Creating a New Center

We were down to one working motorcycle. Our credit office has three, but two were collecting dust, unusable because of various problems. With three credit agents making visits into the field every day, and some of those visits hard to accomplish without a motorcycle, we were really struggling.

So we attacked the problem in a couple of steps. The first involved repairing one of the two bad motorcycles immediately by exchanging all its bad parts for good ones in the other bad cycle. We were lucky: It turned out that they had very different problems. We thus concentrated all the bad motorcycle parts in one place, and won a second good motorcycle for ourselves. It cost nothing but a few hours of a cheap mechanic’s time and the price of a little bit of grease. It was a big step forward.

We thought of the motorcycles as we were considering what to do in Marigo.

We serve a large swath of southeastern Haiti. Our credit agents ride two or more hours from our office to get to credit centers. But one of our largest credit centers is right where the population is densest, directly across the street from us in the middle of Marigo. It has 17 solidarity groups, and some of them have relatively large loans.

It’s also one of our worst credit centers. Few of its members come to regular meetings, and the delinquency rate is high.

Our situation in Marigo might be extreme, but it is not uncommon among Fonkoze offices. Many find that they have an easier time managing more rural credit centers than they do the ones that are closest to them. It may be that women living farther from concentrations of population feel a stronger need for our services. It may be that they have deeper roots in the communities they live in and, so, that their reputations in those communities mean more to them.

In Marigo, our immediate concern is not the important theoretical question as to why rural centers tend to be stronger. It’s what we should do about one center that is in bad shape. So we decided to look more carefully at the composition of the center. It turns out to consist of two distinct groups. There are women who live and work in Marigo and others whose homes are in Marigo though they spend most of their time in Ansapit, the large market town to the east, right on the Dominican border. These latter women earn their living through border trade of various sorts.

My neighbor and landlady in Marigo, Emerit, can serve as an example. She supports eight children and two step children in three households in Haiti by buying fresh fish in Ansapit, packing it in ice, shipping it to Marigo, and selling it to buyers that come from Port au Prince and Jakmèl. It’s a big business, and it keeps her on the move.

For the most part, the Ansapit women repay their loans well, but they don’t come to center meetings. They talk about the long and expensive trip from Ansapit, and say that they can’t always make it to meetings.

Fonkoze has credit centers in Ansapit. They are run out of the office in Tyòt. So I asked the women whether it wouldn’t be better for them to take their loans right in the market where they work. But they were very hostile to the idea. Their roots, they explained are in Marigo. They are not interested in belonging to an organization whose roots are in Ansapit or Tyòt. More importantly, their children are in Marigo. The trips they make for reimbursement meetings allow them to see their kids and to leave them the money they need to feed themselves.

Emerit comes to Marigo every couple of weeks and whips her house into shape. She makes sure that the cupboards are stocked, and provides a couple of slaps and a couple of words of encouragement to children who seem to require them. She repays her loans on time, but attends meetings irregularly.

The Marigo women, however, are another story. Most of them neither repay their loans nor come to meetings. As we look more and more careful at the women in this group, we’re finding that several of them are without any commerce at all. This happens occasionally, especially when new credit agents are desperate to recruit the minimum number of borrowers they are expect register during their probationary period before they become full members of the staff. If a branch manager is not careful to control the agents’ work, they can slip into taking shortcuts, like offering credit to unqualified borrowers. The consequences can be serious both for the borrowers and for Fonkoze.

As we’ve watched the condition of the Marigo center degenerate, we’ve worried more and more that we would lose our own backyard entirely. We felt we had to do something to establish a foothold. So with the management of our motorcycles as our model, we went to work.

We decided to split the center in two. We would put all the solidarity groups that function well into a new credit center we would create with them, leaving all the problem loans and borrowers in a single center. This would mean having a special center, whose members would be, almost exclusively, women who live and work in Ansapit. For them, we would make a special arrangement: We’d ask them to make only one trip to Marigo per month, but would then meet with them on two consecutive days. The first would be their reimbursement meeting. The second would be the discussion. If they could show a commitment to this new structure, we would commit ourselves to giving them priority service.

The women loved the idea. Both because it promised to get them the loans they want more quickly and more effectively and because it would enable them to disassociate themselves from a center that they have grown ashamed of.

Wednesday, the new center had its inaugural meeting. Attendance was almost perfect, there was a hotly contested election of a new center chief, and a vote to give themselves a new name. I am optimistic.

In the case of the motorcycles, we were left with two that worked well and one in an extreme state of disrepair. But by investing in some new parts, and in some more of the mechanic’s time, we were able to get the third one up and running. The strategy thus proved a great success.

In the case of the Marigo center, or now centers, we have much work to do. We will need to invest a lot of time, going door-to-door, mainly on our days off, to start piecing the problem center back together again.

It will be hard. But we won’t be able to claim real success until we have two good credit centers in our neighborhood. We cannot afford to simply cast the troubled center adrift. Doing so would be bad for the borrowers it serves and bad for Fonkoze as well.