It’s a wrap!

Lagoon El Jocotal - El Salvador

I know I’ve been MIA for the last month or so. I have no excuses, I purposely did so just trying to soak in everything that was happening during my fellowship. I can’t believe my time in Central America is coming to an end. With that, I am saying my good-byes, and anxiously waiting for the time to board my flight.  I am so grateful for this time, the people I’ve met, and the lessons I’ve learned.

In Costa Rica I got to see a whole different picture from the one I saw in El Salvador. I also learned more about myself and what makes my heart beat faster.  I’ve learned that poverty has many faces, and it comes in many different colors and shades. I’ve also realized the power of human interaction, relationships do move the world at every level regardless of social-economic status. Here in Costa Rica I also realized that I this is the path I want to continue to explore. There is no settling, no going back. I’ve decided to stay put within social impact investing..so much to learn still, but very excited about being part of the future of this sector.

Even though the last few months have been incredibly rewarding, I am eager to get started on my next adventure. I have to thank you, family and friends, for your support all along. I can’t wait to grab a coffee and catch up. I don’t know how to put into words how much your support and confidence in this fellowship means to me.

On the way to Poaz volcano - Costa Rica

Since I started working with Fundacion Campo three months ago in El Salvador they have raised close $94,000 worth of loans.  That translates into 142 entrepreneurs whose projects/financial needs have been supported through Kiva. The average loan size is about $660, and it takes less than 10 days to fundraise on the site. I’m pretty proud of those stats! I trained close to 50 people, 4 branches, and visited clients in places where no other institution, other than Fundacion Campo, gets to.

As for Fundacion Mujer, I completed an audit which had been lingering for some time. The audit was crucial for Fundacion Mujer’s relationship with Kiva, as it is one of the ways that Kiva protects both borrowers and lenders. It’s one of the many elements that help make Kiva sustainable from an operational stand-point. I also met many amazing clients, women head of households who face incredible challenges every day to feed their families.

There was much more to my fellowship than those bits above.  But I’ll wait to share the rest in person.

See you all very soon. And once again, thank you!

Andrea

Next Stop: San Jose, Costa Rica

Well, my time in El Salvador is up. I have been able to accomplish a lot in my two months here in San Miguel, and I’ve met some wonderful people. But, I want more and Kiva has more work for me for the next couple of months in Costa Rica. I am very excited to share the news. Although, I am also a bit worried given the tight time frames I am working with and the never-ending rain here in Central America. My plan is to head for San Jose, Costa Rica sometime next week. No, I don’t even know where to buy my bus ticket – yes, I am hoping to get there after a 12 hr bus ride. I am keeping my fingers crossed for the rain to stop, so that I can take a bus instead of having to fly (10x more expensive!).

I am concerned about the living expenses, as Costa Rica is the most expensive place in Central America. But, I am so happy to see a new country, meet new people, and learn more about microfinance. Particularly, about the group methodology, which I have yet to see on the ground. I want to meet more clients, and see how I can help my new MFI implement Kiva more efficiently.

My time at Fundacion Campo has been incredibly productive, and I know my relationship with this amazing organization will go beyond my two months here. This is a bitter-sweet goodbye.

Never too late

Beautiful view on our way to a client visit

As many of you may know, Kiva borrowers come from all corners of the world, all ethnic backgrounds, all ages, marital status, etc. What they all have in common is an undying desire to improve their lives and the lives of their family. They all work really hard, day in and day out, and I have yet to meet someone who complains.  The hard work they put in every day doesn’t even compare to what many of us think of when we say we work hard.  To even begin to understand you really have to meet the people, see where they live, learn the stories. I’ll try to take you on that journey with my next few posts.

This month F. Campo’s fundraising goal on Kiva is twice as much as the prior month. This is their second month after going live on Kiva.org. This is all part of the process of becoming an active partner, and my workplan as a Kiva Fellow. This week I’ve drafted many profiles of male clients.  In particular, older men, well passed 45.  What amazed me the most is that at an age when most citizens of the “developed world” are thinking about not working, these folks are thinking of and creating new businesses. Not only that, they are pushing the envelope, making a ding in their world.  I know many would think that this is the case precisely because they live in impoverished communities, that if they had the choice they would choose not to work too. I beg to differ. Let’s take one of Fundacion Campo’s clients,  his name is Vidal.

