Joli is beautiful. It’s a rural area outside of Pilat, a small town in northern Haiti. Joli is a lush, green mountainous region, known for plantain, coffee, and yams. It was about two hours by motorcycle from Fonkoze’s Lenbe office. We then left the motorcycle at a crossroads, and hiked up the hill. It was almost an hour later that we arrived.
I had arranged with the staff in Lenbe to interview some Fonkoze members in their homes. I wanted to talk to some members who are participating in Fonkoze’s hurricane recovery credit. Wilfix, the loan officer who was accompanying me to Joli, wanted to see Cemerite anyway because that morning he had gotten word that her long-ill husband had passed away during the night. He wanted to pay a condolence call, and was happy to have me along.
Cemerite greeted us with one of her little boys clinging to her side. There were a couple dozen neighbors on benches arranged in front of a new-looking one-room house. A couple of sheets were tied to the trees around them for shade. Off in a corner, the domino game, a constant at Haitian wakes, was proceeding loudly.
In talking to Cemerite, we learned that house was indeed new. Her old one had been washed away by the hurricanes that hit Haiti in September. In fact, she lost more than just her house, but she and her children were unharmed. Her husband had already been bedridden, so when her house collapsed, her friends and neighbors put their meager resources together, and they built her a new one. It’s small and very basic, but she and her children are mostly safe from the elements.
It was a great example of solidarity, the principle that drives Fonkoze’s microcredit. Groups of five women, good friends, take and repay loans together. They are called a “solidarity group,” and though each woman has her own separate business, they make a commitment to helping one another out.
And they work together. The women of Cemerite’s group can serve as an example. The group is called “Santinèl,” which can mean “sentinel” or watchtower.” It’s a fitting name for women whose homes are nestled around a small peak overlooking a river far below. As a group, they are entirely up-to-date with their repayments, but it’s not because they lack problems. At their last reimbursement meeting, two of the five women were short. So the other three simply made up the difference, and Wilfix has been working with the five of them to help them take care of this internal debt.
But it goes further. A few months ago, Wilfix was talking with them about how they manage their businesses. Most of them buy sacks of rice or sugar or flour down in Pilat, and then they sell the stuff in small quantities in front of their homes. They told Wilfix that one of their problems was mules. It normally takes a mule to bring the sack up the hill, and they don’t have enough of them. The end up having to rent. Wilfix suggested that they pitch in and buy one together. The cost would not be that great if split five ways. Each time one of them needs it, she would pay the usual rental fee to the group. They would split the proceeds. The mule would end up paying for itself quickly enough, especially if they could get outsiders to rent it occasionally as well. They took his suggestion, and the idea took off.
That same principle of solidarity has driven Fonkoze’s response to the hurricanes, which have been disastrous for Fonkoze because they were disastrous for its members. Around 18,000 of Fonkoze’s 54,000 borrowers suffered significant losses. These women would not be in any position to repay the loans they had taken out before the storms. many lost their businesses, their homes, and even more.
Fonkoze depends on its members’ repayments for its daily bread, so it recognizes that its own interest requires it to look to their well-being. It must act in solidarity with its members if it is to survive.
And it’s functioning in an increasingly difficult environment. This was true even before the hurricanes. The global food crisis has sent prices up 40% or more in developing countries like Haiti. And the poor in those countries can spend as much as 80% of their income on food. For Fonkoze members, this has meant less consumption, depletion of savings, less money available for even essential non-food expenses like education and health care, and poorer health. For Fonkoze, this has meant lower repayment rates and less savings to use as loan capital, both serious threats to sustainability. And all this, again, was before the hurricanes.
So Fonkoze knew it would need to do something for those affected by the hurricanes just to protect itself. It canceled the interest due on their outstanding balances and added a new, interest-free loan in the amount of their previous loan. It’s a way to help the women reestablish their businesses so that they can set themselves back on course. If they can pull themselves through, they and Fonkoze will emerge together stronger than they’ve ever been.
Elirène is the leader of Cemerite’s solidarity group. She lives with her husband, Mondyè, and their eight children in a larger, more solid home next door to Cemerite’s. Though her family and her merchandise were protected during the storm because of their more solid home, they lost all their livestock and all the crops they had planted. The crops are especially important, because they provide both sustenance and a second source of income. The yams they grow are purchased by traders who sell them in Port au Prince. Without the crops, they have to depend entirely on Elirène’s little business for all their cash needs, and they must buy all the food they eat as well. It is a perilous situation.
Her situation may be roughly typical, though there are many more serious cases as well. I had started the day all the way on the other side of the Lenbe branch, with another credit agent, a guy named Wendy, and his borrowers, and I saw some of the problems. The area I was in is called Ba Lenbe, or Lower Lenbe, a low-lying agricultural plain between Lenbe and the sea. It was ravaged by winds and floodwaters both.
One of the first things that strikes you in Ba Lenbe is the eerie lack of livestock. The Haitian countryside is generally littered with chickens, pigs, goats, cattle, sheep, turkeys, guinea fowls, horses, donkeys, mules, and ducks. You see, hear, and smell them everywhere. Ba Lenbe in particular was cattle country, a major milk-producing region.
But not now. All the livestock drowned. Nerly is a Fonkoze member in the area. She lost some goats and a cow and her calf. She also lost all the crops she had planted. Her house was ruined, and since that is where she keeps her merchandise, her business was destroyed as well. It wasn’t all washed away at once, but since she had nowhere dry to set it down — she sold mostly sugar, flour, beans, and rice — she had to watch as it slowly went bad. it was a total loss. She really didn’t know how she was going to get by.
But a small remittance from abroad enabled her to rent a room in the back of her neighbor’s house for herself and her four kids, and hurricane recovery credit enabled her to buy merchandise to start her business again. She sells foodstuffs from a table in front of her door, but she also buys second hand sneakers that she washes and resells at the market in Okap, Haiti’s major city on the northern coast. The two businesses together can hardly be worth more than $175, and with neither produce nor livestock, the profit she makes with them must suffice to keep herself and her children alive.
Fonkoze is not the only finance institution in the world to be at risk these days. And insofar as it has received grants to provide the capital it needs to make hurricane recovery loans and to cover the interest it cannot collect, it has received a sort of bailout, just as many larger institutions have. But there is a striking difference among the bailouts. The US congressional panel overseeing the American bank bailout says it has no idea what the banks have done with the $350 billion+ that the treasury department has given them. The banks, it seems, feel no obligation to give any sort of report. Fonkoze’s resources have, by contrast, gone straight into its borrowers’ hands, something like $3 million of interest-free credit in the last months.
And it’s probably a good investment. Elirène explains: Her crop of yams, her farmland itself, was destroyed by an landslide in the last hurricane. She won’t be able to plant again any time soon. When I asked her whether the land was lost for good, however, this is how she answered: “The land always grows back eventually. It’s just like us.”