Beyond the Economic Impact: A Credit Agent’s Take on Microfinance
See this post on Month of Microfinance’s Autobiographies of Microfinance!
Jean Jules Laguerre did not set out to work in microfinance—it found him. While still in high school, he met Fonkoze founder Father Joseph Philippe and agreed to help him with a literacy workshop. After the weekend-long event, Father Joseph invited Jules to his house, where he told him about Fonkoze, the bank for the organized poor that he had founded three years prior. He asked Jules if he would be interested in getting involved.
Jules said yes, and hasn’t looked back since. He started off working in the primary Port-au-Prince office, but soon began venturing out to the provinces to interview potential clients. He then moved to Saint Martin, where he began working as a credit agent.
He didn’t make much money (about 50 cents for each client he enrolled and $6 for each credit group), but as he says, “It wasn’t the salary that motivated me.” Like his colleagues, he believed in the power of microfinance to improve the lives of his fellow Haitians.
Jules has seen that power in action over the course of his career at Fonkoze. His most striking memory is of a group of five clients who could not afford the inscription fee to become Fonkoze borrowers. Jules and a few other credit agents decided to pay the $30 fee for them, allowing the women to join Fonkoze’s Solidarity lending program, which starts out with microfinance loans of $75.
Today, the same five women have become Madam Saras—distributors who travel to the United States, Panama, and China to buy goods for other ti machann to sell. He remembers with pride when they first asked him for help getting passports. “They told me, ‘It’s you who is our father, who guides us,’ ” Jules recalls. “Of all the clients I’ve worked with, it’s one example that really struck me.”
Jules, too, has progressed through the levels of Fonkoze’s microfinance lending. He now works as an SME credit agent, which distributes loans starting at $10,000.
His favorite part of his job is simply working with the clients. “They are sincere people,” he says. He loves hearing client testimonies, when the women explain how microfinance has helped not only themselves, but also their families and the other people in their areas.
Jules’ work has provided him with more than a career—it has been the foundation for his relationships. “Fonkoze has allowed me to meet really great people,” he says. Jules met his wife at Fonkoze in 1997, shortly after he started as a credit agent. Jules and Arlene, who worked in the Human Resources department, enjoyed seven years of marriage and fifteen years together in total. She died last year from complications due to lupus. It was a painful loss for the entire Fonkoze family. “She was truly a beautiful person,” Jules says.
Jules continues to devote himself to his work at Fonkoze, helping the institution to innovate on behalf of its clients. “True microfinance isn’t just about giving money and having it paid back,” he says. “It’s not only an economic impact; it has a social impact too.”
He explains the importance of listening to microfinance clients and taking their input into account. Fonkoze, for example, uses a call-in line called Rele Anmwe (Call on Me) to allow clients to ask questions and offer feedback whenever they have issues that can’t be solved at the branch level.
For Jules, it is part of what makes Fonkoze—and microfinance—unique. It allows people subjugated by society to recognize their own importance. “They experience success in their lives,” Jules says. For Jules, that success provides a powerful testament to his work.
Women: the Backbone of Society
by Mackenzie Keller, External Communications Specialist
In Haiti, women are often referred to as poto mitan. Literally, it means “middle pole”—the pillar of the house. Women act as the pillars of their families and, by extension, the backbone of society. They provide the economic and social stability needed to sustain their families and communities.
Often, however, Haitian women simply do not have the resources to support themselves or their families. Due to a variety of circumstances that have trapped them in poverty, many women in rural Haiti lack the means to act as poto mitan.
Fonkoze seeks to empower these women in a variety of ways: through lending programs that enable them to strengthen and expand their small businesses, through the provision of health and insurance services to allow them to recover quickly from unforeseen circumstances, and through an innovative program for the ultra-poor—Chemen Lavi Miyo (“the Road to a Better Life”).
The women who enter our Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM) program are the most vulnerable in Haitian society. They live in sub-standard shelter in rural societies, have multiple children, none of whom attend school, and struggle to feed their families. They have no productive assets, no skills, and perhaps worst of all—no self-esteem.
