You sell what? Microfinance and health foods

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

Sometimes context is everything. If you met someone making muesli, granola and other fibre products in San Francisco or Berlin, you might not be all that surprised. But if you take away the context of coffee culture, media types and brunch and replace it with Barranquilla, a port town with an image problem on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, things start looking different. Oh, he’s also a microfinance borrower. Not exactly what you’d expect.

A street scene in Me Quejo. An unlikely location for health foods.

Earlier in the week, I took a trip with a loan officer from FMSD to meet Gustavo in Me Quejo—incidentally I’d been looking forward to a trip to this barrio since I arrived as it means “I complain” which makes it my favourite barrio name in all Barranquilla (see here for more background). Gustavo is one of the most unique Colombians I’ve met in my months here: in a land of meat, rice and soup, he’s been a vegetarian for the past thirty years. He gave up selling products like shampoo seven years ago and used his understanding of vegetarian food to start a natural food business with little more than a casserole dish and a great idea. Years later, Gustavo’s business is still small and based in one room, and he’s found a market selling his products to vegetarian restaurants and natural food shops—I had no idea these existed in Barranquilla either. But what really set him apart for me were his ambitions to expand the brand he’s created to break into supermarket chains and to start selling his products in gyms in Barranquilla. I was struck that this was 1) an excellent idea and that it was 2) achievable if he has access to the capital required. If he achieves his dreams (and I hope he does) it would be yet another example of the interplay between formal and informal economies that characterizes so many developing countries and the juxtaposition of rich and poor that’s more marked in Latin America than other regions: it’s these differences that I find one of the most disorienting aspects of living in the developing world.

Gustavo in his kitchen.

Gustavo shows us where he makes his granola products.

As we left I took a moment to think about a bizarre intersect that I never thought I’d see: Whole Foods and microfinance. There was part of me that was stunned by the fact that a microfinance borrower was working in the health foods business, an industry often associated with overpriced snobbery. And then I realized that I was looking at things from my own cultural context and not seeing the bigger Colombian picture and realized that Gustavo was one of those microfinance entrepreneurs we all love to read about: someone with an innovative idea who only had the resources to get it off the ground with microcredit.

And at the end of the day, isn’t this what microfinance and Kiva is all about? It’s about giving these people the chance to grow their businesses.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

Celebrating Carnaval in South America, Kiva Fellows Style!

This is a repost from my section of a blog on Kiva Stories from the Field, for the full blog including Ecuador and Bolivia, click here. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

Rob Packer, KF10, Colombia

Every year, Barranquilla hosts one of the world’s largest carnivals—also the biggest festival in Colombia. For the four days of Carnavales and the weeks of Precarnavales before, the city comes to a standstill as various roads are closed to be filled with brightly-coloured, traditional carnival characters and cumbiamberos (cumbia dancers).

Having lived in Barranquilla for just over a month, everything has been building up towards Carnaval for the past month: there are borrowers at the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo who derive almost all of their annual income from producing items for Carnaval, and there are borrowers I’ve visited who’ve decorated their house with carnival characters or have part of their business based on the Carnaval.

The part of Carnaval that I’ve enjoyed most has been the letanías: something I’d never heard of until I arrived in Barranquilla. These are minstrel-like improvised satirical rhymes with subject matters ranging from international politics to the appearance on the onlookers, told by groups of around five people who accompany Carnaval parades. Often crude, full of costeño words and local and national news of the last year you might not have heard of, they can often be quite hard to understand: unless they’re about something you know. In the spirit of Barranquilla’s Carnaval, the staff at FMSD wrote their own letanía about what had happened over the past year, and here’s the section on Kiva:

El Carnaval es goza y goza
Y toda la gente está muy activa
Y hasta metemos en la recocha
Al man que vino con Kiva.

Ese man es gente buena
Pero le vamos a echá maicena

El de Kiva no se baja en un hotel
Tiene miedo hay gente tesa
Y es por eso que Liney
Le tiene alquilá una pieza

De día lo lleva donde sea
Y de noche le gatea

Al Kiva le gusta le lealtad
Del microempresario, también su garra
Y eso que no fue al mío en Soledad
Pa que meta butifarra

Que busque su Sisben de inmediato
Porque va a parecer un pato


Carnival is all enjoyment
And everyone is very active
And we even make a mess
With the guy who came from Kiva.

