Meet the Borrowers: So who takes out these loans anyway?

Just looking out the window on the drive to visit borrowers, no biggie...

“Do you have credit?”


“Do you have credit on your phone?”


“You might want to call your parents up and tell them goodbye.” Tui, one of SPBD’s Center Managers, informed me solemnly. “That guy,” he pointed at Peni, who was currently behind the wheel, “used to be a pilot.”

As I laughed along with the three Center Managers (loan officers), I double checked my seat belt and tried not to let the sheer terror show on my face. After a long day of borrower visits, it seemed I would meet my end at the hands of a previously normal-seeming, now maniacal Samoan (who is apparently, not actually an ex-pilot) bent on ending my existence by demolishing everything in his path, whether man, animal, or machine.

On the bright side, after being soaked through in sweat, whizzing down a windy, two-lane, oceanside road did create a nice breeze.

I spent last Wednesday out in the field conducting one of my Borrower Verifications. Almost every Kiva Fellow must complete 10 BVs (some have to do more!) during their time in the field. This basically entails interviews with borrowers to confirm their identities and loan information, and find out what they’ve done with their loan. The key thing is that the 10 borrowers are a random sample chosen by Kiva and all 10 borrowers must be visited, and pass their BV, for the MFI to pass overall. This helps Kiva guard against fraud and ensure that the correct policies are being implemented by their partners. It’s also a great excuse to get out and meet some borrowers!

In order for me to carry out my BVs, I have to tag along with one of the teams of CMs. As I previously mentioned, each team usually leaves the office around 9:30 and returns around 4:30, so that means that even if I just want to meet one borrower, I’m along for the ride for their whole route. I try to work in meeting other Kiva borrowers just to chat and possibly post updates for them on their borrower profiles, but the tight schedule and varying levels of helpfulness from CMs has left me with both amazing days and super boring ones.

So innocuous, and so often close to death.

Brush with death notwithstanding, Wednesday was my best day out in the field so far. I went to 7 centers, met with 6 borrowers just to chat and get info for updates, and completed 1 BV. Almost all of them spoke surprisingly good English and were quite talkative, which was a wonderful change up from the one-word answers I sometimes get. The team was extremely gracious about having me along, despite the fact that piling 4 full-sized people plus bags (CMs carry a ridiculous amount of paperwork) into an old yellow pickup truck with no A/C is not the most comfortable situation. They also went out of their way to make sure I met women with a variety of businesses, which kept it interesting.

Last week, I wrote briefly on some of the drawbacks of micro-lending. Even though I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface on criticisms of the industry, I’d love to highlight some of these women I met for whom it’s been a great help. The dream of micro-loans is that poor entrepreneurs will gain access to capital that enables them to seize business opportunities or expand their income generating activities. In reality, money from loans is spent on any variety of things, and it’s important to remember that micro-loans are a tool that, in the end, can be used for better or worse. In the name of the dream, though, it definitely feels great to meet enterprising women who have used them just as hoped.

The center ladies stuffed me full of snacks. Took this picture before a big ol' mug of Samoa cocoa and giant helping of salaki vi (a fruit salad) were added.

Fixed Assets: Alaviga splits her time between selling ice cakes (flavored ice frozen in cups), running a canteen selling snacks and lunch food to schoolchildren, and sometimes making and selling Samoan koko, which is a delicious drink of cocoa brewed in hot water with sugar. Her husband is over in New Zealand working, but she can’t always count on him sending money so she would like to be as self reliant as possible. Before she took the loan out, she used the umu to bake goods for sale at her canteen. She invested in an oven, which has enabled her to expand her business. I so enjoyed speaking with Alaviga because she was so upbeat and confident about her prospects. She was also the only borrower I spoke with who actually had gone onto the internet and seen the Kiva website, which was fantastic. It can be a hard concept to explain, especially when the CMs don’t all have a great grasp on it–something I hope to help with while I’m here.

No free-roaming life for Mary's pigs, unlike these guys, who frequently dodge traffic.

Start-up Opportunity: Mary is a great example of a micro-loan enabling entrepreneurial behavior. She has an aunt who runs a pig farm, and realized that she was doing very well for herself. Mary figured, hey I can do that too! So she took out a loan from SPBD and make the initial investment of 6 pigs, building several pens to keep them in. Mary networks through her aunt for clients, which include tourist resorts and Samoan families. Young pigs often feature in the elaborate Samoan feasts put on at resorts, and are often given in the Samoan gift giving ceremonies that accompany just about any occasion, be it wedding, funeral, or new church opening. She makes about 100 tala per young pig sold, and told me that if she decides to keep them longer, large pigs can bring in 300-400 tala of profit. Not to limit herself, she also runs billiards games out of her house, charging 2 tala per game.

Firewood goes in the bottom, husked coconuts are laid out on top to be dried.

Access to a Lump Sum: Tutulu is a retired schoolteacher who now makes a living by making coconut oil. She has a contract with a Samoan company that exports the oil she makes, and she turns the excess into scented massage oil that she sells in-country, both to individuals and stores. In her case, access to a large, lump sum of money is critical. She uses only organic coconuts to make her oil, which means the supply is limited. She has to wait until the price is right, and then buys 3000-4000 coconuts at once. Without the loan from SPBD, she would not be able to stock up on her crucial input and save money by buying in bulk. Tutulu was kind enough to show me her workspace after her center meeting ended. There is a large drier, where she lays the husked coconuts, and a mechanical press to extract the oil. She estimates that 1000 coconuts produces around 20 gallons of coconut oil.

Several layers of filters fit inside the may be mechanical but it's still not easy!

There were several other women I spoke to who were pretty awesome, but in the interest of saving you all from my wildly verbose tendencies, perhaps I will highlight them another time. The day was a great reminder that many Kiva borrowers truly are entrepreneurs who are looking to seize business opportunities, work hard, and improve their lives as well as the lives of their families. Again, I can’t repeat too much how important family ties are to Samoans. Every single borrower who I’ve asked about their goals for the future has answered with reference to supporting their families. If anyone is interested in lending a hand (and some money!) to these kickass Samoan women, check out these loans on Kiva!

If you're wondering what 3000 coconuts looks like...this is just a fraction of the husks!


2 thoughts on “Meet the Borrowers: So who takes out these loans anyway?

  1. Hey dad–the lowest, and most common loan amount, is 1000 tala (about 450 USD). There is another loan option with a shorter term (17 weeks vs. 52 weeks) that starts at 300, but almost no one chooses it. The highest loan amount I’ve seen is 3000 tala, although that’s not the highest offered. I usually think about a tala as being around 50 cents, although it’s actually slightly less.

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