Nathan at work visiting borrowers of Juhudi Kilimo

By Nila Uthayakumar, KF14 Uganda and KF15 Kenya

“It was my first day on the job,” Nathan says with a wide grin.

“I wore a coat and tie, I looked very smart! I was going to work for a bank, sit in a swiveling chair, and swing my legs!”

Nathan and I are standing on the side of a road. The occasional share-taxi barrels past us, but mostly we are surrounded by the hush of farmland that stretches as far as the eye can see. We’re in the Southern Rift Valley of Western Kenya. Nathan is neither sitting, nor swinging his legs. We cross the road. The mid-morning sun casts our shadows long across the hot asphalt.

“I got to the office that day and they told me to go and get a cow from a farmer who was not making his loan repayments. So I walked ten miles pulling a cow back to the office. On my first day.” Nathan laughs, and I am incredulous.

Nathan works as a loan officer for Juhudi Kilimo, a Kiva partner microfinance institution in Kenya. Juhudi Kilimo makes microloans to farmers to finance the purchase of assets, like dairy cows. Of Juhudi’s roughly 3,500 borrowers, around six or seven will default in a given year. When that happens, a loan officer, and in this case Nathan, is asked to go and collect the asset so that Juhudi can sell it and recover some of the loss.

“I almost quit.” He says, “I almost called the office the next day and said I wouldn’t be coming in.” But he didn’t. And here he and I were, two years later, visiting another farmer outside of a town called Litein.

Edward, another Juhudi Kilimo loan officer, visits farmers in Kisii.

Two years ago when Nathan applied for a job as a loan officer with Juhudi Kilimo, he had just graduated from college. Considering that he was expecting a comfortable desk job, and met instead with physical labor on his first day, I would say that he is nothing short of dedicated.

One thing I that I did not expect when I started my Kiva Fellowship in January is the respect and admiration I have gained for microfinance loan officers. When I am not working in the office, I am in the field visiting borrowers. I have spent many a scorching and dusty day walking alongside a loan officer, and I consider it an honor and a privilege. It takes humility and tremendous patience to do the work that they do. A sense of humor is essential.

The workday often begins before sunrise and finishes after sunset. Share-taxis only get a person so close to the final destination; many farms can only be reached by foot. A real lunch break can be a luxury, and very often it is skipped entirely. Furthermore, I think that ‘loan officer’ is a misleading title. It may make the work seem restricted to dealings with monetary exchanges, but I would argue that ‘motivational speaker,’ ‘business consultant,’ ‘advocate,’ and ‘educator’ would all be just as appropriate to describe the work of a loan officer. From my experience in Uganda and Kenya, the borrowers themselves actually prefer ‘teacher.’ I too find it to be far more fitting.

Back on the farm, Nathan and I have reached the home of the borrower we are meeting with. We’re served steaming cups of tea while we sit on a bench under the shade of a tree. A pair of puppies dart back and forth between our feet and a goose ruffles her feathers. Nathan smiles, takes a sip, and swings his legs.

***

Check out Nila’s other blog posts:

The View from the Ground

In Defense of “High” MFI Interest Rates: Part II

Video Blog: The Story of Lini Nanyonga

Video Blog: The Kiva Story

My Heart has Taken Root

Microlending Behind the Scenes: How MFI’s Judge Credit Worthiness

Nila is living and working in Nairobi, Kenya as roaming fellow. She has been working with Kiva partner Juhudi Kilimo, and is having a blast!


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