Archive for the ‘Travelogue’ Category

Give and You Shall Receive: My Week in the Philippines

August 14, 2012

Estelle Martinson is a Bankers without Borders® (BwB) volunteer who recently returned from a project in the Philippines. A Six Sigma Black Belt, Estelle began her career working as a business analyst in information technology, and is currently a credit risk manager at Standard Bank, where she has worked for 10 years. She also has experience in the fields of disability, computer literacy, adult education and community development.

As I sat sipping some lemongrass tea, one of the many gifts I brought back home with me from my trip to the Philippines, I reflected on the series of events that led me there, and what the experience meant to me.

On the plane, someone asked me, “What motivated you to go?” That was pretty easy to answer. I am a banker, and the vision of microfinance – a world without poverty – is something I support passionately, so I grabbed the opportunity to get involved with an organization working in microfinance when it presented itself.

My interest in microfinance started when I was exposed to Grameen Bank’s work during a leadership training session at my organization. I expressed my interest in microfinance to a friend who, three years later, e-mailed me a volunteer project, saying, “This is really you – have a look at it and see if you’re interested.” Of course I was interested!

BwB volunteer Estelle Martinson (second from right) rides by water back to town after visiting one of RSPI's 25 branch offices with staff members (from left) Alice, Paul and Jeannette.

BwB volunteer Estelle Martinson (second from right) rides by water back to town after visiting one of RSPI’s 25 branch offices with staff members (from left) Alice, Paul and Jeannette.

I joined BwB and signed up for a project with Rangtay sa Pagrang-ay, Inc. (RSPI), a 25-branch microfinance organization that has been operating in the Philippines for the past 25 years, to train their research department in reviewing operations through “process mapping.”


The Ultimate (Social) Performance Review: Impact in India

September 30, 2011

Dr. Marcela Gutierrez recently returned from India, where she completed a Bankers without Borders® volunteer assignment for a 10-branch microfinance organization. Dr. Gutierrez used her skills and expertise to help the organization evaluate how their program helps the poor.

My interest in microfinance started when I first heard about Kiva on National Public Radio. Next, my daughter, a sociology student, took a class on microfinance, visited programs in the Dominican Republic and Belize, and taught me a lot about how microfinance institutions (MFIs) operate. I started researching opportunities to work as a consultant in program monitoring and evaluation, but I wasn’t getting much traction. But when I contacted Grameen Foundation, they told me about Bankers without Borders volunteer consulting opportunities and I signed up. I was later approached to help an MFI in West Bengal, India, develop a survey to understand the social impact of their loans to women borrowers.

Designing the survey strategy

Marcela & the MFI team designing the survey

I agreed to take on the project … and then started to panic. I was skeptical that, in just five days, we could accomplish the goals we had set for ourselves. I had no idea what the evaluation capacity of an MFI based in India would be, and assumed it would not be very strong since their main focus was on making loans. In preparation for the assignment I searched for pre-existing tools we could adapt to the MFI’s needs, and the week before I left for India I found a good match.

With the dedicated participation of the MFI’s executive director, in the first two days of my visit, we drafted a 24-question survey using the template I brought. Next, we took the draft survey to a branch office and tested it with five clients – which involved a five-hour round-trip train ride to the village in the midst of the monsoon season! Once back in the office, we worked on strategy for the next phase – a quasi-experimental study that would ultimately involve 450 clients and non-clients. When I left Kolkata, we had a clear plan for finalizing and translating the survey, training data collectors, drawing randomized samples, and dealing with data entry and analysis. All of this was accomplished in just five days, with a little time left over to wet my feet in the Ganges River!

Marcela in Kolkata

Marcela in Kolkata

After returning home, I reflected on this phase of the project and realized that my original concerns about the MFI’s evaluation capacity had been unfounded.  That said, I had been wise to come prepared rather than re-inventing the wheel in the field. I found my work with the MFI very productive, rewarding and fun. Most important, I learned that people who work in microfinance – with the poorest clients – are dedicated, determined, selfless and will not take “no” for an answer. I am looking forward to finishing the project working with the team in Kolkata now that I know no matter how much I push them on something, their answer will always be, “No problem, Marcela!”

