100 days later, 5 lessons learnt about life, microfinance and the world

I’ve come to the end of my Kiva Fellowship, and as challenging as it was living in a country like Tajikistan, this priceless life experience has been tremendously humbling. Here are some concluding thoughts from me, as I draw the velvet curtains to this chapter.

1. People are good, and the Media can really upset your view of the world

What we consume via the Media on our TV screens often has a huge influence on our views of the world. When I was first told I would be sent to Tajikistan for my Kiva Fellowship, I too, like many friends and family, had assumed that it would be a dangerous place mostly because it was a country that bordered Afghanistan. The truth is that for many, an initial perception of Tajikistan could be shaped by an initial perception of Afghanistan (or the middle east/central asia in general) which would be sadly shaped by the behemoth called the media.

In 2013, Mehdi Hasan, political editor of the Huffington Post, delivered a well-argued rhetoric during the Oxford debates, supporting Islam as a religion of peace. I spent almost 100% of my waking hours over the past 100 days with Muslim people – Muslim colleagues, friends, neighbors. During my time in Tajikistan, I met some of the nicest, most hospitable and kind-hearted people I have ever come across in my life.  I travelled to the Afghan border, met Afghan people, and experienced genuine kindness from them. Cyclists I have met who journeyed from Europe through Asia also described Iran as the highlight of their trip from being showered with hospitality as if they were family. If I were to tell you that Iranians, Tajiks and Afghans are some of the nicest people on this planet, you have to believe me. I am a strong proponent that one must experience a place for yourself in order to draw your own conclusions – the media is one big boo-boo. Sadly, because of the media, most people of our generation will grow up thinking of a bipolar world where there is peaceful guys, and the Muslim extremists. This rift will only continue to widen.

Pendjikent

2. Wealth is not defined by $$

This is something that must have been repeated countless times, but I am writing this down not only to share with you but also to remind myself of this fact – wealth is not defined by the digits in your bank account. Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia, but from what I have seen, she is also the richest country in the world – her beauty, her history, her people.

Tajiks are extremely rich in their generosity towards others. First a stranger, I would almost immediately attain the “title” of guest after a quick conversation, and proceed to be given the best things they had. Whatever little they had, they would share. If they had nothing to share, they would extend an invitation for me to return the following week so that they could somehow treat me to something. We barely know each other, but the wealth of generosity overflows from their hearts.

I remember approaching a particular rural village – simple, modest, pretty dilapidated. It was a freezing day in early Spring, the garden was still struggling to recover from the bitter winter that had just passed. When I met the Kiva client, she wore the biggest smile on her face, the joys of life beaming from her face. Her family had so little that she had to take a out a loan to purchase school supplies for her four children. She hosted me with a cup of tea, and continued to wear the smile on her face as she explained the difficulties of village life to me. “husbaht!” she would exclaim repeatedly – to be happy with life, that is the most important in all circumstances. Right at that moment, I was reminded about how wealthy she was in her mind and spirit, despite the most modest of living conditions.

Glorious beauty

Glorious beauty

3. There is a certain wonder about ordered chaos in the developing world

For those who have spent time in Third World countries, you will understand what I mean by “ordered chaos”. Let me draw a reference to traffic, something which is not only unique to Tajikistan, but in common across the world from Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic has to be one of the most fascinating things in this country, and how it actually functions is a daily miracle.

A red traffic light means – hey take a quick peek to check and if you do not see oncoming traffic, gas it! White line markers creating 2 lanes on the road means – who cares about lines? let’s squeeze as many vehicles as we can within the available tarmac space! A minibus stop means – if the existing bus stop space is already occupied by a minibus, pull up right beside it and create your own bus stop in the middle of the road! Direction of traffic? What direction of traffic? Drive against traffic if you need to avoid a stretch of congestion! Last but not least, the horn. God bless the inventor of the horn. The cacophony of car horns at Tajik road junctions at rush hour can send you straight to a mental institution. All that being said, the system works, and people get around!

It is quite amazing that a natural form of order develops within the chaos – people expect the pandemonium, become more tolerant (despite the occasional squabbles) with each one another, get better at driving in order to avoid accidents, and learn to make things work, somehow! This is also the magic of the ordered chaos in the developing world – people learn to hustle, adapt and make things work.

