By Frederic Billou, KF13, Benin

You never forget your first (Kiva) time

I funded my first loan on Kiva in the very early days, back on April 13, 2005 in fact. I remember like it was yesterday the first time I received a repayment for that very first loan. Sitting at my desk in San Francisco, I paused for a second to try and measure what had just happened:  money was flowing from San Francisco to Kenya, and then back to San Francisco, from the comfort of my office.

I also remember the day that first loan was fully paid back. Since I had financed the entire loan (I had not yet bothered spreading the risk across multiple loans in my portfolio…), I had just enabled a woman in Kenya to purchase a dairy cow. And I got my money back. All of it. On schedule.

Since that time, I have always wanted to find a way to visit Kiva borrowers
on the ground. More than five years later, I have finally gotten a chance to see Kiva “in action” as I am currently a Kiva Fellow working on the ground with ALIDe, Kiva’s partner in Benin, West Africa.

Visiting my first Kiva borrower in Benin is another first I will never forget. I was of course very eager to get in the field as soon as I landed and my second day in Benin, a loan officer took me to one of “his” borrowers. When we arrived, it took me a little while to adjust to what I was seeing. Here I was, in a slum in Cotonou  (the capital of Benin) that had been recently flooded and let’s just say that this place made the slums in the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire” look like the Ritz. Further underscoring the cultural differences as we conducted our visit, the woman was quite comfortably wearing nothing above the waist.

As we started talking (seeing a white male in this part of town was a first for her), she proudly explained that she buys fresh fish, smokes them, and then sells them by walking around with a tray on her head. Her Kiva loan allows her to buy both the fish and the coal she uses to smoke the fish in bulk, thus reducing her cost of doing business and improving her margins. As we talked, she got really excited about what she was doing, the entrepreneurial gleam lighting up her eyes, and since she was smoking a batch of fish right then and there, she invited us for a tour.

It’s a fairly simple process really: she first buys fish in bulk at the Dentopka market, the largest in Benin, then stores it in what she calls the “freezer” before smoking the fish on a small BBQ pit made of a recycled car wheel and finally letting the fish dry further in the sun. I  must have had a puzzled look on my face when she mentioned the freezer because, yes, I was trying to figure out how a freezer could have made its way here. When, with a proud smile, she lifted the wet piece of fabric on top to show me how it worked, I quickly realized that the freezer was in fact just a recycled wooden crate. In a nutshell, it didn’t smell quite like roses and enough flies got out from under the wet rag to add more than a full serving of protein and demonstrating that value can be added to an end product in many different ways. Here is a brief and raw video of the overall process:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIMTf4Nqq5I

When we left, she looked at both of us with a huge smile and indicated that once her current loan is repaid, she can’t wait to get a bigger loan to further expand her business.

So whether this is your first time visiting Kiva.org or not, go ahead and click here to make a loan!

Frederic Billou is a Roaming Kiva Fellow currently working in Benin.


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