Mobility and Microfinance in Kenya

August 11, 2011

Kim Kerry-Tyerman is a volunteer for Grameen Foundation’s Bankers without Borders® initiative who was based in Ghana and Kenya for eight weeks to help the BwB team develop relationships with local organizations (companies, associations, microfinance clubs and institutions of higher education) there.  She recently posted a blog about her experience working in Kenya; an excerpt from that post is below, with a link to the full post.  If you’d like to read her first two postings about her BwB experience in Ghana, you can read Part 1 and Part 2.

Many find it difficult not to be condescending about Africa. Some might argue that referring to 54 diverse countries with thousands of cultures as “Africa” alone is demeaning, and yet it happens every day (just look at my blog address). Footage of kids with big bellies and stories of corruption seem to be the only stories to travel across the ocean, and they are typically only salvaged by some agency telling the world not to worry, they’re working on it. No, I am not immune. I’ve been known to lament the inefficiency of “Africa” while sitting in Nairobi’s unbearable congestion or one of Accra’s power outages. At the same time, I feel fortunate to tell a story that I hope will travel across these borders and demonstrate that “Africa” is indeed a place of innovation and hope.

Exhibit at the National Museum in Nairobi.

Nairobi is one of the continent’s star children: the one who may place third in the spelling bee but won’t mind because she has a good shot at winning the science fair competition. The region serves as a lab for innovative ideas, and the microfinance sector here is a great example. Like Ghana, each MFI in this region has varying models of delivery and a unique portfolio of products. Unlike Ghana, every MFI in this region has a website. Is this a key indicator of success? Surely not, but it indicates that microfinance is a visible and competitive industry here. Microfinance institutions here are not asking “what can we do?”, but “how can we do more?” For them, it’s not just about lending money. It’s about finding ways for that money to create things that generate a larger return for the community. Two trends have emerged here to ensure that microfinance is doing just that: mobile services and partnerships.

>> Read Kim’s full blog post

Experiencing Microfinance in Ghana, Part II

July 19, 2011

Kim Kerry-Tyerman is a volunteer for Grameen Foundation’s Bankers without Borders® initiative, based in Ghana and Kenya for eight weeks to help the BwB team develop relationships with local organizations (companies, associations, microfinance clubs and institutions of higher education) there. She recently posted a blog about her experience working with another BwB volunteer on behalf of Grameen Ghana, helping to implement a financial-modeling approach by Grameen Foundation that we hope to replicate at microfinance institutions (MFIs) throughout the world; an excerpt from that post is below, with a link to the full post.  If you’d like to read her first posting about her BwB experience in Ghana, you can find it here.

I’ve been counting down the days to this.  Not that thunderstorms, tigernut cocktails and weekend stays at oceanside eco lodges haven’t kept me busy – my stay in Ghana has been a fascinating combination of experiences both new (opening a coconut with a machete) and surprisingly normal (watching too many episodes of “The New Adventures of Old Christine” while dogsitting for a friend).  But I’m not here just to drive around with locals to chop bars with dancehall music blaring out the open windows to join in the cacophony of Accra streets.  Certainly part of the fun, but not the goal.

I’ve been talking up the Bankers without Borders program to MFIs across Accra, and this is finally my chance to watch it in action.  Grameen Foundation asked me to shadow a BwB project for a partner MFI called Grameen Ghana in the northern city of Tamale (surprisingly no affiliation despite the shared namesake).  A volunteer from an investment bank in NYC, Noah, is delivering training on a new financial model over a 4-day assignment.  This is only the second time this Grameen Foundation model has been passed on to another MFI, but BwB hopes this will eventually lead to a standard for financial projections across the industry.

On the Road to Tamale, Ghana.

On the road to Tamale, Ghana.

My role on the project varies depending on who you talk to.  BwB would like me to evaluate the project from both volunteer and client perspectives with an objective third eye.  Not having a chance to introduce myself during the kick-off meeting with the MFI, however, gave the director the opportunity to task me with a different role.  “And Noah has brought this pretty woman,” he announced to the team, “so everything we do will be prettier.”  Challenge accepted.

Read the rest of Kim’s blog post >>

It’s Gonna Be Ghana: Out in the Field

May 9, 2011

Lynda Barton is spending six months volunteering with MOTECH Ghana through Grameen Foundation’s global volunteer corps, Bankers without Borders. This is Part II of a two-part series. If you haven’t yet, you can read part 1.

I’m in my fourth week now and have had the opportunity to visit our field sites in the Upper East Region of Ghana to see Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Technology for Community Health (MOTECH) initiative in action.  These are some of the most remote areas in Ghana, where MOTECH really makes a difference for expecting mothers.  We visited 12 facilities during my three days in the field, interviewing nurses and midwives at each location to collect their feedback regarding “Mobile Midwife,” the MOTECH mobile application that they have been using.