The CLM women are not yet ready for microloans. Instead, Fonkoze and our partner, KANPE, seeks to reinforce their capacity through an intensive 18-month program. It includes asset provision, health services provided by Partners in Health, business training, and one-on-one case manager guidance. In the process, participants are transformed, regaining their ability to act as poto mitan.
Women almost ready to graduate from the CLM program undergo a 3-day Confidence Building Training in order to ensure that they have the foundation to succeed in the long-term. The workshop reinforces the women’s self-confidence by helping them recognize and analyze their past successes.
International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to do this on a global scale—to recognize the incredible progress that women around the world have made since this day first came into creation over a hundred years ago. At the same time, much room for progress remains.
With the right tools, however, we believe that women can kanpe—stand up—and overcome their challenges. A group of 340 CLM members recently underwent Confidence Building Training in preparation for their graduation day. Fittingly, they are graduating on March 8. On this day of solidarity for women around the world, they are celebrating their ability to overcome adversity—both in the past, and in the future.
As CLM graduate Rose-Marie Assenne said, “The person that I was yesterday, I am not the same person any longer.” She explained how CLM taught her to engage in commerce, allowing her to leverage the two goats and a pig she received at the program’s start into four goats and a horse.
Perhaps more importantly, Rose-Marie and her fellow graduates now have the self-esteem to continue even when times are hard. It is a victory worth celebrating, not just in Haiti but with their sisters—their fellow poto mitan—around the world.
The full version of this post originally appeared on Steve Werlin’s blog on December 29, 2012.
Elimène lives in Fond Pierre Jacques, a hilly neighborhood just southeast of the town of Bay Tourib. The region has nothing but houses, trees, and farmland. Residents of Fond Pierre Jacques plant fields both there and in the unpopulated region further to the east.
In her interview to determine if she was a good candidate for the CLM program, Elimène revealed that she was making a small profit now and again, but she couldn’t sustain it. Whenever it came time for heavy agricultural work, the commerce would collapse. She wouldn’t have time to buy or sell. She’d drain it of capital to buy food for her family until harvest. And even then, they never had enough. They were always hungry until their crops came in. Even in good years, they might have stretches of several weeks when they had little to eat. In bad years, things could be much worse.
So we invited her to join CLM. She chose goats and a pig as her assets, and got right to work.
Goat rearing didn’t start very well. We gave her two goats, but they were small ones. One of them quickly became sick.
Elimène, however, was determined. “I struggled and struggled with it. It finally pulled through.”
The other was healthier, but they both were small when she received them. They have finally produced offspring, but it took much longer than it should have.
Pig rearing was more successful. It is risky business—mortality among pigs is relatively high. But it can be quite profitable when it works. Elimène’s pig managed to raise four piglets. She sold three of them, and is now raising the mother and a younger female. She chose to sell them very young. It is less profitable, but a lot less risky and a lot less work. Pigs require a lot of care. She figured she’d have an easier time if she wasn’t managing too many of them.
She took the money she got from selling two of the pigs and bought beans at harvest, when their price was low. She’s now storing them until planting season, when she’ll be able to sell them profitably.
Her biggest success, however, has been with small, regular commerce.
“They didn’t give me commerce, but Titon [her case manager] said I should try to start one if I could.” She talked to him about the tobacco business she once ran, and they agreed that she would try again. “You have to sell something that other people don’t sell. I’m the only tobacco seller in Bay Tourib.”
So she took some of the money that she had saved up from her weekly food stipend, added the money from the third piglet, and went to Hinche to buy. There, she discovered a new product.
“I always sold local, Haitian tobacco. But people were asking for the darker imported tobacco that they like to use for snuff. Now I sell both.”
