I first came across the concept of microfinance and the non-profit company Kiva back in 2008. I was in my junior year at that time, and it had been a fascinating semester learning about microlending, rural entrepreneurship and the subsistence marketplace. It is a fairly simple idea – people living in impoverished nations often lack access to traditional sources of funding (ie. a bank). Microfinance institutions exist to fill this gap – by providing small loans to the rural poor, small businesses (think village shop acquiring additional sundries, farmer buying fertilisers etc.) are provided with support needed for their operations. The Nobel-peace prize winning Grameen Bank is one of the most successful examples of microfinance that exists today. Since its inception, it has made more than $10b worth of loans, at a >95% repayment rate.
Back then, since I had my contractual obligation to the Singapore government, journeying further into this field was not possible. I kept my experiences as a memory and reminder: one day I will find an opportunity to explore the field of microfinance and witness if and how it works on the ground. Perhaps, I could even contribute my skills to this sector?
I stared at my computer screen and saw that Kiva had launched a program where they send Fellows out into the field to be their eyes and ears on the ground. Fellows work with field partners to increase transparency and adoption of technology at local microfinance institutions, and documenting how rural entrepreneurs are using loans to improve their lives on behalf of the Kiva community. I looked at the list of countries… Bolivia, East Timor, Vietnam, Kosovo, and the type of work Fellows were doing out in the field – meaningful, first-hand experiences with the inner-workings of microfinance. Would I ever qualify to become a Kiva Fellow?
This happened. It was epic, I redeemed my freedom and moved back to the US.
For months, Kiva kept coming up as a recurring thought in my mind. But, am I ready to trade my comfortable life in Austin for four unpaid months out in the field, away from family and friends, with people speaking a language I don’t understand? Will I even make it through their selection and interview process? In September of this year I applied, went through the selection process and was eventually offered a Kiva Fellowship in November! “By the way…”, they said, “… we’re sending you to Tajikistan”.
To be honest, I had to pull out Google maps to figure out where the country lies. In my mind, Central Asia seems to still be a mystical post-Soviet region little-known to the rest of the world. Who are the people of Tajikistan? What do they speak there? What is the main industry? What will loans go to support in a country where more than 90% of the territory is made out of mountains?
My fellowship with Kiva in Tajikistan begin two months from today, but really, the journey has already begun.
Shoutout to Lysia Tan, the most supportive life partner in the world I can ever ask for!