I was absolutely humbled by the dedication of these nurses and midwives and how they manage to work with so few resources available to them.  One of their greatest concerns is their fuel allotment for the month.  If they have too many follow-ups at patients’ homes for that month they run out of fuel and can’t afford to do more visits — not to mention the long hours they must put in to finish the paperwork that is required at the end of each month.  Most of these nurses and midwives work very long hours and weekends. MOTECH and the efficiencies it provides should help them in the future, if all of their client data can be uploaded electronically via the mobile phone application, because their paper registers will no longer be needed.

Woman in office

Lynda working in Grameen Foundation's Ghana office.

This project is amazing since no two days are the same and I’m able to contribute to so many different things. Day two in the field was mostly devoted to shooting video footage of expectant mothers who are using the Mobile Midwife application, asking them about their experience and how it has helped them so far during their pregnancy.  We interviewed one mother’s husband, who was impressed with the program and often listens to the voice messages his wife receives as part of the program. He especially likes the messages that tell her to eat meat and eggs, those that tell her not to carry heavy things, and the reminders for vaccinations and check-up appointments; he ensures that she never misses an appointment (for some, the distances to the clinic are significant, so this is not always an easy task).  It was so interesting to meet some of these ladies and their families and listen to them speaking in their local dialect.

Volunteering is not only an opportunity to broaden my horizons on a professional level.  It has also given me an opportunity to meet new people, see new places and learn about different cultures.  I’ve tried to do as much as possible — in and out of the office — and Ghana has impressed me with its welcoming people and interesting places to visit.  So far, I’ve managed to join a book club, meet new volunteers, make friends with other locals and expats, visit the Aburi Botanical Gardens, get to know a few restaurants and bars in Accra, and visit the Cape Coast and Kakum National Forest, to do the canopy walk.  I know there’s a lot more exciting work to come – stay tuned!

It’s Gonna Be Ghana: First Steps to Living the Dream

May 4, 2011

Lynda Barton is spending six months volunteering with MOTECH Ghana through Grameen Foundation’s global volunteer corps, Bankers without Borders.  This is Part I of a two-part series. 

It’s amazing to realize that you can completely change your life in fewer than 30 days when you have the passion and motivation to do so.  We often set our own limitations and roadblocks, but I think we can achieve anything we set our mind to.  We might just need some patience and flexibility along the way, but once you take that first brave step, a whole new world opens up to you.  Perhaps like many other volunteers, I found the first step difficult, but I have not looked back since.

Lynda in ghana

Lynda Barton is volunteering with MOTECH through Grameen Foundation's Bankers without Borders program.

For years I’ve been interested in healthcare and microfinance, and the potential benefits that such initiatives can bring to the developing world.  I’ve researched a number of organizations, in the hope of someday gaining first-hand knowledge by working with them in the field. Grameen Foundation really impressed me with its healthcare-related initiatives around the globe.

Given an incredible opportunity to help with one of Grameen Foundation’s projects in Ghana, I took a courageous step in January and requested a nine-month leave of absence from the pharmaceutical company I had worked for in Switzerland since 2000.  I was excited and terrified to take such a risk professionally, but I knew in my heart that I was doing the right thing for me.  I also knew that that the experience I’d gain clearly outweighed the perceived risks.

I was in the Ghana office by March 9th learning about Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Technology for Community Health (MOTECH) initiative, which uses innovative mobile phone-based solutions to help provide healthcare access to pregnant and new mothers in rural communities in Ghana. It’s an exciting project and the team is very busy planning an expansion of  its pilot program, to eventually scale up to the national level (pending funding).

I’m still getting up to speed with the details, but have been learning about the applications they use to capture client health data, as well as learning about the system for alerting clients about upcoming vaccinations and check-ups.  The application/tool also delivers tips and useful health information to registered users. I feel very privileged to be helping this unique and talented group of people to accomplish such a sizeable task.  I was expecting the pace to be slower than the office environment I left in Basel, but people here are really motivated by the project, and are often in the office beyond their scheduled workday.

Only two weeks into the assignment, I had the privilege of meeting the President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, Alex Counts, who visited our site to see our work first-hand.  He was accompanied by David Edelstein, Director of the Grameen Foundation Technology Center, and Robyn MacIntire, Grameen Foundation’s Regional Director of Development.   It was a wonderful opportunity for our entire team to meet these individuals and to learn more about the vision and passion that drives the company.  We were all very inspired by their visit.

