Nan Kwende is almost a two-hour hike from the crossroads at Nan Otè. This time of year, it’s through mud and wet, slippery rocks. Closer to Nan Otè the mud is orangey-red. As you hike up, down, and along the ridge it turns brown and then black. The farther you go, the thicker the vegetation. There’s little sign of the deforestation that has left most pf Haiti bare once you approach the first stream. And by the time you cross the second and, so begin to near Nan Kwende, you recognize the prominence of large trees that is typical of regions, like this one, that produce a lot of coffee.
Nan Otè itself is a little over an hour by motorcycle from Marigo. So the trip to get to the credit center in Nan Kwende is one of the longest ones we make. It would probably be the longest, except that Plantiyon is another half-hour walk – down a steep slope, across a waterfall, and back up the other side – beyond it. Jean Bellande, the credit agent who serves these centers, is not someone who needs to look for ways to squeeze additional exercise into his life.
Most of the women who belong to these centers have small businesses that move from rural market to rural market. There’s a weekly market in Nan Otè, another up the hill and along the ridge after Plantiyon, and a third that’s almost a straight shot up the mountain in Kajak. Few of them can make it without wandering from market to market, because the footpaths that crisscross around their homes have too little traffic to create a client base.
Most use their credit to buy sacks of this – beans, rice, sugar or flour – or cases of that – tomato paste, cooking oil, laundry soap, or shampoo – that they can then sell in smaller units. It is a steady income, though not a big one. It’s a good way to complement the less regular, riskier business of farming that they all engage in as well. If they manage their money well – which means discipline, but also a lot of luck – they can invest some profit in livestock to create a third independent income stream.
When they have crops to sell, they load them onto their heads, and hike past Kajak all the way to Kenscoff, the market town that overlooks Pétion-Ville and Port au Prince. That’s a six-seven hour hike for someone who walks fast, and the women do it with loads so heavy that they don’t have the arm strength to lift them onto or off of their heads. If they want to stop for a rest, or even just need to go to the bathroom, they have to wait for someone to come along and give them a hand.
They are tough, dynamic, hard-working businesswomen. Exactly the sort who make the most promising members of Fonkoze.
And their credit centers show a lot of promise as well, even if they are not yet where they need to be. Attendance has been steadily increasing in both centers. Delinquency in Plantiyon is minimal. It’s much higher in Nan Kwende, but appears to be sinking there as well.
But one key to putting the centers on solid ground will be making center meetings into useful investments of the women’s time. Though the women appear to recognize more and more that Fonkoze really does require their attendance, we cannot yet claim that this requirement is more than an imposition.
They understand the importance of attendance for Fonkoze. We always explains that, especially in centers that are carrying a delinquency, we need to stay in close contact with members so that we can remain hopeful that they will eventually pay their debts. But we believe that these meetings should be even more important to our members than to us. And most of that importance is still lost on them, because the meetings are not functioning the way they should. They are not yet serving our members well.
This is the centerpiece of the challenge I face in Marigo. My assignment to Marigo follows from a double hypothesis. Fonkoze supposes, first, that one can straighten out even a malfunctioning office like Marigo by fixing its credit centers and, second, that the key to fixing those credit centers is to make their meetings engaging and productive for the members who participate. That is why putting a classroom teacher with no management or banking experience, but some experience in popular education, in charge of an ailing branch seemed as though it might just be a good idea. My primary charge has been to help credit agents learn to run good meetings. The hope is that, once that’s done, much of the rest of the office’s problems will take care of themselves.
But the road to establishing the right ambiance in center meetings puts one squarely in the middle of a catch-22. What can make a meeting useful to the members who participate is if they have the chance to talk with one another about the common problems they face. Creating space for such dialogue means, in turn, freeing the meetings of the time-consuming work of chasing don delinquent loans that dominates them. We think, however, that fighting delinquency requires the very conversations we are hard-pressed to hold.
The centers in Plantiyon and Nan Kwende illustrate the problem well. Jean Bellande and I left our office at 6:00 AM for a 9:30 meeting in Plantiyon, and we arrived a few minutes late. Few of the women were there to greet us. They don’t have watches or clocks. In many other centers, women wait for the sound of a credit agent’s motorcycle to start to assemble, but Jean Bellande walks to Plantiyon.
So by the time the meeting got started, it was 10:30. It was a reimbursement meeting, not a discussion. So things should all be pretty quick. The center has six solidarity groups, so all Jean Bellande is supposed to do is take the reimbursement from the leader of each of those six groups, and do it under the watchful eye of the center’s elected chief. The group leaders should have already collected repayments from individual members, and have an accurate account of any reimbursements that are short. If there are reimbursements that are a little but short, Fonkoze shouldn’t even know about them. The women are supposed to take care of that with small internal loans between themselves. This can be harder with bigger problems, but there the center chief can step in. In any case, even if a payment issue cannot be resolved right away, everything should happen pretty quickly, because the credit agent only needs to deal with group leaders and their center chief.
But the system can’t work if the women don’t know how to manage these responsibilities. The credit agent can have to talk to individual women, and it takes a lot of time.
In Nan Kwende, where there are many more members than Plantiyon and more delinquency as well, the situation is much worse. Things started off badly because we ourselves were late. We had spent more time in Plantiyon than we should have needed to. Nan Kwende has a promising but very new center chief, so most of the work she should have been doing had to be handled by Jean Bellande instead. Dealing with the problems of the members of nine disorganized solidarity groups is frustrating and time-consuming. Every delinquent borrower has a story to tell, and you want to listen to them all.
The visit to Nan Kwende was not a scheduled reimbursement meeting. It was supposed to be a discussion. But as long as women have late payments and penalties to pay, discussion has to take a back seat. We were there for a couple of hours. It tried Jean Bellande’s patience and the women’s patience as well.
But there are encouraging signs. Center chiefs in both centers seem anxious to assert more control, and we have time scheduled in the next month to give them some of the additional training they need. Reimbursements in both centers are coming in at an accelerating pace, even if they are still doing so more slowly than they should. And the loud and angry arguments between individual borrowers seem entirely without hostility. Jean Bellande recognizes that the women are defending their interests, and they recognize that he’s just doing his job. The loudest and angriest borrower he fought with in Nan Kwende caressed his head fondly as she send good-bye at the meeting’s close.
So we can’t pretend to say much about results we’ve achieved in almost three months in Marigo. But we can hope that the signs of a comfortable and serious relationship between Fonkoze’s Marigo members and Fonkoze, signs we see at meetings almost every day, point to a future that is bright. If we can help center chiefs, groups leaders, and Fonkoze’s credit staff manage the time they spend together more efficiently, they can make more of that time as well.
But here, too, time is anything but on our side. Members are increasingly willing to come to centers because we say they must, but it won’t last. We’ll need to sell them on the value of the meetings before their tolerance runs out.