Vidal with his corn field

Vidal is 56, and he is not your average farmer. He works as a day-worker at a farm during the 9 months of dry season here in El Salvador. During the other 3 months he is self-employed, and he cultivates an area of 14,000 sq meters of just corn. He lives near a river, so the soil is good. Vidal noticed that his neighbors, also farmers, did not take advantage of the good land. He also noticed that perhaps if they worked together they could all do a bit better. So, Vidal started a cooperative with his neighbors.  Through the cooperative all the farmers can get better prices for their supplies, negotiate prices to sell their corn, and also get technical assistance from agro-engineers provided by an NGO. Vidal is the founder and leader for the cooperative.

Since Vidal sees that the land is not being used to its full potential, he has decided to get a loan to do more with it. He has requested a loan to buy a water pump and PVC tubs to build an artisanal irrigation system for part of his crop. He will also buy seeds to grow vegetables and provide better nutrition for his family. Vidal believes that if he shows the other farmers that it can be done, they will be motivated to do the same.

I think Vidal is a pretty awesome guy.  While I redact some of these profiles* I am reminded that we have so much to learn from each other, regardless of where we live, the language we speak, or the size of our bank account.

Check out the stories of Fundacion Campo’s clients on Kiva, or join our newly created lending team! I’m sure you will be amazed what you can learn from reading these powerful stories, and you’ll want to help.

*The Kiva Coordinator and I draft the profiles in Spanish, apologies for the (sometimes) crummy translation. Kiva relies on volunteers to translate all profiles, and they’re often times not native Spanish speakers. More to come on who is the Kiva Coordinator.

Trough of disillusionment

I was told this would happen. I just didn’t know when or how it would come about. I think I’ve officially hit the “trough of disillusionment.” I’m having an off week..It started after a small mugging incident I had last Saturday. Thankfully nothing happened, I am OK and even got to keep all of my stuff. However, I feel a bit trapped due to the violence and criminal activity here in San Miguel. I know that what I am doing here is more important than any other work I could be doing at home. But yes, I miss my fiance, Sunday night football, and hearing my dog snore. The prospect of being trapped for the next 3 months due to safety concerns isn’t very uplifting.

During our week of training, the Kiva Fellows Program team told us about this very moment I am going through. The moment when everything was going to look dark and sad, and we would just wake up one day and say – “what the heck am I doing here?!” But I am not throwing the towel. I am seeing great progress here at Fundacion Campo, how we’ve gone from zero to more than $17K raised on Kiva. And that’s just the beginning. I still have so many clients to meet, and lessons to learn.

You Got Mail, and a Bday celebration

Hi there!

I’ve finally found a place where I could get myself some postcards for my awesome donors! Aaaand, also figured out where/how the mail system here in San Miguel works!

So, I’ve sent my first batch of postcards to my donors earlier this week. If all goes as planned, they should arrive in two weeks. Although the first thing they told me at the post office is that they don’t make any promises. Thus, I must just hope they will arrive. Once I see that they do make it to the States, I will send a second batch. If they don’t arrive, I will come up with another plan!

In other news, yesterday was my birthday. Oh yes, I am now 4 years away from 30! It was truly a great day to celebrate here in San Miguel. I couldn’t have asked for more. I got a cake, and tons of presents. I even got a box that my mom sent me all the way from Puerto Rico! I also got to celebrate with the family of a friend of mine, who has taken me as one of their daughters. We had a feast for dinner, and even the weather cooperated (it was not even hot, which is a miracle). It was also a great day when it comes to work. Loan officers have ramped up their Kiva work and we got loads of new client profiles to upload onto the Kiva.org site. My hope is that we will keep/increase this pace, so that Fundacion Campo can go from pilot to active by the time I leave the country. I still have so much more work to do… and got some ideas to give F. Campo some exposure (particularly around their community development work). They do so much more than micro-loans.

Bday dinner with my "adoptive" family

Huevos chimbos - these are like easter eggs, but filled with lil pieces of paper. They are then crashed on the head of the bday girl. aka, me.

To all of you who took a minute of your day to write to me, call me, Facebook me, or read this blog: THANK YOU!

Thank you for your support, all along. I couldn’t be on this adventure without you!

Much love,

Andrea

I love saying ‘cachiporras’

One of the best bands during the independence day parade in San Miguel

Last Thursday, September 15th, we celebrated Independence day here in El Salvador. However, El Salvador was not alone in the celebrations as Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua also had their own festivities.