Tons of people and traffic in peaceful coexistence

Tons of people and traffic in peaceful coexistence

4. Microfinance helps, but isn’t a silver bullet to alleviate poverty

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit. Soon after, microfinance steadily took off and is now deeply entrenched in many parts of the developing world. Credit is something that we take for granted in the developed world, but can be life-changing for the rural poor. Credit creates opportunity, when managed properly; and this opportunity is exactly the tool needed to alleviate poverty worldwide. However, despite being such a simple concept, microfinance is not easy to operationalize in the field.

Bringing financial services to rural areas come at a significant cost, which translates into sizeable interest rates for the clients. Sadly, it is a double-edged sword, especially for those who do not know how to manage their finances. Fortunately, many of the Kiva clients I visited in Tajikistan received some form of education from their credit officers, which reduces risk of default due to client negligence. I am also glad that over-indebtedness is something that Kiva consistently tracks, but for some microfinance clients in general, the cycle of debt ends up becoming a plague in their lives. It will take innovative ideas and the persistent efforts of new social-enterprises that weave in auxiliary services in addition to credit, to increase the effectiveness of microfinance. Some of Kiva’s partners including the One Acre Fund and Proximity Designs are doing exactly that, and they help us keep alive the dream of a promising future for microcredit.

Kiva borrower Marhabo and her grandson

Kiva borrower Marhabo and her grandson

5. Life isn’t a race, take time to pause and ponder

We are wired to work, work hard and work fast. In the rhythm of our work-lives, we find ourselves consumed by our work and the ability to work anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately, many of us forget this – Our days are long, but the decades are short. Next year I turn 30, and it seemed like yesterday when I turned 20.

When I made the decision to take four months off work to volunteer as a Kiva Fellow, some people exclaimed, “wow! that is a really long time! how is that going to affect your career?” “You’ve only worked four years, and you already want to take a sabbatical?” Well, I didn’t know how the decision would affect my career. Honestly, I did think that people only took sabbaticals after working for decades. However, you will never know what tomorrow brings, and living life with no regrets is probably the best thing you could do for yourself. I first came to know about Kiva in 2008, and then about the Kiva Fellows program in 2011. For three years the thought of applying for the program lingered on in my mind, and just as there were plenty of reasons to apply, there were always 101 reasons to not do it too. Thinking back, even when I was preparing to leave, there was significant apprehension lurking…

Four months later, here is what I learnt: Taking a meaningful sabbatical is refreshing and teaches you a whole lot about yourself. Not only does it allow you to recharge, it also gives you the opportunity to contribute to causes larger than yourself for an extend period of time. The truth is, “meaningful” or not, try to take time off to do something completely different from your daily routine. Find work through wooofing, go live on a boat, heck go on a tuk-tuk race across India! If you are looking to put your professional skills to good use during your sabbatical, there are many options available! Applying to go abroad with the Kiva Fellows program is one, but I am sure you will be able to find some in your own backyard too. You will never look back years later and regret taking time to pause, breath, think and hopefully touch the lives of others along that short journey.

You will find beauty in the most unexpected places

You will find beauty in the most unexpected places

Life doesn’t come with subtitles

Languages are a beautiful thing. I was born and raised in Singapore where everyone is effectively bilingual, resulting from well thought-out education policies. For those who are curious, everyone in Singapore speaks English + one, where the one is of your native heritage. The three primary races in Singapore are the Chinese, the Malay and the Indians. Since my great grandfather sailed across the ocean from China to settle in Singapore, I was lucky enough to win the birth lottery for Singapore, and learned Mandarin as my “+ one”. Over the course of my life, I was also extremely fortunate to have picked up Spanish through Middlebury’s language school, which is hands-down one of the world’s best language programs. So armed with the top three most widely spoken languages globally (English, Mandarin and Spanish), I could finally conquer the world!

Not.

When I was informed that I would be placed in Tajikistan for my Kiva fellowship, I had to first verify if this was a real country. Eventually, I found out that the main languages used are Russian and Tajik (similar to Persian-Farsi). Great, because I speak none of them… It is one thing to travel to a place for a few days and not speak the language, and another to live there for a few months under a similar circumstance. Time was short, and after a few weeks of general preparation and some Russian transit hoo-hah later, I found myself living in Dushanbe.