This guy is a good person
But we’re going to throw flour at him

The Kiva guy doesn’t stay in a hotel
He’s scared there are difficult people
And that’s why Liney has
Rented him a room

She takes him here and there by day
And at night he’s on curfew

He likes the loyalty
Of the entrepreneur, and their grit
And he didn’t even go to mine in Soledad
To have butifarra

He should get his social security
Before he starts looking like a duck

Day in the Life: Barranquilla Carnival – ¡Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza!

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

The motto of Barranquilla’s Carnival, or Carnaval in Spanish, is ¡Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza! (literally, “Anyone who lives it, is who enjoys it”). Over the past month, life in Barranquilla has been turned upside down as people live and enjoy the start of the Carnival season. Since the Lectura del bando on 16th January, when an edict is read out to residents ordering them to have fun, there have been precarnavalero parades at least once a week culminating on Saturday with the start of four days of cumbia, vallenato and salsa with crowds soaking each other with water, dusting each other with maize flour and spraying each other with foam. Everything you’d expect from what is widely regarded as South America’s second largest carnival after Rio and Colombia’s largest festival—and in a country with a reputation for rumba (partying).

As Barranquilla’s most famous daughter, Shakira once said ¡Mira, que en Barranquilla se baila así!

An advantage of being a volunteer in a city with such an enormous and inclusive event is that you can really take part: through friends and the organization I’m working with here, I’ve been able to take part in a comparsa, a group that dances in a parade and have been given an insight into the storytelling traditions of Barranquilla’s Carnival and Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The folclor of Carnival has become one of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of carnival: the musical and story-telling traditions of the Caribbean coast permeate the festival and have their own cast of characters. Here are a couple of examples:

* In the comparsa I took part in, we were all dressed as monocuco, a masked, veiled and hooded character based on stories from colonial times of rich gentlemen disguising themselves so they could pursue women from lower classes.
* This year’s symbol of Carnival is the coyongo dance, where the participants wear enormous cones with bird’s beaks and their dance symbolizes birds being chased by a hunter: the people saw their own exploitation at the hands of the Spanish mirrored in the dance of the bird and hunter.

The part of Carnival that I’ve most enjoyed though is the letanías, groups of minstrels dressed as university professors with scripted or improvised rhymes that subvert and criticize everything in Barranquilla from political figures to individuals who just happen to be watching. The tradition began as a way for barranquilleros to let off steam. I love it for its inventiveness and because they speak a brutal and honest truth; barranquilleros regard the letanías as the true personification of the spirit of Carnival—four days when normal rules are turned on their head.

How to Annoy a Colombian

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10, Colombia

The easy answer to this question is that there is a wide range of ways to annoy a Colombian. And after having been in Colombia for a month, a lot of them are starting to annoy me too.

One of these grievances is that Colombia must be one of the most consistently misspelt countries in the world. Having just come from Kyrgyzstan, which is part of a region of hard-to-spell countries, it came as a bit of a surprise that a lot of my friends seem to think I’m in Columbia, South Carolina, not South America. For the record, there are lots of places called Columbia, including a university in New York, a province in Canada, a river in the Pacific Northwest, and a huge number of cities across the US; but none of these places are countries in South America—that’s Colombia.

Another complaint is that the image of Colombia as a dangerous and drug-filled place is one of the few to leave the country. While no-one can convincingly claim that Colombia has the crime level of Switzerland or that there is no involvement in the global drugs trade, the Colombia of the headlines from the West is one that I have yet to see—and am in no hurry to do so. One of the things that saddens a lot of my Colombian friends here is that some people visit Colombia and still talk about it in terms of headline formulae. I’m at a loss to explain how tourists leave with this opinion in the face of some of the friendliest people on the planet and the natural beauty of the country: it’s as if they had visited another country.

