Lori Ospina is Regional Program Officer for Grameen Foundation’s Latin America and Caribbean region.
When I began working at Grameen Foundation in August 2009, I was new to microfinance and was excited about becoming an expert in loan administration, portfolio management, social performance, livelihood developments — themes that had always grabbed my attention. One can imagine my surprise when after six months on the job, I realized I was quickly becoming an expert in Colombian labor law, tax liabilities and government requirements instead!
With the support of generous donors, Grameen Foundation began working in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) in 1999, but until recently had conducted all of its LAC-related activities from its headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 2009, the organization decided to decentralize and move closer to the areas where we operate, so we could support poverty-focused organizations and serve the poor more effectively and efficiently. Alberto Solano, Regional CEO for LAC, was in charge of opening the office, which would be in Colombia. He already had a full plate as the Regional CEO, so I was tasked with moving things forward. What a learning curve!
Today, Grameen Foundation is a fully registered international organization with an office in Medellín. Opening the office was an interesting journey. We navigated various Colombian agencies, including the Ministerio de Interior (Minister of Interior), the Camara de Comercio (Chamber of Commerce), and Dirrecion de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacioniales (Tax Authorities). Fortunately, we had tremendous volunteer support. The law firm of Brigard & Urrutia generously took us under its wings, educating and guiding us along the process. The attorneys there spent hours on end talking us through the processes we would need to go through, explaining immigration law and tax law and employment law over and over and over, in case we didn’t understand it the first time … which happened often!
Last December, I relocated to Medellín. We have now gone from being a two-person operation to a five-person team, made up of local staff, and we hope to continue growing. We are able to work closer to the organizations and poor people we support, and also have a better understanding of the lives of the clients we aim to serve.
Colombia is a dynamic country that is undergoing great changes. Despite all the advances being made here, there remains a huge need. Many Colombians in rural areas still live below the poverty line, and the majority of rural Colombians continue to lack access to financial services – a situation that remains true for many countries in Latin America as well. From our office in Medellín, we are well-positioned to understand the needs in Colombia, as well as in other Latin American countries, and – with the help of our supporters, who make all of our work possible – create customized solutions to address them.
There’s a new engine behind the microfinance and technology-for-development movements in Colombia and Latin America – Grameen Foundation. With this new office up and running, we’re ready to take our work in the region to the next level, for the benefit of the poorest. Stay tuned as we continue to report out about our work!