Reinventing a Credit Center

Haitians don’t tend to speak of weeks. Where Americans might say “See you in a week,” or “I’ll be away for two weeks,” Haitians are much more likely to give the number of days. What is interesting for an American is that Haitians do not speak of seven or fourteen days, but of eight or fifteen. Since it’s Monday as I begin to write this, next Monday is eight days away.

I mention this because of the safe.

Fonkoze branches have to stay liquid, and as hard as transportation can be in some parts of Haiti, that means keeping a fair amount of cash on hand. That cash goes in a safe, which is secured behind various locked doors. The keys to those doors are distributed among a specific set of people. So getting to the cash always requires more than one person. The safe itself requires both a combination and a key. The tellers keep the key. As the branch’s manager, I’m the only one on-site who knows the combination.

It’s a standard type of combination. You turn the dial a certain number of times one way and stop at a number. Then you turn it a couple of times in the other direction and stop somewhere else. After you’ve gone back and forth the right number of times and stopped in the right places, you can open the safe with its key.

So I had to learn the combination. My supervisor, Domerson, wrote it down for me, and told me to memorize the sequence and destroy the note. And then he went off to Port au Prince, leaving me in charge.

The problem arose when it was time for me to open the safe the next day. I had his instructions. But what did “turn the dial x times to the right and stop at y” mean? How was I to count the x times? What constituted once around? It wasn’t at all clear. I tried working the combination several different ways, and none seemed to work.

After each failure, Béatrice, the teller who’d try the key, would sing, “dezole.” Roughly translated, that means “sorry” or “too bad.” But a more precise translation would be the noise a game-show buzzer makes after a contestant’s wrong answer.

I tried to call Domerson a couple of times. When I finally got through, and he was done laughing, he was able to talk me through the process. But I learned that Haitians count the rotations of a combination lock the same way they count the days of the week.

The easiest aspects of learning my new job are minor struggles like figuring out how to use a safe, learning to distinguish the office’s many keys, and adapting myself to the electronic and manual systems we use to keep track of the transactions we handle every day.

But the real issues involve straightening out problems in the office’s loan portfolio. For an institution like Fonkoze, which does almost all of its lending to solidarity groups that meet in credit centers, straightening out the portfolio means straightening out its credit centers.

And straightening out the centers means, first and foremost, helping the centers’ members, who are Fonkoze’s borrowers, understand what we can offer them and what we have to expect.

It also means helping them understand that expectations are, well, expectations. Fonkoze borrowers in the Marigo area, for example, have been told, quite consistently, that they must come to credit center meetings. But since there have been no consequences for those who don’t attend, members have come to believe we don’t mean it. And so attendance in the centers I have visited so far has been poor. They have been told, over and over, that we expect timely repayment. But since lateness charges have not been regularly applied, they have come to believe we don’t mean it. And so the delinquency rate has been rising steadily.

The most important responsibility I’ve taken on at the branch, then, is to work with the staff to get our message out, in word and deed, as convincingly as we can.

On Wednesday, that job brought me to Djomond, a small seaside village about halfway from Marigo to Belans, the next larger town on the coast to the east. Djomond is home to a midsize credit center. The problem is that the road from Marigo to Belans winds up into the mountains above Marigo before it descends back to the coast. There is no coastal road. Not even a motorcycle path. The only way to get from Marigo to Djomond is on foot. It’s about a two-hour walk.

That’s a problem. Not because two hours is too far for a healthy credit agent, or branch manager, to walk. Fonkoze is committed to reaching out-of-the-way parts of Haiti. The problem is that the Marigo branch is too small to have extended itself that far just yet. Extending the branch’s reach properly would have meant penetrating the areas closest to the branch first, and then gradually moving outward.

But that’s not what the branch’s staff did. Feeling pressure to grow the portfolio as quickly as possible, credit agents sped from one village to another, signing up the 25-40 women who were most anxious to join Fonkoze, the ones who took the least convincing. As a consequence, the Marigo portfolio is thinly spread across a broad geographic region. The credit agents have to travel to different villages almost every day. And so they have little time to follow-up with members. They don’t have the chance to visit their businesses. If they don’t see them in the centers, they are unlikely to see them at all.

The consequences are easy to predict. When I got to Djomond, I found less than half of the members at the center meeting. The center’s elected chief, the borrower with the main responsibility for running the meeting and managing the members’ relations with Fonkoze, wasn’t around. And her fellow members couldn’t even say why or where she was. The members who came to the meeting brought only a portion of the reimbursement money that was due. I ended up collecting only about 9000 of the 69,000 gourds that were due.

I started to call the members forward group by group. Fonkoze credit centers are not collections of individuals, but collections of five-member groups. Women join together with close friends, other women they know well enough to vouch for. They serve as guarantors for one another’s loans. They help each other out in a pinch.

But the Djomond center is not really a center right now, and its groups don’t really function as groups. Only one member of the first group I called was present. She seemed surprised when I asked her why the other members of her group weren’t there. She started to make her repayment, and that’s when things got exciting.

She had been a little short on her repayment two weeks earlier, a matter of 56 gourds on a repayment of about 1300. The reason she had been short was that those 1300 gourds were already two weeks late at the time, and she had paid them on the day after I told the credit agents that they had to start collecting penalties on late payments. She had paid the charge, but that left her short. Normally, Fonkoze would expect that she would turn to the other members of her group for help. Since her group was and still is dysfunctional, she had nowhere to turn. So she had had to leave the meeting with a balance.

She had brought those 56 gourds to the meeting I attended, and her new reimbursement as well, but the 56 gourds was late. So I told her she would have to pay another 120-gourd lateness penalty.

She was not happy, and I could understand why. She couldn’t imagine that I would collect a penalty that was more than twice her overdue balance. The credit agent who had been working in the center hadn’t previously been collecting penalties at all. She could understand when he had told her that she would have to pay a penalty on a whole reimbursement payment that was two weeks late. He had just explained that his new boss – namely, me – had insisted that he start enforcing the rules rigorously. But paying a penalty again on the very small balance that remained seemed too much, and she argued with me about it for over twenty minutes.

But I insisted. The center will never pull itself together unless its members organize themselves to get things under control and learn respect for the rules that make microcredit work. Fonkoze can not lend to women unless their repayments are pretty regular. The standard on-time reimbursement rate for microcredit is about 97%, and Fonkoze had several branches at which it is 99% or better. I collected the penalty on her trivial balance because the women must learn to understand that repaying their loans on time is a priority.

And that’s when something interesting happened. Paying her 56-gourd balance along with her 120-penalty left her short once again on her reimbursement. She had come with a little more cash than she thought she needed, but turned out to have about seventy gourds too few. Threatened with the clear prospect of another penalty in two weeks, she turned to a couple of the other women in her center and borrowed money she needed. She would pay them back, and avoid the penalty.

That’s just how things are supposed to work: Businesswomen working in solidarity with one another. And that’s something sadly lacking in the Marigo centers. Helping them learn to work with one another might go a long way towards righting their solidarity groups and credit centers. And it might be one key to healing what ails the portfolio itself.