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The Best of the 2012 Ambassadors

While most other “best of” lists usually hit the press around New Year’s, our calendar here at the Ambassadors Program is a bit different. With 16 new Ambassadors volunteers arriving at our Boston offices this Monday for their orientation training, we thought this week would be the perfect time to look back on some of the best posts from our 2012 Ambassador class.

1.)     In ‘A company with a difference’ by Jerry Brady, read how one social enterprise is making a difference for a group of people long excluded from the financial system: people with disabilities.

2.)    In ‘To be a woman is to…‘ by Kate McGrath, learn about the work of Génesis Empresarial and one of their most successful groups of women entrepreneurs.

3.)    In ‘Inside in the cold’ by Charlene Nemson, see what air conditioning means for development in the country.

4.)    In ‘Can we call him a social entrepreneur?‘ by Guila Angi, meet a client of Paraguay’s Financiera El Comercio and learn about his successful dairy business and the additional support he lends to other budding businesses in his community.

5.)    In ‘The stuff that doesn’t get lost in translation‘ by Asya Tabdili, find out how Accion is providing financial literacy training to thousands of entrepreneurs in India – by watching a video she created.

6.)    In ‘Mobile Money Part I (Strange Bedfellows) and Mobile Money Part II (Different Strokes)‘ by Abhishank Jajur, you can finally get the basics of mobile banking – in a fresh and clear way.

We’re about to kick off another great summer of stories from the field from around the world of microfinance – so stay tuned for the best of 2013 from Paraguay, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and India.

Kate headshot and bio

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The stuff that doesn’t get lost in translation

I came to India to document the stories of the women entrepreneurs I would eventually meet; but what I left with was so much more. Despite being lost in translation one too many times throughout my journey, there was one thing that needed no interpretation: the courage, strength, and gratitude that all these women entrepreneurs possess. These women instilled in me the necessity to take action instead of just make excuses.

It is easy to complain about our lot in life, but it is so much more rewarding and exhilarating to shape your own destiny. So let’s stop longing, and start doing. Let’s move forward in this New Year by taking small but steadfast steps in the direction of the life we’ve always wanted. Let’s be trailblazers in our communities just like these women — Bushra, DilshodPraveentaj, and Savitha, Manju and Sanguna. And why not? We have more to gain than to lose.

My final deliverable for the Dialogue on Business program is THIS VIDEO about the many inspiring women entrepreneurs I met this summer, I hope you enjoy it!

Signing off – Asya Tabdili!

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Learning a new skill to help pay the bills

María Dolores Valdéz, 35, and Nilda María Achucaro, 51, have been collecting and selling recyclable materials in northeastern Asunción’s Santa Ana neighborhood for eight years. It’s good work, says María, who does it with her husband, sister, and niece (who also works as a maid). They go out in the evenings with their horse and cart, and once a week a buyer comes to take their haul.

But for collecting around 400 pounds of plastic, aluminum and plastic bags per week, María and her crew only make between 200,000 or 250,000 guaraníes (about $50 to $60). Shared between the four of them, this puts each person below Fundación Paraguaya’s 2012 extreme poverty threshold of $78 per month. Nilda, who works the waterfront on foot since her cargo motortrike broke down, earns even less.

A horse and cart used to haul Maria's goods, during a re-shoeing in Santa Ana.

A horse and cart used to haul Maria’s goods, during a re-shoeing in Santa Ana.

When they joined Fundación Paraguaya’s clientele as leaders of the women’s committee Mujeres Valientes  (Courageous Women) a few years ago, María and Nilda started up a line of business and a new source of income: making and selling jewelry and embellished flip-flops. Continue reading

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Loan Officer as Mentor

How well do you know yourself? What do you consider yourself talented at? What dreams do you have?

These questions are ones that can easily put people on a thinking spree, but for the loan officers of Fundacion Paraguaya, these are the questions that they ask every day to the women’s committees with whom they work. A typical committee is made of around 12-17 women, and with such a large group, you are bound to see all kinds of personalities and a unique life story for each female member.

During the first few loans, the loan officer is the mentor to the group: she motivates the women to be entrepreneurial, to value their own ideas, and to understand the steps and start thinking about how to start a business, among other things. But as time passes, and the women repay and renew their loans, and start and improve their businesses, a mentor emerges from within the group and takes on the role of the committee president. Usually the president exhibits more security thanks to a higher than average education or income and this helps her lead others in the same route.

 How to get Josefa to smile? Continue reading

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Ever wonder where the other pair goes?