I woke up bright and early on the 15th to get ready for the celebration. In San Miguel the celebration involves a parade that lasts from about 8 am till 2 or 3 pm. The parade is put out by the many schools in town, which have their own band, beauty queen, and “cachiporras.” In prior years the cachiporras were the main attraction, they are young girls (usually high school age) dressed in colorful costumes with really reaaaaally short skirts, and a truncheon in hand. Now, they  have lengthened the skirts, or wear shorts instead. Some schools opted for a less “traditional” approach, and their cachiporras used traditional Salvadorian costumes instead of the sexier ones. The cachiporras head the parade for each of their respective shcools, and perform a dance routine in front of the judges (who includes the city’s Mayor).

Cachiporras during the parade

Cachiporra in action!

I made it to the parade by 9 am with two friends who graciously agreed to come with me. San Miguel is an incredibly hot town, so soon after we got there we had to get hats that were sold on the street to help us cope with the sun. They were a sweet deal at $1 each!

Me (center) with friends (Dorian-left, and Jessica-right) during independence day parade

Student playing the drum for his school - hard work!

Less traditional cachiporras wearing traditional costumes

Pretty beauty queens - it was scorching hot!

More cachiporras in pretty costumes

For me, the main attraction were not the cachiporras, but the bands! As the day goes on, the bands/schools get better. So the longer you hang around, the better the show gets. These kids practice for months after school in order to learn their instrument for the parade. Although they are not taught to read music (only memorize their performance), they do such an awesome job under the scorching heat. I could only deal with the sun until about 1 pm, and even managed to get home with a pretty good tan!

In particular, I loved this one band that played the soundtrack for movies such as ‘Dirty Dancing’ and even the GaGa song ‘Just Dance.’ I tried to record their awesome music on the clip below.

Awesome band playing Dirty Dancing soundtrack from Andrea Ramirez on Vimeo.

Although no BBQ and no fireworks were part of the program, I had a blast on that day here in San Miguel. I am glad I was there to witness this important celebration, and got to share it with some great people.

So far, so GREAT!

Fundacion Campo Lending Team Picture

Hi guys, just a quick post to update you on the progress that my MFI, Fundacion Campo, has made on Kiva. I am very proud to say that out of the 12 loans we’ve posted on the last week and a half, we have raised 100% of the capital needed to fund 8/12 loans!!

The remaining 4 are currently fundraising on Kiva’s site.

Please consider making a small loan to a low-income entrepreneur in El Salvador through Fundacion Campo. To review Fundacion Campo’s clients on Kiva, you can click here. You can also join our newly created Lending Team for Fundacion Campo on Kiva.org!!

Thanks so much for your support!

Much love,

Andrea

Rural lending takes a whole new meaning

Fundacion Campo's HQ in San Miguel, El Salvador

On Tuesday I went to one of Fundacion Campo‘s branch offices in hopes of having the chance to go meet a couple of clients. This branch is located about 1.5 hrs from Fundacion Campo’s main office. Once there, we met the loan officers, Daniel and Nelson. This branch has been in operation for the last 4 months, and have approximately 150 clients. They have aggresive growth targets, so Daniel and Nelson are very busy men. So busy that they actually are living at the branch office. They get back to the office so late after visiting their clients that it is just easier for them to stay there.

So off we went to visit the first client. I was told we would have to walk about 20 minutes. I said, ‘No problem, I need the excersice!”  I had no clue what I was talking about. We drove about 20 minutes up the mountain, and parked on the side of the main road. Nelson was driving his bike, as he had another client to visit later on in a community far away. Daniel came with me and a member of the management team in the car. Loan officers travel by motorcycle, all over the region, all day, every day. Not to mention this region can be incredibly hot at times, and incredibly rainy during this time of the year. Daniel and Nelson get to work every day, regardless of the weather.

We parked, and then the journey stated. We walked into what looked to me like just like overgrown grass. I saw a little house in the back and thought – “Oh, we made it.” Wrong. The overgrown grass turned into a forrest, and we walked down a norrow path that seemed to have been made from just the traffic of people walking back and forth. Then, came a hill, and the rocks, and the slippery slope. I didn’t have the right shoes for the job, but I still went for it. Daniel probably thought I was Rambo and didn’t bother to check if I was making my way ok. So Nelson and my boss told him to at least give me a hand. I told Daniel he owed me some pupusas (a staple of Salvador’s cousine) for leaving me behind, and not telling me the truth about where we were going.