She found that she could get a cup of prepared snuff in Hinche for 200 gourds, or about $5. But she could buy the unprocessed foreign tobacco it’s made from for half that much. She makes the snuff by drying the tobacco in the sun, and pounding it into a fine powder. She then discovered that she could cut her costs even further buy blending the darker tobacco with the less expensive local product.
Her tobacco business is now more profitable than it ever was and, just as importantly, she has come to see its fundamental importance. “I won’t ever let the business collapse again. Even if I can only sell on Saturdays and Sundays, I’ll keep it up because it means we always have food in the house.”
Elimène’s ambition is now larger than food on the table. She wants to start buying more land. As committed as she is to commerce, she really sees herself as a farmer. “Whatever you think I look like, I know how to work with a hoe and a sickle.” She wants more farmland so she can make more from her crops.
Her plan is simple: “I’ll keep taking good care of my animals, and put away money whenever I can. If you can sell a couple of goats or pigs, and can add some money from a harvest, you’ll already have enough to buy a small plot.” In a couple of months, she’ll buy a horse so she can get larger crops and the fruit from the trees in her yard to market, too. That will add a lot to her income.
It is pretty clear that Elimène is well on her way to a better life. She has solved her family’s hunger problem, and is looking to a future with an ambitious but very well-founded hope.
Lucienne lost most of her assets during her first few months in the CLM program. She invested her funds for commerce to plant beans that returned a very poor harvest, and she lost two of the three goats that we gave her. She was left with just one adult female goat and savings from her six months of food stipends.
CLM is 18 months of hard work and invention. As Gauthier, our program director, says, “There’s always a way.” So Lucienne and her case manager made a plan.
She would sell a young billy goat, the survivor from her nanny’s first litter. She would then take the proceeds from that sale, add most of her savings, and buy a small horse. The horse would make it possible for her to start a small commerce. A good plan.
The problem is, she didn’t follow it. Her son, Lorès, sold the goat for her, but they decided to invest the money in another crop of beans. She figured that a decent harvest would allow her to buy a bigger horse and leave her plenty of additional money to invest in the commerce itself. But this second bean crop failed badly, too. She did not harvest even enough to plant another crop. And her savings alone were too little by themselves to allow her to buy the horse.
So she was moving backwards. She still needed to dramatically increase her asset base. She wouldn’t be able to graduate with just the one goat and her savings. More importantly, she’d have very little chance of sustainable success unless she could establish a stronger foundation.
But all that remained were the one goat and her savings. We encouraged her to use the savings to buy a couple of smaller animals, and she wisely chose to invest diversely. She split almost all of her money equally between two purchases: a large nanny goat and a 40% share in a neutered pig that Lorès bought. That left 500 gourds, or roughly $12.50, that she used to buy a big male turkey.
Now things are looking up. Though she lost two crops of beans that she and Lorès planted for sale, she’s had good returns on her millet this year, so there’s plenty of food in the house. She also had a good harvest of pigeon peas. They don’t bring in as much money as the black and red beans that she planted, but they are giving her something to work with.
Lucienne knows what she’s working for: a better future for her youngest, Lorès. “Everything I have is for him.” And with the small but solid foundation she’s finally established, she has good reason to hope.
A Horse named CLM
originally from a Facebook post by CLM Regional Director Steve Werlin
Lusane Jean Jacques, affectionately known as Magre, recently made her dream come true: she bought her own horse.
It’s been a long road for Magre, who lives in Bay Tourib, a rural area of Haiti’s Central Plateau. In August 2011, she joined Fonkoze’s program for the ultra poor, Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM), and was making fairly good progress.
“I used to sleep in the rain,” she said. “I would put my kids under the bed or the table to keep them dry. Now I have a nice house with a good tin roof. The rain isn’t a problem.”
Then Hurricane Sandy swept through.
She lost some livestock and, even worse, her entire crop of black beans. She had planned to use her crop along with the sale of a goat to buy her first horse, but feared the hurricane would make that impossible.
Fortunately, Fonkoze USA, with the help of Artists for Haiti, was able to raise the money necessary to replace our members’ lost assets.