The thing that’s annoying us most at the moment in the FMSD office in Barranquilla is the fleet of burger vans that circle through the centre of Barranquilla offering la típica hamburguesa americana (the typical American hamburger). Every afternoon, the mixture of barranquillero carnaval music and traffic is shattered by the shrieks of something I can only describe as sounding like a Sesame Street character. The thing about these burgers is that at 2,000 pesos (about US$1) they’re very, very cheap and the most recognizable part of the recording is the Sesame Street character shouting “¿A cómo?” (“How much?”). In fact, in the six months that the ¿A cómo? vans expanded onto the streets of Barranquilla—the concept is originally from Bogotá according to my colleagues—it has become something of a local fascination. For example, I overheard a radio phone-in yesterday where the presenter was saying ¿A cómo? every time he didn’t hear what one of the callers was saying; and from what I’ve been told, there will be plenty of jokes about it as part of Barranquilla’s Carnival next week (South America’s second largest after Rio).

So turn up the volume, enjoy the advert of the ¿A cómo? van as Liney, the Kiva coordinator has a look around the van, and then imagine hearing this about fifty times in an afternoon.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

Living in Two Worlds at Once

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

One side of volunteering sometimes not spoken about is the desire to see the country you’re in—it makes you sound like a tourist and you came to Latin America to do something more. I personally think that it’s fine to see the country in your time off: you’ve chosen Latin America over another part of the world and if you’ve paid for the ticket yourself, they don’t come cheap.

The view over the weekend version of Cartagena.

Life as a volunteer makes things difficult though. Most volunteering on the continent will involve visits or contact with lower-income areas; however, it’s more unlikely that these people are going become your friends while you’re in-country. They will likely be higher-income locals or tourists. And your desire to see the country will take you to more sanitized parts of the country. As a friend who’s just finished with Kiva in Ecuador said, it’s “like you’re living in two worlds at once.”

Over the past week, I’ve seen completely different faces of Bogotá and Cartagena. After a weekend with friends in some of Bogotá’s nicer barrios, I spent a morning in the foundation’s office there before heading to south Bogotá to meet Kiva borrowers. There was something exhilarating about riding the TransMilenio, Bogotá’s metrobus, to areas a lot of bogotanos and even fewer tourists would ever enter. Cartagena, though, was much more extreme. I stayed with a Colombian friend in an area by the beach more like Miami than Colombia, and spent an afternoon wandering around the beautiful old city. The contrast couldn’t have been greater with what I’d seen during the week in Cartagena: meeting a displaced woman in a squatter settlement and hearing stories first-hand in former guerrilla areas outside of the city.

This divide takes a lot of getting used to and I’m not sure how to reconcile them. When I arrived back in Barranquilla, I grabbed dinner at the local pizzeria and started talking with the owner. He told me that the lack of contact between the parallel societies is what contributes to Colombia’s subdesarollo (underdevelopment, a word repeated all too often here). I don’t agree with his theory: there are too many examples of this in developed countries. What is does say, though, is that looking the other way is not the way to get used to the divide.

¡Por Fin, Me Quejo!

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

If you’re not a Spanish speaker, the title means “At last, I complain.” No, this doesn’t mean my Kiva Fellowship placement in Barranquilla, Colombia has gotten off to a sticky start. It’s from a sign we saw while on a journey around the city to get our bearings earlier in the week.

The sign was actually directions to two barrios of Barranquilla, one called Por Fin and the other called Me Quejo. Barranquilleros seem to enjoy pointing out their—often crude—sense of humor and this is an example. The reason for these names is like two sides of the same coin: these are depressed areas of Barranquilla that lacked public utilities for a long time. While the people from Me Quejo se quejaban (complained) that they didn’t have water or electricity, the more optimistic people of Por Fin celebrated every time a utility was connected: “At last we have water! At last we have electricity!”

As a Kiva Fellow in Barranquilla, a large part of my time here will involve visiting poorer areas of the city, in order to meet microfinance borrowers and to see the effects of microfinance loans on their lives. It was this kind of direct connection with people on working hard to succeed in the face of poverty that originally brought me out an investment banking bubble into the nonprofit sector. My previous placement with Kiva was based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and I’m looking forward to seeing the differences in volunteering in very different parts of the world. Part of me hopes that the optimist-pessimist streaks of different barrios continue, but I think that, like in Central Asia, the real interest factor will be the borrowers I meet and each one’s individuality.

