Door to door

Fonkoze’s method of providing credit is inefficient under the best of circumstances. It’s a choice we make. If we want to reach the women who really need our services, we need to go to them. The expenses that the women who live in the more distant centers would incur in coming to our office to take and repay loans would take such a big bite out of their profits as to make the loans useless, or worse than useless.

We have to go to the women we serve. We maintain a fleet of motorcycles and spend a lot of money getting our credit agents to the centers in which they meet their borrowers. Marigo has over 40 such centers, and it is not really a large branch. If things were working really well, each would have between thirty and fifty members. We would know their homes, and know their businesses, but would deal with them very predominantly in the centers where they’d meet us twice each month.

But we are still struggling in Marigo. We have good centers that are too small and big centers that are no good.

A center with only two or three solidarity groups just isn’t worth the trip the credit makes to get there. An example is the very strong little center in Tèsè. It has just two groups, a total of nine members. It functions very well, but if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s close enough for us to schedule two other centers as part of the same trip, it would be hard to justify. Even though it is very strong.

I visited Tèsè last week to talk to members about recruiting new solidarity groups to join them. It’s a delicate issue. We want members to continue to feel responsible for the overall performance of their center, so we can’t force them to accept new members whom they don’t trust. But we can’t let them feel as though it’s ok for them to just insist that they don’t want to add anyone new. Our centers should each have five or six functional solidarity groups at least.

So we have left recruiting in our members’ hands. We are not allowing Fonkoze staff to look for new members. Members themselves will choose whom to invite to join their credit center, and on the morning I was with the members of the Tèsè center, they had a long discussion about four names that one of them proposed. The four names were proposed by two different members, and all seemed to pass muster. The women decided that the three women that one member proposed would be asked to find two more applicants and then join as a group of five. The women agreed to refer them to the other potential member they discussed, so they would be able to take her as a fourth member of their group. If they chose instead to add two other women whom they know, that fourth woman will need to recruit her own group of five.

In any case, if we can thus start adding new borrowers into those of our stronger centers that are small, our financial performance should start to improve. Our larger and tougher problem, however, is with centers whose organization has really broken down. This can happen for any number of reasons, but the results are predictable. Center attendance drops off, and repayment rates suffer.

This has been the case at two credit centers that one of our agents, Bob, serves on the mountain road right near the border that divides Marigo County from Belans in the east. Lagad is on the Marigo side of the line, and Bèdòranj is in Belans. They’ve been pretty weak over the past months, but seem headed in very different directions.

The center in Lagad is led by a dynamic young center chief named Rosemène. She called Bob up to Lagad on a Saturday about six weeks ago because it was the day of the annual festival. She explained that if the two of them walked door to door that day, they would find almost all the center’s members, both those who come to meetings and those who don’t, including the ones who live and conduct their businesses principally in Port au Prince. They spent a morning talking to borrowers, and the result has been encouraging. The last couple of times he’s been to the center, attendance has been almost three times what it had been, moving from single digits to mid-twenties. The center still has some delinquent loans, but we generally believe that where attendance is good, repayment issues will be resolved.

Bèdòranj is another story. It is a very poor, very rural area. Fonkoze has had a credit center there for years. Long before the Marigo branch was even opened, credit agents served Bèdòranj from the older and larger branch in Jakmèl. When I arrived in March, the office was serving four centers in the area: the old one which sits right on the main road and three others that are downhill from it, in very hard-to-access areas called Kabatis, Senwòk, and Nanzèb.

The centers in Kabatis and Nanzèb were among the first centers I closed. We had already written off a considerable number of loans in those neighborhoods, but the remaining ones were seriously delinquent as well. So we bit the bullet. We admitted to ourselves that we were not going to be able to continue offering credit in the area right now.

The center in Senwòk may still go the same way, and the one in Bèdòranj is not much better. I went with Bob a couple of weeks ago, and things were grim. Of 29 members of the center only three came to the meeting. And the reason those three women came was that they were scheduled to receive a new loan that day.

But Bèdorànj has too many long-time borrowers – some of them very successful – for us to believe that it is a lost cause. We feel as though we can’t give it up. Bob and I spent a day there last week, visiting borrowers in their homes, trying to understand their situations better and to encourage members to start attending meetings again. Only time will tell whether a day spent going door to door can have an effect.

One clear benefit of the day, however, is a growing sense of the range of the issues that our borrowers face. We spoke with women who were dealing with everything from difficult pregnancies to kidnapped children. We heard of stolen merchandise, of lost crops, and of sick parents. We heard of deaths in the family. Each woman had her own more or less miserable story to tell. Most remain optimistic, but listening to them nevertheless makes you wonder what your chances are of actually collecting the money they owe.

Part of the problem is the real hardships they explain, but another is that some of the things they say only underline that their loans were made improperly in the first place. I’ll mention three examples.

We heard from a woman who had been lending her loan money to others. They hadn’t paid her yet, so she couldn’t pay Fonkoze. But Fonkoze doesn’t provide loans for lending. Its loans are supposed to go to market women who’ll invest in merchandise that they themselves will sell.

We spoke with another woman who has no business at all. She sends the money she borrows to Port au Prince, where her son uses it to run a business. He had had some illness in his household, so he hadn’t been able to send the money she owes just yet.

We ran into the opposite situation as well. A mother who is up-to-date repaying her own loan explained to us that her daughter, also a borrower and a delinquent one, doesn’t have a business. She herself uses both loans. She had her daughter sign up because she felt the loan amounts she was eligible for were not enough. But now her profits aren’t enough for her to repay both loans. So she’s let the one in her daughter’s name run past due.

Fixing a center like the one in Bèdòranj will involve several kinds of work. We need to ensure that the successful members of the center continue to get appropriate levels of credit and other services when they need them. We need to get those members to help us stay in contact with delinquent borrowers so that we can collect such past due sums as are collectible and reintegrate problem borrowers who are able to make good use of credit back into the center. And we need to find more women who want to and are able to use Fonkoze credit to improve their families’ lives.

None of this is easy, but it is the only way.