Magre took her payment, and went to the market in Regalis with her case manager, Christian Louizia, to make her purchase.
Afterwards, she couldn’t hide her excitement.
“I never thought I’d be able to buy a horse. I’m going to name it CLM.”
Note: In rural Haiti, animals and crops are like savings accounts for women like Magre. Not only will this horse be a safety net for Magre and her family, it will help her move goods to market or take family members to receive emergency health care. Thank you,
Luciana “Jésula” Noël: The rebirth of hope
Jésula belongs to Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM), or the Path to a Better Life. CLM reaches out to ultra-poor families in rural Haiti. It provides assets, a small cash stipend, education and the support of a case manager over the course of 18 months to develop members’ capacity and confidence.
Jésula was born in 1973, in Tèblanch, a savanna located a couple of miles to the northeast of Mirebalais, just off the main road to Hinche. She’s from an extremely poor family that was not able to send her to school. Like her four brothers and sisters, she stayed at home, working in the fields and doing household chores. At fifteen, she got pregnant and decided to leave home with Solon Marcelus, the father of her child. At the time, she didn’t really know what it meant for her to be pregnant.
Because she came from an extremely poor family, she and her husband had nothing. They built a little straw roofed house close to her family’s, and there she gave birth to eight children: two boys, and six girls. Unfortunately, her husband was lazy. So she was the one who had to work to feed the entire family and pay to send the children to school.
To do so, she got into business, even without any stable capital. She had never had much of her own capital to start with. She would borrow money in the market itself to buy and then resell anything she could find. She would take the profit she made home and give the capital back to her creditors at the end of the day. She managed to earn enough that way to pay school fees for some of her children. She even bought a couple of goats.
Unfortunately, two of her daughters became sick. “When I asked my husband to help me pay for the treatment they needed, he told me to let them die.” Jésula sold all she had to save her girls. “That was the end of my relationship with him. I couldn’t stand his abuse any more. He would beat me. He wouldn’t do any work.” Having sold what little she had, she couldn’t pay anymore for her kids’ school.
She decided to move forward with a new partner, Jean Louis-Jacques, who already had his own family. She had one additional kid with him, but they broke up a few years later. Now, her youngest child is five years old.
When CLM began selecting members in Tèblanch, Jésula was accustomed to spending as much as a week without any food to cook. She had one goat, but was carefully saving it unless she needed money to pay for a sickness or death. “I was losing hope. I had too many problems. I couldn’t sleep at night. I used snuff to keep my mind away from my trouble.”
Since she joined CLM, she began receiving the food allowance, about $7 per week. She has received two goats, and she will have at least fifteen birds – a combination of chickens and turkeys – by the end of this month. She has now begun to dream.
She wants is to become a “grandanm.” That’s a word used for a wealthy woman. To Jésula, that means owning a cow, goats, and land to build a house on. She also wants to be able to sign her name. She dreams of being a respected member of her community.
A letter from CEO Anne Hastings to Fonkoze supporters and friends in the US affected by Hurricane Sandy
Greetings from Haiti,
I have been watching my TV every evening this week to stay up-to-date on all the devastation that Sandy has left in its wake in your world…after living through what it’s done in my world. How different the impacts—but how jolting to all of us. The houses burned, the people killed, the buildings flooded, the transportation chaos, the dangling crane—all of them were so out of the ordinary for what we know in New York and New Jersey. And the incredible efforts of the nurses and aides and firefighters and police!
In Haiti, it was the all-too-common devastation caused by heavy rains that leave people without shelter, without businesses, without crops and livestock—it’s just basically more of the same but with so much more intensity. With virtually no first-responders!
Still, in New York and New Jersey it was almost without precedent as I understand it.
In any case, I want you to know that I’ve been thinking and praying for all of you while planning for our relief efforts here. You all mean so much to me—and your support of our efforts in Haiti is what keep me going. I just wish there was more I could do for you as you try to bring your lives back to normal.
Peace and love to you all,