Friday, June 29, 2012

Microloans 100 Pounds at a Time: The Distribution Process through Pictures

Introduction by Ben Finan
Photo Journal by Natalie Clark
Photos by Lennie Zhu and Heather Farrell

May 23, the first day for the newly imported interns in the Honduran UMF office. As became a common occurrence, Patrick began talking coffee even before we walked through the door. We quickly learned the importance of proper fertilization, and the massive role that we would soon play in the distribution of microloans to our clients. 

Within the week, we would begin calculating qualifying loan amounts for clients and processing the nearly 200 requests for loans that we received from the twenty-three aldeas surrounding La Unión. By June 1, we had approved 171 clients for a total of 1156 bags of fertilizer. Personally, I had no idea that there were nine different types of fertilizer for coffee, let alone the exact names of them. 

By the following week, I had become intimately familiar with all of the bags, with five of us carrying each of the one hundred pound bags off of the delivery truck and into the warehouse that would become our new center of operation for the coming two weeks. In a blur, the countless names that the four interns had become so familiar with while processing the mountain of paperwork became living, breathing, inevitably smiling (and sometimes quite entertaining) clients sitting in our office, signing paperwork and loading their yearly supply of fertilizer into their pickup trucks. 

We watched them drive off, trucks buckling under the weight of the fertilizer, heading out to work on the coffee that we will soon enough begin to process at our beneficio and some of which we will purchase in six short months. Thus far, UMF has exhibited a forty percent increase in microloans from 2011, with more loans still to come. It has been a whirlwind of a week for the interns, but we are looking forward to more to come!

The pictures below follow the distribution process, capturing the intern experience and just some of the people and paperwork (there was a lot) involved. 

Photo by Lennie Zhu

Fertilizer loading and unloading is an all-hands-on-deck sort of process. Between the UMF staff, interns Ben and Dillon, and occasional paid hands at the rented warehouse, 1156 bags of fertilizer were unloaded from the semi-trucks and stacked in the warehouse. A certain rhythm developed, as one person would help the other flip the bag onto his back. Lennie and Natalie kept busy documenting the process with pictures and keeping count of inventory.

Photo by Lennie Zhu
After plenty of sweat, dirt, and an injury or two, the bodega (a warehouse) was filled. Seeing so many stacks of bags and knowing that each would have to be distributed and accounted for impressed upon us all the immensity of the task ahead of us over the next two weeks.

Photo by Heather Farrell

The first step of our fertilizer distribution process began in the office with computers and piles of paperwork. We had spent the past few weeks assembling our client’s paperwork and calculating loan approval amounts. Ben has become the master of the spreadsheets and is an integral component of the process, checking each farmer’s order request and qualified loan amounts against our inventory totals.

Photo by Heather Farrell

After checking totals on the computer, there is (of course) more paperwork. A libreta (a small booklet) is filled out for each client documenting this loan of fertilizer. The clients then bring their libretas with them to each loan meeting in order to track repayments and attendance through the twenty-three meetings over the next ten months. 

Photo by Heather Farrell

For those clients who are unable to sign their names, a fingerprint functions in its place. Literacy is an issue in many of the aldeas, with the average education level of our clients being completion of the third grade. Here the client displays his ID, presses a finger to the ink, and signs the paperwork via fingerprint. 

Photo by Heather Farrell

With paperwork complete, albeit temporarily, our clients pocket their libretas and drive their trucks across the street to the front door of our bodega where the fertilizer bags are stored.

Photo by Lennie Zhu

We take security seriously here in La Unión. The bodega is guarded by a huge, terrifying dog constrained by a thick chain during the day. There was a funny moment the first morning as Gilberto, one of UMF’s Honduran employees, growled and grabbed Lennie’s ankle. She screamed and jumped a foot. One thing is certain, nothing is getting past that dog. 

Photo by Lennie Zhu

Martir, one of UMF’s Field Officers, seems to be everywhere at once throughout the distribution process. Martir, Gilberto, and Pedro alternate helping to fill out loan paperwork with clients in the office, checking orders with them in the bodega, helping load fertilizer into trucks, and keeping tabs on our inventory totals. Here, Martir balances amidst the fertilizer stacks, recalculating inventory amounts. 

Photo by Heather Farrell

Reinaldo Mejia Hernandez, a fist year client from Gualciras, displays his libreta as his fertilizer order is loaded. Clients use their libretas to confirm their numbers with our paperwork, ensuring that they receive the appropriate type and quantity of fertilizer. 

Photo by Heather Farrell

Pedro Mejia, a prominent second year client and coffee producer from Gualciras, carries one of his bags of fertilizer to his truck. Everyone lends a hand loading fertilizer for the clients, as Natalie keeps track of inventory sheets, checking that the fertilizer leaving the bodega matches what is listed. 

Photo by Heather Farrell

After the fertilizer is loaded, Natalie confirms the fertilizer totals with each farmer, assuring that they receive exactly what was ordered, and finally the farmer signs to mark the order complete. 