In the Fundación Paraguaya Microfinance Office, Alcira Añazco is working hard to receive some special visitors—and their luggage. If you’ve ever wondered where the other pair goes when you buy your Tom’s (the shoe company that donates one pair of shoes, for every pair purchased), here’s the scoop. In March, officials from Tom’s Shoes will be arriving in Asunción with a second shipment for the Fundación.

The first shipment came in July of last year, and Fundación Paraguaya loan officers have been busy distributing them to clients of the Womens’ Committees as one of the perks they receive beyond credit and support as borrowers. The two requirements for receiving a pair are to be part of a committee in good standing and to have a child under the age of 18 (who will receive the shoes). In addition, a pair went to every student at Fundación Paraguaya’s agricultural schools, where they are reportedly now high fashion, the thing to wear to parties and for visits home.

I first encountered this shipment of Tom’s in the trunk of Encarnación loan officer Liliana Lugo’s car as I went with her on her client visits. When I returned last week for a good-bye visit, I found all of the Encarnación team sporting Tom’s—a gift for the new year from Fundación Paraguaya.

The Encarnacion team all with their Toms shoes - these ones a gift from the Fundacion to its staff.

The Encarnacion team all with their Toms shoes – these ones a gift from the Fundacion to its staff.

The shoes that are coming in March are destined for even broader distribution. Besides arranging everything for their arrival, Alcira is also coordinating with Fundación Paraguaya’s Junior Achievement program for young entrepreneurs, Junior Achievement’s Aprender a Emprender en el Medio Ambiente program (roughly, “learn to be an environmental entrepreneur”), and outside collaborators Fundación Moises Bertoni (a conservation and sustainable development foundation) and Fundación Dequení (an anti-poverty foundation) to get the shoes on the feet of more young people in Paraguay.

Name block - Esther 3


My story with microfinance

While there will be more stories to come, I wanted to first share my own personal story… When I was a teenager I moved from grey, modern London to my mother’s homeland Monteria, the steamy and colorful North-West of Colombia, an area well-known for its music, literature and a tropical love of life. In England we were a small family of four, and in Colombia, once my youngest brother was born, we became part of an extended clan. Sundays now meant family lunches at my grandmother’s house, and sitting outside in the porch for afternoon gossiping with the neighbors.

Having lived in the flesh in both of these very different realities,  I soon became passionate about social and economic development in emerging countries. I wanted to contribute in some way but first I needed to understand the base of the social pyramid. While I lived in Bogotá I volunteered in Techo building houses in the slums and did research with my professors during my undergrad searching for sustainable solutions to overcome poverty in Colombia through access to financial tools and education. That is how I came to learn of Accion… Continue reading

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What does solidarity mean, anyway?

My time in Paraguay is winding down, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in Fundación Paraguaya’s microfinance headquarters, crunching the numbers I gathered in my office visits, working out what makes the women’s committees tick—and what doesn’t.

First, what are the women’s committees? They represent a way of borrowing working capital that’s different from the way you or I might do it. Instead of borrowing individually and guaranteeing the loan with collateral or your credit rating, clients in Fundación Paraguaya’s women’s committees borrow together and guarantee the loan primarily with their solidarity as a group.

So then, what is solidarity? It is actually a deceptively simple concept: the degree of integration between separate social groups.

But in a complex society, it is obviously more complicated than that. The traditional – familial – source of solidarity still exists (even with Fundación Paraguaya setting limits on family relationships within a committee). Plenty of grown sisters, sisters-in-law, cousins, mothers and daughters join a committee and borrow together. But in addition to just familial relationships, there are many other reasons  women join a particular committee too, like friendship, home or workplace proximity, shared history (such as being displaced by flooding from the Yacyretá hydroelectric dam in Itapuá), shared work activities, and even shared experiences borrowing from Fundación Paraguaya in the past.

So, if solidarity refers to the relationships within the group, it still has to manifest itself somehow. In the case of the women’s committees, if for some reason a member can’t pay her loan installments, the committee (using its petty cash fund or, in worse situations, its group savings) steps up to help her with her payment. The group is responsible as a whole for each individual loan. The vision is beautiful: a woman gets sick and her co-borrowers dip into the savings they’ve built together (though group activities like street parties, artisan fairs, food sales, and soap-making) to pay the loan installment that she can’t. They may help her out in other ways as well, such as buying her a basket of groceries and pitching in around the house. At its best, this is what solidarity look like within a women’s committee at Fundación Paraguaya.

But, as you may suspect, results, and circumstances, vary. Some groups realize this ideal situation of solidarity on their own and upon encountering their first problem, while others struggle to figure it out, and even still some groups never find an answer. If payment problems go on too long, the group’s savings (and spirit) suffer until they can’t cover the gaps anymore. Continue reading