Time-travel back to the Soviet era, in Dushanbe

Time-travel back to the Soviet era, in Dushanbe

I have to explain that I had translators who worked with me throughout my Fellowship, and so initially there was little impetus to learn the language. However, through the course of my time in Tajikistan, I was forced to pick up certain words that became really helpful in my everyday life in a foreign land.

Foreign lands, absolutely stunning

Foreign lands, absolutely stunning

I have gathered a tried-and-tested list of 50 words (grouped into 5 categories) over the past few months that is guaranteed to come in useful when you are in a completely foreign country!

1. The 6Ws and 1H: who, what, where, when, why, which, how (much)

2. Time/location: now, later/then/after, tomorrow, this, that, here, there

3. Food: delicious, half (referring to size), chicken, cow, pig, fish, sheep (vegetarians could have a different list)

4. Articles/numbers: I, you, my, your, one-to-ten

5. The most useful misc. words: name, friend, family, home, work/school, thank you, please, bus-station, water, toilet, beautiful, hello, goodbye

Based on my experience in Tajikistan, with these 50 words above, combined with your endless vocabulary of charades, you will be surprised as to how much information you can actually relate and receive. You will also be amazed by the kind of connections you can build with just these 50 words. Having a “semi-conversation” with locals in their language completely changes the dynamics of interaction, and builds a fleeting but intense bond that I hope you will be able to experience in your travels!

This covers about 75% of the requirements for daily communication. The remaining 25%? Well, that’s the fun of travel!

P.s. Based on your experience, what other key words would you add to the list?

Running into a herd of biblical proportions.

Running into a herd of biblical proportions.

+++

If you are living or travelling through Singapore, do check out one of Singapore’s underground social communitiesTête-à-Tête, a bi-monthly pop-up language cafe where polyglots gather!

Meet the borrowers!

Besides working with our field partners to improve their processes and brainstorm innovative solutions around the use of Kiva’s zero-percent financing, one of our key deliverables is to go out into the field to meet and verify Kiva lenders. This is part risk-management, but also helps Kiva build a connection with their lenders.

Over the past few months, I have visited about 40 clients scattered across the entire country. While each journey got increasingly longer and more arduous, every new story continues to be a source of encouragement. Here are a few stories to share, and if you would like to be part of Kiva’s mission, lend as little as $25 to support a loan on kiva.org!

56 years old Shodmonoy was one of the most memorable clients I visited during my Fellowship. I met her at the hospital where she works as a cleaner, in a small town in Southern Tajikistan. A few months ago, her daughter fell very ill and needed urgent medical attention.Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the idea of paying for healthcare gradually became a tremendous burden upon the people. Today, without formal insurance facilities, many people in the rural regions rely heavily on microfinance support whenever a medical emergency besets the family. Shodmonoy had taken out a Kiva loan through IMON International to pay for her daughter’s hospital bills. She was extremely grateful for the support of the Kiva community, and when I asked her how she felt about strangers lending her money, she tearfully remarked “I am glad that in my critical time of need, I wasn’t alone in the world.”

47 year old Latofatkhon runs her own retail shop in the town of Tursunzurda. She is a repeat lender and has frequently used loans to increase her inventory. With a larger buying power with the aid of credit, she is able to purchase a larger variety of items, and also obtain lower prices in bulk. Her story is pretty amazing – 7 years ago she started selling a few small items at a makeshift roadside stall which measured 1m2. Today, she has grown her business into a proper retail store in the town center. As I was leaving, she showed me her latest bulk purchase, an entire inventory of fresh flowers. She exclaimed, “Spring time is the best season for the flower business!” Such a smart and successful businesswoman in rural Tajikistan!

19 years old Zarifbek was one of the youngest lenders I came across during my time in Tajikistan. His parents are farmers in the North of Tajikistan and could not afford to send him for higher education after high school. Zarifbek was thrilled to find out about Kiva and IMON’s education loan product that has one of the lowest interest rates across all of Tajikistan. This is the diverse reach of microfinance, which also supports educational needs of the lenders. Zarifbek is currently pursuing an architecture degree in the capital city, Dushanbe. I was curious to know if he plans to return to his village after graduation, as most professional jobs are based in the main cities. He remarked “when I graduate in 4 years, I believe there will be a need for architecture specialists the region of my village and I plan to go back there to help design new infrastructure for my people”. I was very encouraged by his dream!