Photo by Heather Farrell

Angel Hernandez, a second year client from Gualciras, puts on the finishing touches, packing down his fertilizer as he prepares to depart. With many a “que le vaya bien,” we wished him well on his way and watched as he drove off down the dusty dirt roads with a truck full of fertilizer and full of energy and enthusiasm for his coffee harvest. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Don Tejada: A Big Step Forward

Jose Adonil Tejada signing his loan forms and by his car

Jose Adonil Tejada stepped into our office with a quiet smile on his face. It was clear, though, that he had come with a purpose. He had arrived to discuss his loan of a molino, or corn mill, valued at 18,000 lempira. Our goal for the meeting was to talk over his plans and establish a schedule for repayment that would give him enough flexibility to grow his new business at the same time. 

The most incredible part of working with him was watching his mind work as he outlined his business plan with us. He explained that his clients would come to him with their corn for processing and that his family would then return the produce to them in the form of usable flour. He intends to charge clients one lempira per pound and expects daily revenues of L. 2 per family, thus generating a revenue of about L. 600 each month from it. Martir, one of UMF’s senior field agents, and I alternated between questioning him about how many clients he expected to have, what expenses he would have when running his business, and at what times during the year he expected to generate the greatest amount of revenue from this new endeavor. Don Tejada looked us straight in the eyes and answered all of our questions thoroughly. It was quite clear that he had already thought through many of these details, and our calculations revealed that it would indeed be a profitable business for him. In a society in which the simplest concept of saving money for future investments is still quite obscure, it was immeasurably exciting to hear about his plans and feel confident in his and his family’s ability to not only pay back the loan, but significantly improve their own lives. 

This loan marks an important milestone for Unión MicroFinanza. UMF’s goal has always been to provide the vehicle through which members of La Unión’s community can drive their own sources of livelihood. While fertilizer loans are helpful for farmers, UMF’s dream is for its clients to remain with us for enough years to finally build up enough credit to begin taking out substantial capital loans such as this one. In this way, they will be able to expand their businesses in a way they truly could not have in the past. Once Don Tejada pays off his loan for the corn mill, his family will have an entirely new source of revenue—one that will not only bring added security to them, but will also lend itself to increased opportunities for further investments in the future. As more clients begin to take out capital loans for mills, solar dryers, and other processing equipment, we are hopeful that we will be able to observe a significant leap in their businesses and in the communities in general. 

As an intern, I feel extremely lucky to be working with UMF at this critical moment and look forward to seeing Don Tejada again. My hope is that the next time we meet will be in La Ceibita Centro, at the site of his successful new corn processing business.

Written by Lennie Zhu
Photos by Lennie Zhu

Monday, June 18, 2012

Community: In Theory and in Practice

¡Hola! I'm Dillon, a sophomore at the University of Michigan and one of four UMF interns living in La Unión this summer.  Getting to know the other interns and the UMF employees has been very interesting, and I already feel a part of the UMF family. Whether it's jabs at my Notre Dame-attending roommate, Ben, for his school's inferior football and basketball teams (in the humble opinion of a Michigan Wolverine), in-depth philosophical discussions with anyone around on whatever topic of the day, or losing the dictionary game to Jeremy at the Comedor during lunch, the sense of fellowship here is extremely high.
And although this intra-organizational camaraderie is important, much more importantly, and impressively, is the togetherness between all of the UMF workers and the community of La Unión. I've volunteered with UMF for about the past year, so I've known for a long time that one of UMF's core values is to be a part of the communities that they partner with. However, it is one thing to know this value and another to see it lived out and be a part of it each and every day. I see this in practice in countless ways. When I walk down the street with Charlie it seems like every La Unión child below the age of 13 comes outside to yell "Carlitos!" Each time I've been over to the UMF house/office for dinner we've been joined by one or two of the kids from the local bilingual school, who are always encouraged to stop in. I've played volleyball with Hondurans, eaten dinner at their homes, gone to their church, and even have plans to make a cake later this week with a class of 3rd graders.
I am a firm believer that poverty is not strictly a monetary issue and am so proud that the organization I am interning with is not just a money-in, money-out microfinance institution for this reason. Poverty alleviation does not come about from simply increasing access to financial services, it comes from an all-encompassing approach which UMF offers. It's facilitating Community Partnership Programs from the United States–of which we are hosting multiple this summer.  It's partnering with the local bilingual school–the interns are going this week to speak with the 10th graders about university in the U.S.  It’s living within the population and conducting development in a way that is community-driven.  I’m excited to continue to be a part of this philosophy, and more excited to live it out each day.
¡Hasta luego!

Outside the Catholic Church in La Unión

Written by Dillon Horne
Photo by Lennie Zhu

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Week of Baleadas

This is my first time spending an extended period of time in a developing country, and I’d be lying if I said that life isn’t that different. There have been a lot of changes to adjust to, yet despite some of the challenges, it’s been well worth it for the amazing experience, the people I’ve met, and the many things I’ve learned already. We were picked up at the San Pedro Sula airport by Jeremy Miller, UMF’s Director of Honduran Operations, and Albin, our head of security, a Honduran man who we soon learned was both incredibly tough and very kind. During our three hour drive to La Unión, careening across lanes and maneuvering the hilly, potholed dirt roads with ease, he showed us pictures of his three children, the pride and love evident in his voice. 

