By Ellen Willems, KF13, Ecuador.
Ecuador has only two seasons: summer or dry season and winter or wet season. Right now it is winter and it rains almost every day. For the loan officers at Cooperativa San José this rain equals mud and a lot of it. To meet the poorest and most remote borrowers these loan officers spend many challenging hours on their motorcycles navigating bad roads, and, on rainy days, getting wet and covered in mud.
They do this to meet with the members of the “Ventanillas Rurales” (Village Banks). This is a special loan product Cooperativa San José offers to the most remote rural communities. These Village Banks consist of 10 to 30 members and serve as solidarity groups. The loans they take out are relatively small, starting from $600. The loan terms are adjusted to the agricultural needs of the borrowers: the loan cycles vary from 9 to 14 months and the principal is due at the end of the loan term. This way the borrower can buy seeds and fertilizers today and pay back in one year after having sold his/her produce. The most common crops grown are cocoa, corn, yucca, rice, orange, passion fruit and pineapple.
Last week I joined Diego, a loan officer at Cooperativa San José, on one of these challenging trips. We met in front of the branch office in Chillanes at 6am and somehow managed to fit both of us, two backpacks and a briefcase on the motorcycle. During the next 1.5 hours we descended from the central mountains of Ecuador, through a think layer of mist, into the tropical climate of San José del Tambo. Diego was focused on avoiding the many deep holes in the road while I barely managed to hold trying to catch a glimpse of the beautiful view of the mountains surrounding us.'
The little town of San José del Tambo served as our home base while we traveled another 1.5 hours to meet the borrowers. Most of these Village Bank meetings take place in a local school or community center. When we arrived at the first meeting we found many children making Christmas trees and angel wings for the upcoming Christmas party. The second meeting was supposed to be in a school as well but the person who had the key did not show up for the meeting. Luckily it didn’t rain at that time and we decided to have the meeting outside.
During my second day in the field I learned how valuable it is to have a loan officer who knows the community, the area, and the people. Diego grew up in San José del Tambo and everywhere we went people walked up to us. Sometimes they wanted to talk about their loans but most of the time they just came to say hello.
That night when we arrived at the hotel, covered in mud and sore from spending many hours on the motorcycle, Diego told me that he loves his job and he would never switch to a “full time office job”. He really enjoys meeting with his borrowers and giving back to his community by providing access to valuable financial services.
If you want to lend to one of Diego’s borrowers please visit Cooperativa San José’s lending page here.
Posted by Ellen Willems, Roaminig Kiva Fellow in Ecuador, currently working at Cooperativa San José.