Success and Disaster

Chrismise is a former member of a solidarity group called “Dye la”. That means “God is present,” and it’s a none-too-unusual name for a five-woman solidarity group. Hers had been part of Fonkoze from 2005 through the end of 2007. They were members of a credit center in the Belè neighborhood of Segen, the agricultural market town in the mountains above Marigo. The center had been established by the large but distant Fonkoze office in Jacmel even before the Marigo branch was opened, but it was transferred to the much closer office in Marigo at the beginning of 2007.

I’m not sure why she had dropped out of credit. But she had come to the meeting to speak with me about re-joining Fonkoze. I said what I always say in such instances: I would go back to office and look at her file. If everything looked good, I could arrange for her to visit a credit center – there are now centers a good deal closer to her home than Segen – and see about getting her back into our program.

We were speaking in front of the Belè center – we had both arrived early for the meeting – when a passing woman muttered under her breath that she wouldn’t take credit from Fonkoze. Chrismise stopped her, and asked her why. She replied that she was afraid of debt. Women that borrow money just get themselves into trouble, she explained.

Chrismise answered that it all depends. Credit does become a problem for some women, she explained. Generally, they are women who borrow money and then put it somewhere other than into their business. Either they feed their household or buy new clothes. They don’t make money, and so they can’t repay their loan. Soon enough, they are left with a debt that they can’t manage.

Then she told her own story. She had used 2000 gourds of her first Fonkoze loan – the loan was for 3000 gourds or about $75 right now – to buy four bags of cabbage seeds. She and her husband planted, tended, and harvested the crop, and she sold it for 6000 gourds. Meanwhile, she was investing the other thousand gourds into her business. By her second loan, she had made enough money to buy a calf. It grew up, and had a calf of its own. She was able to sell the two of them for almost 15,000 gourds. “Even if Fonkoze doesn’t take me back,” she concluded, “I will never say that Fonkoze has done nothing for me.”

There is a problem with her story, though. Fonkoze’s loans are for commerce. Though one might hear a lot of talk about the importance of national production, talk that is true enough, the most reliable way for poor Haitians to develop a consistent and growing source of income is commerce, buying and selling in the marketplace.

Haiti and its limited infrastructure have yet to produce a Sam Walton. The market women who travel back and forth between the cities and the towns, and between the towns and the countryside, are the only distribution network this country has. They add significant value to the goods they sell just by getting them to where someone wants to buy them, and their profit margins are high.

What’s more, sales can be relatively steady throughout the year. There is some seasonal variation, and many effective market women will shift businesses several times a year to respond to those changes, but their income is much more constant than farm income can be. Farmers can go months without selling anything.

And though commerce entails risks – bad weather, traffic accidents, thievery, an occasional bad purchase – those risks are nothing compared to the ones that farmers face. Haiti’s deteriorated and deteriorating environment leaves crops exposed to frequent drought and frequent floods. Rain or wind on the wrong day can eliminate a bean harvest by stripping of fragile buds. Pests of various sorts can ruin a good crop. A couple of years ago, to cite one example, a bumper crop of pumpkins in my area was destroyed by a bumper crop of rats.

Fonkoze does not know how to work with borrowers who have no steady income. Monthly repayments require regular sales and regular profits. And it has no resources to help borrowers manage the risks inherent in farming. So we generally just insist that loans be used for commerce.

But that insistence hasn’t taken root in Segen, and the consequences are as one would predict: We have some borrowers who have managed to steer themselves through the hazards on all sides of them, and a lot who haven’t. The delinquency on loans in May, as the women wait for harvests in June and July, is high. And that delinquency will be expensive for women who’ll have substantial lateness charges when they finally do repay.

I’ll cite just one example, an extreme one perhaps, just to illustrate how hard things can be. Dieula is a member of the center with a good repayment record. She came to yesterday’s meeting unhappy about her growing debt. She is not used to falling behind. She made almost three full payments on her current loan on schedule, but that leaves her almost two repayments behind. She wept as she told her story in the center.

The crop she planted last summer was washed away by the hurricanes. She tried to make up for the loss by buying some sacks of peas that she would send by truck for sale in Port au Prince. But the men working the truck loaded sacks and sacks of cabbages on top of her more fragile peas. The truck was slowed by heavy rains, and by the time she got her load to Port au Prince it was unsellably rotten. So she went back home, took the last four turkeys that she had saved from the storms, and loaded them onto a basket that she carried on her head for the eight or nine hours it takes to walk to Pétion-Ville.

When she arrived, she began walking the streets, looking for customers. Suddenly, she felt a blow to the back of her head. She turned around and watched in horror as men claiming to work for the Pétion-Ville mayor’s office killed her turkeys and threw them into the back of a truck. The mayor of Pétion-Ville is trying to clean up the streets. She seems to believe that market women are a big part of the problem. Her strategy has opened them up to all sorts of violence and theft.

Dieula wandered around downtown Pétion-Ville until she found her brother, who sells shaved ice in the streets, and she borrowed the money she needed to get back home. Her loss was total.

Fonkoze will need to find a way to work more effectively with women like the ones in Segen or we will have to prepare for the losses that their losses entail. We could insist that we do not provide loans for agriculture, but the genie is, in a sense, already out of the bottle.