Kiva fieldwork epiphany -Success!

By being Kiva’s eyes and ears on the ground, Kiva Fellows undertake a bunch of deliverables ranging from process improvement, risk management, control audits and my favorite part – uncovering opportunities for innovation.

Where does innovation come in with the Kiva model? Put in very simple terms, one of Kiva’s main objectives is to encourage our field partners to take advantage of our 0% risk-tolerant financing to reach higher-risk demographies, or charge a lower interest rates to clients. Alternatively, they could also design loan products using risk-tolerant capital to cater to unique circumstances (ie. a bullet payment term: farmers paying back their entire loan at one shot after the harvest season).

The benefits of having Kiva Fellows out in the field gives us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the local environment, and understand needs that are endemic to our geography. I was fortunate enough to chance upon a rare opportunity for innovation through an encounter with a client out in the remote Shariston region.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the healthcare system in Tajikistan fell to shambles. Today, few in the city are covered by insurance, and those in the villages do not even consider that a possibility. When one needs medical help, microfinance becomes the best alternative to fund their treatment costs. However, I noticed that any healthcare-related loans falls under the “personal loan” category because there are no special healthcare loan products in this country. As “personal uses” typically carry higher risks (relative to income generating purposes), they carry the highest interest rates.

Taking out a loan for her son's hospital bills

Taking out a loan for her son’s hospital bills

Moment of field epiphany: What if we could design a special loan product using Kiva’s risk tolerant capital specifically for the purposes of paying for medical expenses, surgery bills etc?

I rushed back to the office, ran some data analysis, and put together a proposal for our partners – Kiva funded healthcare loan product at a break-even interest rate, specifically for the impoverished rural clients. Furthermore, it is a no-brainer for the partner because healthcare loans typically fund 100% of the time on the Kiva website! For the geeky ones out there, here’s what a break-even interest rate means for the client. In the example below, through Kiva, field partners can then design loan products that have lower interest rates (to the point where it covers their operational expenditures – the true cost of delivering the financial service), longer grace periods etc.

The following numbers are just for illustration purposes:

APR explained

APR explained

This was a month ago.

Today, the first of three field partners in Tajikistan (HUMO) officially launched the new Kiva Heathcare loan product – at half the interest rate of today’s personal loan. That is half-off the initial cost whenever clients now need a loan for healthcare! Just to put things in perspective, assuming a US$1000 loan in the illustration above, 15% off (US$150) is the equivalent of an entire month’s salary in the urban areas here.  This, is the exact moment when a Kiva Fellow sees the hard work out in the field paying off.

Can’t wait to get the others onboard!

The freemasonry of the Central Asian road

“That is the freemasonry of the road, which obtains all over Central Asia, and to my mind, it is a very sound principle to go upon. It amounts to this: that you look upon every man as your friend, until he proves to be your enemy; whereas, the outcome of our much-vaunted civilisation in Europe is, that you look with suspicion upon every man you meet, until you have proved him to be your friend. There is an almost childlike trust and utter absence of suspicion displayed by these people, which is very refreshing after the stilted conventionalities and etiquette of Western Europe.” – Unknown author.

It was getting late in the day, and after getting quoted ridiculous prices by the taxis, we headed over to the Aftavazal to look for Makshrutka options from Osh back to Batken. One Mahstrutka driver was clearly not going to Batken town, but agreed to take us anyway. “I will drive you the rest of the distance from the final stop to Batken, don’t worry,” he said. For an extra 100som each, we happily agreed.

Except, things sometimes do not turn out as you have agreed. At the final stop about three hours away, he tell us that he has decided not to take us any further. He points us to another Mahstrutka going to Batken, but cautions us that we need an Uzbekistan visa because, of course, that route involves going through the Uzbek enclave towns. Why would we randomly have Uzbek visas? “ok good luck and good bye,” he mutters, and proceeds to walk away for his late lunch. We were about 100km away from Batken town, in the middle of nowhere, with little clue of what we could do.

Stuck in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Central Asia.

Hitch-hike.

After a few unsuccessful flag-downs, one kind man picked us up in his rustic old Daewoo mini-van. “I am not going to Batken but I can take you a lot closer!” he remarked. So we hopped on, and after some time going at a top speed of about 50km/h (the van seriously sounded like it would fall apart any time), he drops us off at the sign that read “Batken 57”. Alright, 57km more for another kind soul to take us.