Read Part II >>

Through the Eyes of a Child: A Visit to the Dominican Republic

November 10, 2010

Along with several Grameen Foundation staff, the McCall Family – Jordan, Sarah, Ben, and Molly – flew to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to visit one of Grameen Foundation’s local Microfinance Institutions, Esperanza. This is an excerpt from Molly’s journal she wrote for school about her experience in the Dominican Republic.

Molly’s school journal describing her experiences in Santo Domingo, Domincan Republic

October 5, 2010
At 1:30 pm our friends picked us up to go to the airport. First we flew to Dallas, Texas. We landed in Dallas at 9:30 pm. We spent the night at a Holiday Inn.

October 6, 2010

We had to wake up at 2:30 am! We drove to the airport with some funny old ladies who laughed and snorted. Our plan got to Miami, Florida at 9:45 am. At 10:45 am we left for Santo Domingo. We touched down at Santo Domingo at 1:45 pm. Then we went to our hotel and ate lunch. Factoid: every day in Santo Domingo it rains around 3 pm. Then we took some nice long naps. Next, we watched TV. Finally we went out to dinner with a group of people.

October 7, 2010

First we went on a bus to a bank meeting. Then we saw pigs. The owner of the pigs sells them for pesos. Next, we went to a clinic where people get help when they are sick. After that we went to a bank office and ate lunch. I liked the rice. After lunch, we went to a colmado which is like a little convenience store. Women borrow money from Esperanza to open them. Later we went to another colmado and a place that sold fried chicken. Then we went home. Then we went to dinner at an old colonial restaurant.


Molly and her brother, Ben, in front of a home in Santo Domingo


October 8, 2010

First we had breakfast at our hotel. Next we went to a bank meeting where people talked about how they came to Esperanza. It took place in someone’s front yard at a coastal town. People deposit money at the bank meeting for their businesses. One woman sold shoes, another sold coffee and tea. Then we went to lunch because we were a half hour off schedule. That took place at an Esperanza office. I had rice and a salad. After that we went on a cool water purifying tour. It was very fun although very hot. In the afternoon we went on a tour of the colonial district in downtown Santo Domingo. There were a lot of pigeons there. We visited the place where heroes are buried. Finally we went to dinner at a magical place on the water.  (more…)

In the Shoes of a Microfinance Loan Officer

November 2, 2010

Stephanie Denzer is Program Associate for Grameen Foundation’s Human Capital Center (HCC). This is her second blog from a recent trip to Peru where she participated in a Human Capital Management Assessment of an MFI in the process of transforming into a regulated institution.  Her last blog post focused on Cultivating Leaders and Empowering Organizations, and in this post she follows a loan officer to a group meeting of several microfinance borrowers.

When I arrived in Pucallpa, Peru, I had worked in the microfinance sector for over a year without having seen in practice what I support daily from our DC-based offices. I was soon heading out on the back of a motorcycle taxi to a village bank meeting for clients of Microfinanzas Prisma. Bouncing down a dusty dirt road to the home of one of the clients where the monthly repayment meeting was being held, we followed Ramiro, one of Prisma’s loan officers, on his motorcycle as we traveled out of the central part of this city of about 300,000 in the country’s Amazon region.

I was in Peru to assist with the implementation of Grameen Foundation’s Human Capital Management Assessment tool. See my previous blog post for more information on how we are working to help MFIs better meet their missions of serving the poor. We were accompanying Ramiro to the field because we wanted to see what it’s truly like to walk in the shoes of one of Prisma’s more than 100 dedicated loan officers.


Dacia, the president of this village bank group of 18 local women in Peru


We arrived at the home of Dacia, who serves as president of this village bank group of 18 local women. Our visit came just a few days after her group had celebrated its fifth anniversary. Dacia herself has gone through 10 different loans since the group began on July 12, 2005. She has used her credit from Prisma to purchase a small boat in which she transports timber from family land further upstream on the Ucayali River. She sells this timber for a profit and with a bit of bashful pride, told us that because of the profit she’s made, she was able to move from a small wooden house into the larger, sturdier concrete structure where the group was meeting.

