own. She spoke of the women she sees who go out day by day with a little basket of this or that on their heads, trying to eke out a living, but with little prospect of getting very far with the means and skill set at their disposal. She was eloquent and, what’s more, demonstrated that she understood what we were trying to accomplish very, very well.

There was lengthy agreement about the need for just such a program in the area. Everyone said that there are many women in and around Kòray who could qualify. And there was an even lengthier discussion about which neighborhood of Kòray we should choose. Kòray is a large region. There are members of the Kòray Solidarity-Group center who walk more than an hour to get to meetings. But Tikredi works strictly neighborhood-by-neighborhood. The leaders would have to choose one area of their large community to benefit.

Eventually, there was a strong consensus that we should start in an area called “Ba Kòray.” Their reasoning was encouraging to me in my role as a manager. They said that one of the poorer areas in their region is right along the main road that leads up the mountain from Belans, the same road our agent takes to get to his center. Though the need in their own neighborhoods, mainly up above the Kòray center, might be great, especially in the less-accessible areas off the main road, serving Ba Kòray first would be easier for Fonkoze. The work would thus, they said, have a better chance to succeed.

So Moïse exchanged contact information with a few of them, and they will follow up in the next weeks.

Of course it’s too early to claim success for any of this. The signs in the solidarity-group center in Kòray are positive, and the signs are that Tikredi there might really take off. But signs are just signs. A couple of signs and 25 cents will get you a couple of coffee. Two cups, actually, in Haiti.

But if it does work, it will exemplify what I take to be one of the fundamental truths about Fonkoze. We can succeed at creating a sustainable institution, just profitable enough to guarantee that it will endure, by aiming single-mindedly at our more important objective: by reaching as deeply as possible to provide the poorest, most isolated Haitian families with the services they need to improve their lives. A better, tougher, more decisive manager than I am might have shut down the center in Kòray, but it would not have been the right decision for Fonkoze. Not until we try to save it by doing more for its members and serving their poorer neighbors as well.