Riding in the Daewoo!

The second leg was a huge upgrade, when a Hyundai stopped for us. “I am going slightly further down on this road for about another 20km!” he said. We took it – every additional kilometre he will travel is an additional kilometre closer to our destination. We hopped on again and this ride went quick as it was a relatively modern car that actually managed to overtake other vehicles! 20km closer! Of course, he drops us off at his turn-off, and we were again in the middle of nowhere.

Kind soul no. 2

After many more rejections, a goods-delivery van stopped to take us on our final leg of the journey back to Batken. “We are going to Batken, hop on!” the driver shouted cheerfully. Oh thank you dear kindness of Central Asia! It was a van full of ladies and their wares from the weekly market in the town closest to Batken.

I am sitting next to all their goods at the back

We ride back to the Batken market and help them unload their supplies back to their respective stalls! Hitch-hike success! But of course, we were in Central Asia and a free ride back was never going to be just it. We were showered with more hospitality. The driver first proceeds to buy a bunch of snacks from the store, and then invites us back to his house to meet his family!

We drink tea, have snacks, watch Russian TV, and we comment that the preserved salad made by his wife was delicious. As we were about to leave, he hands me a full jar of the preserved salad. I profusely try to reject it but he says, “for health, you must take!” The hospitality of people in Central Asia just amazes me…

Very delicious jar of preserved vegetables

You receive a free ride from sticking your thumb out along the road in the middle of nowhere, get invited back to his home to dine with his whole family, and be given a parting gift of probably the one jar of preserved vegetables they have left in their household – the freemasonry of the road in Central Asia.

Start-ups in rural Tajikistan

“Start-ups” is currently a big buzz word all across the developed world – from San Francisco to Istanbul to Singapore, aspiring entrepreneurs are having a go at starting their next company hoping to make it big one day. Here in Tajikistan, there is also a wave of start-ups being created, driven by women who dream of creating a better life for their families.

In a small district outside the city of Khujand in Northern Tajikistan, I had the chance to meet with a very different kind of start-up business. The CEO/CTO/CFO of this one-man start-up is Mukaramjon, who is also a widowed mother of three boys. I meet her at her home – a modest abode with a small farming plot in the courtyard and two dairy cows in the cowshed.

Entrance to the next hottest start-up in rural Tajikistan!

Here in the poorest country in Central Asia, most men end up going to Russia as migrant workers, leaving the women behind to take care of the household. In the case of Mukaramjon, she lost her husband to a heart disease 5 years ago and is now the sole breadwinner for her family. Unlike most women who spend hours away from the house by toiling in the fields, Mukaramjon decided that she needed a source of income which she could derive at home so that she will be able to spend more time with her children.
With her Kiva loan, she was able to purchase material to start a domestic-business making traditional Tajik dolls and fabrics. She then sells her products to retail stalls at the local market. Margins are low at the equivalent of about $0.50-$0.80 per doll, but it provides her with a good income source to maintain the household. Mukaramjon’s mother-in-law also helps her in the business.
“On a good week when I don’t get distracted by other chores, I can make about 20 little dolls,” she shared.

Traditional Tajik dolls

Besides credit support through Kiva’s field parter IMON International, Mukaramjon also received special training from the National Association of Business Women of Tajikistan to develop her business plan. Currently, her weekly profits allow her to repay her loan and buy more material to increase production. While most other women involved in agriculture spend up to 10 hours in the field daily, Mukaramjon gets to spend most of her day at home with her three boys after they return from school.

“They are now at an age where they need a lot of guidance. All I want to do is to spend more time with my children, and provide them with opportunities for a better life,” she says.

Chief Product Designer/Engineer Mukaramjon and her mother!

The kind-hearted woman also spends two days a week teaching other girls how to sew traditional Tajik fabrics and dolls. When asked if she charges her students a fee, Mukaramjon remarked “No, I just want to teach them this art, and keep our tradition alive.” 

I have been extremely humbled by my encounter with Mukaramjon. Many Tajik women who choose to teach other girls how to sew charge up to $150 for a 6-month learning period. Despite her modest living conditions, Mukaramjon has chosen to educate the next generation in a traditional form of Tajik art for free.

This post first appeared on the Kiva Fellows Blog.