And now, we get to the river. I am in shock as I did not know there was a river involved. As soon as I realized what was happening I took out my camera and shot the clip below. The boys thought they’d surprise me with the adventure and I loved it! I moved from one rock to the next with some help from Daniel. We made it to the other side where we met a woman who was doing her laundry in the river. Another hill and some climbing later, we made it to the “canton” where the client lives. “Canton” is the name given to the neighborhoods out in the country side. In urban areas they are called “colonias.” In a canton there are no street names, nor do the houses have a number assigned. Loan officers figure out where their clients live by the references that the communal credit committee gives them (if a new client) when they submit the loan application on behalf of the borrower.

Crossing the river from Andrea Ramirez on Vimeo.

Once there, we met with Juana. Juana is one of Daniel’s newest clients, and she was applying for a loan to be able to buy more products for sale – which she sells by foot, going from one canton to the other. Juana is a single mother, and a true business woman. When she saw that her canton nor the ones around the area had a place for people to shop for groceries, she thought she had a market opportunity. She travels to a major town to buy the cheese and sour cream she sells. She wakes up at 4 in the morning, leaves her son with her sister, and takes on the same river-crossing, slippery slope journey I described above. It’s dark at that time of the day. If it rains, the river grows. There are no bridges to cross. But Juana does this every day, and gets to her supplier by 5 am to buy 30 lbs of cheese. She then goes home, and portions the 30 lbs into 1lb bags, which she then sells going around a couple of communities by foot. Some times she takes her son with her. She starts selling at 8 am and gets back home by 2 pm. So far her business is going great, she sells all of her product and has a pretty good margin of $0.9 per pound (based on the price she pays and what she sells the cheese for). Juana does not complain about the difficulties involved with doing her job. She is glad she has the opportunity to have her own venture and provide for her son..And she has plans for the future. She is getting a loan to also try to introduce other basic products such as beans, rice and cooking oil. If all goes well, she would like to have a little store out of her home, where people can come to shop – rather than her selling them by going to the cantones by foot. Juana also told me that the most important thing is to save. She saves diligently every week, and knows those funds are untouchable.

I cannot express how much I learned from Juana, Daniel, and Nelson that day. I thought I knew what the job of a loan officer was, and what it involved. I really had no clue. I thought I knew what rural lending looked like – again, my imagination fell short. I’ve been inspired by their work ethic, determination, and positive attitude. Juana’s story will be one of the first borrower profiles you will see on the Kiva’s site under Fundacion Campo.

I invite you to join the new lending team I’ve created for Fundacion Campo, and consider making a small loan to one of our clients. Fundacion Campo is an awesome organization doing incredible work, with incredibly hard working clients.

Make a loan. Help change lives.

Thanks for reading!

The eagle has landed!..6 days ago

Hi there! sorry I haven’t been able to blog as much as I’d like. I’ve been pretty busy since I arrived here in El Salvador. I have already delivered 3 training sessions to loan officers to introduce them to Kiva, how Kiva works and what is their role in the process.  I have also been dealing with finding a place to live, the hotel that Fundacion Campo had reserved for me is a bit pricey. Also, immigration only gave me 30 days to stay in El Salvador. So, I need to find a way to stay legally for another 3 months!

In the meantime, I’ve had time to do one other thing in addition to the above – EAT! I’ve written a quick entry for the Kiva Fellows blog, which you can check out as of tomorrow at 8 am PST.

I promise to get back to you with more details about my life and work in El Salvador with Fundacion Campo in the upcoming weeks.

Much love,

Andrea

Hello El Salvador!

I have arrived at beautiful El Salvador! I arrived on Monday at about noon time (been here 3 days). Things are going well so far, I still have lots to learn and figure out..but one day and one thing at a time.

To recap, when I arrived in El Salvador they wouldn’t let me through at immigration. Because I didn’t have the address of the place where I was going to be working (i.e., Fundacion Campo), they didn’t believe I came to work as a volunteer for 4 months in San Miguel (the town where I’m living) at a microfinance organization. The immigration officer had to walk out of the airport to look for the guy that was picking me up. After all, the immigration officer only have me a 30 day “visa.” I need to figure out what I need to do to be here for another 3 months legally.

Things in general are going great, at my MFI the staff has been incredibly welcoming and cooperative with all of my work thus far. I’ve made a couple of friends who even helped me to get a cellphone (which I couldn’t get on my own since I am not a citizen here).

I still need to figure out a more permanent living arrangement. I am in a nice little hotel, close to the office. But this can get pricey.Also, it’s not safe for me to have to go out for dinner on my own.  I’m hoping I can be somewhere else next week.

Thank you all for your support, I’ll be writing more interesting posts as I get more situated here in San Miguel.

Andrea

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