Though the roads became worse the further we drove, the scenery and mountain views became more and more spectacular. In town the roads are all dirt (and, after a rain storm, all mud) and filled with holes and rocks. Walking down the street is always a challenge to find the least muddy route and to avoid the dogs, chickens, horses, motorcycles, trucks, and other passerby that are always traveling every which way. The houses are small and pretty, painted in bright shades of pink, yellow, and aqua. There are lots of flowering trees, and, of course, the constant views of the beautiful verdant mountains surrounding the village. 

I quickly learned to consider it a luxury rather than a fact of life to have both water and electricity at any given time. During my first week, there was one night when the water ran out mid-shower, and then the next night the power went out, leaving the shower pitch black. We learned to judge the usability of the water by whether washing with it would leave us cleaner or dirtier than we were before bathing. Cold showers are perfectly acceptable here, the question being whether our temperature choice would be icy, cold, cool, or, once in a while, lukewarm.  
Food too is always an adventure. At the airport I had my first baleada, a classic Honduran meal consisting of a tortilla filled with a combination of eggs, beans, cheese, avocado, and mantequilla (a mayonnaise-like sauce). It was really tasty, though baleadas were much less exciting when they became the standard daily lunch. At our local comedor (a small eatery), I eat a baleada for 10 lempira, the equivalent of a 50 cent lunch. Liquados are among my favorite food finds. Similar to the consistency of a frappacino, liquados are blended drinks made with ice, fresh milk, and whatever fruit is available, pineapple and watermelon are common at the present. I love being able to buy peeled and halved oranges at the fruit stand on the corner, and it’s become a part of my daily routine. 

Like anywhere, some people are more friendly than others, but, overall, the people we have met have greeted us with smiles and generous hospitality. Walking down the street we always greet the people we pass with a “hola,” “buenas,” or “adios.” Interestingly, I learned that “adios” can be used as a greeting for both hello and goodbye. Honduran children will often greet us with giggles and a series of “bye byes,” using the literal English translation. On our weekend trip to Gracias, a city about three hours south of La Unión and four times the size, I noticed that there were far fewer friendly greetings exchanged. The other interns and I appreciated the friendliness of our small town even more after comparing it to the “big city.”

There have been many changes to adjust to living in La Unión, but as we enter our third week here, I feel comfortable and at ease. Ben, Lennie, Dillon and I keep busy researching and assisting the Unión MicroFinanza staff and have enjoyed exploring the town, chatting with locals, and playing cards together in our free time. These first couple weeks have been great, and I am eager to learn more, continue to absorb the culture, and maximize the experience.

Standing on a rooftop in Gracias

Written by Natalie Clark
Photo by Lennie Zhu

Friday, June 1, 2012

Orlando: A Story of One and of Many

I saw Orlando today. He looked great. Happy. Vibrant. Gracious. He was Orlando as I knew him. It was beautiful to see my friend again. Though he had visited multiple times per week during the previous month, it had been too long since I had seen the real Orlando.

Just a month ago, he sat in our office devoid of life. His eyes were sunken and red, sorrow and fear dominating his emotions. This was not Orlando. It was obvious he hadn’t eaten or slept well in days. As we listened to him speak about the struggles facing his family and community, the worry in his voice was evident. He needed help. 
It was at that point we realized the situation in Chimizal was becoming desperate and that, if we didn’t intervene, no one would. After our conversation, Orlando made the hour-long trek back up the mountain from La Unión to Chimizal. He collapsed en route under the mid-day sun. It had taken his last ounce of strength to reach out one more time to his final hope for help.
Orlando’s reality was but one among far too many desperate situations in the villages surrounding La Unión in the weeks following the hailstorm of April 2, 2012. The resulting food crisis pushed these people, already living on the margins, over the edge. No matter how hard they worked, the huge obstacles they faced could not be overcome. 
Fortunately for Orlando and the people of Chimizal, San Agustín, and Lepagual, a community of people led by Michelle Noordhof, METAD, and their donors embraced these villages and saw that they didn’t have to suffer, for there were those capable of offering a hand in their time of need. This group of people showed the humanity that is oftentimes elusive in our world. Their initiative made all the difference at this critical moment in the life of Orlando, and that will never be forgotten.
Now there is again hope that better times may lie ahead. Fields are once again being tended, and the bean harvest is a mere 70 days away. The food aid that is being delivered will serve as a bridge through these tough times. Though Orlando lives in poverty by any economic measure, he feels rich today, and it shows. 
Orlando is smiling again. Thank you to everyone who helped ease the suffering of a deserving people. It was truly appreciated in ways I am unable to express.

Orlando Cantellano

Written by Jeremy Miller 
Photo by Lennie Zhu