Microfinance: One industry, multiple methods

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

Microfinance is commonly seen as the exclusive territory of non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). While there are a lot of non-profits on the Kiva platform, there is also a fair number of for-profit MFIs and additionally, a lot of the non-Kiva money coming into microfinance is returns-driven (i.e. investment for profit). Whether it’s interest charged on a loan from a bank, the spread required for philanthropic financing by national or supranational governments, or the more apparent return sought by microfinance investment firms, there is an implicit profit motive in microfinance that touches all areas of the industry. Does a for-profit MFI with a strong social mission automatically cause lower levels of development because the ultimate aim of the company is profit? As is always the case in microfinance, the answer is “it depends”, but from my experience in Kyrgyzstan, I don’t see that microfinance and for-profit are mutually exclusive. In all the discussion of whether for-profit or non-profit organizations are better, there is an important point that is often overlooked. The main struggle for an MFI is not how much of a profit they make, but whether they break even.

Leonardo, barber and FMSD client - and coming soon to Kiva.

I’ve now spent two weeks with my new MFI, Barranquilla-based Fundación Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD), which is also Kiva’s first field partner in Colombia. The difference in temperature and ambience between the cold of Kyrgyzstan and the warmth of Colombia’s Caribbean coast is obvious enough, but the differences between these two MFI’s as institutions are almost equally as astounding. While Mol Bulak Finance is a for-profit institution working mainly with women in group loans, FMSD is a philanthropic foundation started by the Santo Domingo family, one of Colombia’s richest, with a microfinance department that lends primarily to individuals in the urban areas of Barranquilla, Cartagena and Bogotá. And while a large number of Kiva’s field partners have been in existence for less than a decade, FMSD will be celebrating its fiftieth year in 2010, although it hasn’t included a microfinance unit for all that time.

FMSD Client Lila Rosa, who's been with the Foundation for 12 years

Visiting Rosario, another FMSD client who has been a client for 9 years. She only moved into her shop over the last few years with help of FMSD.

From what I’ve seen over the past week, FMSD inspires an incredible amount of loyalty from its staff, a lot of whom have been with FMSD for around twenty years—a rarity in the microfinance industry. You can find a similar loyalty in terms of the clients: on a visit to meet borrowers this week, we met some who have been clients of FMSD for up to ten or fifteen years and I’ve met other borrowers who have now been registered as businesses in Barranquilla’s chamber of commerce.  It’s hard not to be impressed. At the same time, FMSD run a wide range of free vocational training programmes: while I was waiting for the bus with my Kiva Coordinator last week, a passer-by stopped to say hello to FMSD’s Kiva Coordinator—he’d taken a course as a baker at FMSD and now had a job as a baker around the corner from the Foundation. Perhaps one of the most impressive parts of FMSD’s work was part of the same visit to entrepreneurs when afterwards we went to Villas San Pablo, a housing community being built on the outskirts of Barranquilla with assistance from a number of international organizations, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as the Colombian government. The scale and vision of the project is impressive: to construct a community of 20,000 homes to allow the poor from all over the department of Atlántico to have their own home for the first time. A visit to the site at the moment is a strange experience as it’s still under construction: there are lots of vacant lots and a few streets of single-storey buildings with the sound of reggaeton from a lot of the houses. The majority of the inhabitants are people who aren’t able to move out of their parents’ home for financial reasons, people who are living in rented accommodation or people from other parts of Colombia displaced by the armed conflict that needs no introduction. The houses are built with a joint loan between FMSD and the Colombian government and have been designed to be constructed using a modular method: each room of the house can be built separately depending on the family’s resources. It’s going to be interesting to see how it progresses.

A street in Villas San Pablo.

Explaining Villas San Pablo.

A resident of Villas San Pablo.

Two of the men who make the building materials for Villas San Pablo. They got a loan from FMSD to be able to contribute to building the community.

It looks like it’s going to be an interesting few months and I’m looking forward to working with Kiva’s first partner in Colombia. And with the tradition of story-telling on Colombia’s Caribbean coast ranging from Barranquilla humour past the bawdy letanías of Barranquilla’s Carnival to the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez, I can already tell that meeting the borrowers is going to be a highlight of my time here.

Welcome to the Kiva family, Colombia!

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

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