Her eyes lit up when I asked about how her life had been most affected by the access to the credit Prisma provides. She took down a framed picture from the wall that hung next to her wedding portrait. It was one of only three photographs in the house and it showed a team of smiling teenage girls. Dacia pointed to one of the girls and told us how her oldest daughter was now in university and was playing volleyball on a team in Lima. In fact, all four of Dacia’s daughters are enrolled in school and seem to be thriving. (more…)

“Bridging” the Last Mile

October 19, 2010

Jason Hahn is the Information and Communication Technology Innovation (ICTI) Development Manager at Grameen Foundation.

Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) program, based in Uganda, is dedicated to bringing life-changing information to farmers. Through a network of CKWs empowered with mobile-phone technology, we provide tips to farmers on preventing crop disease, raising livestock, and getting the best prices for their goods.


The recruitment team crossing a river after the team ran into a washed-out bridge


Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) program, based in Uganda, is dedicated to bringing life-changing information to farmers.  Through a network of CKWs empowered with mobile-phone technology, we provide tips to farmers on preventing crop disease, raising livestock, and getting the best prices for their goods.

As we roll out this network of CKWs across rural Uganda we’re looking for farmers in the most rural and difficult-to-reach corners of Uganda, to ensure that information is available to everyone, not just those close to a road or in a populated area.  Sometimes that requires taking extreme measures – sometimes it even requires crossing a river swollen with rainwater.

Recently, our team ran into a washed-out bridge when recruiting new CKWs in the Okidi region of Northern Uganda, not far from the border of Sudan. Without hesitating, they jumped into a boat to get across the river and recruit on the other side. In the words of Simon Okut, one of the members of the team, “Not even the washed-away bridges will stop Grameen Foundation from reaching our target communities. In this photo, the recruitment team is getting on a boat to cross to Okidi parish in Atiak sub-county, which hasn’t accessed services for a while due to collapsed bridge. Bravo GF!”

Story from the Field: The Ugandan Millionaire

October 8, 2010

Ishita Ghosh is  Research Lead on Grameen Foundation’s  Financial Literacy Project.

Out in the field when we ask people what the biggest impediment to saving is, the common refrain is that they don’t make enough money to save. It remains a popular perception that only the rich can afford to put money aside regularly and watch their wealth grow. Smaller-denomination currency is more often than not discarded as being of too small a value to ever add up to anything significant.

Out in Kyegegwa, about 100 kilometers from Fort Portal in Western Uganda, we met a man who proved us wrong. This man owned a small shop that dealt in food items, imperishable items and hardware, amongst other knick-knacks. When we approached him to open up a PostBank (a socially-concious bank reaching customers in rural areas) account, he jumped at the idea almost immediately. The accessibility that the mobile PostBank van offered him was invaluable, because he spent much time and effort to travel to his bank, which was at least 40 kilometers away.

When he brought us his savings to deposit, it was in a dirty, bulky cement sack that held a number of black polythene packets all neatly tied up. Within the packets were bundles of coins –  loose change that his customers had handed over to him.  In just over six months, the shopkeeper had managed to save 2.1 million Ugandan shillings (around $950) using this method.

When I went to interview this shopkeeper with the amazing story, I discovered that he had some very sound savings principles. He understood that even small amounts put aside regularly could accumulate over time into significant savings. This is the first tenet of good savings behavior – start putting away some money regularly, even if it is a very small amount. You will be surprised how it adds up over time.

The shopkeeper was also an organized saver. Every black polythene packet had a small piece of paper that mentioned the date and exact amount in that packet – a meticulous method of tracking his savings. But the most amazing part of the story was how the shopkeeper decided to save the notes or coins that came into his hands on a daily basis – to re-invest the larger value notes into his small business and expand it, while putting the coins away as savings.

The decision to save in coins also was a pragmatic one, linked to the shopkeeper’s desire to protect his savings. The coins made the sack with his savings very heavy, an instant deterrent for thieves who would try to haul the sack away from his shop – something that a sack full of lighter notes could have never achieved. Moreover, the cumbersome sack would restrain the shopkeeper himself from taking the sack out of his shop and spending his savings, effectively curbing the ease of access to his money. This constitutes another important principle of good savings behavior – getting your money out of your reach, or creating a trivial barrier between you and your savings.

After hearing this amazing story, I immediately took the stray coins from the various pockets in my bag and put them away in my wallet. I smiled as I put the wallet away in my bag – I had gone to educate the people in these Ugandan village and towns about the importance of savings, but our local Ugandan millionaire had taught me something valuable instead!