Microfinance: “what is it?” “How does it work?” “If the very poor are illiterate, are they reliable?” “How about guarantees if they don’t pay back?”
These are some of the questions I’d be asked a few months ago when telling people back home I was moving to Morocco to work in Microfinance. And as my time here comes to an end, I thought I’d wrap up a story of what my experience entailed and how it shattered my conception of comfort zone.
From September to December 2017, I‘ve had the chance to work forAttawfiqMicrofinance, the Microcredit branch of thePopular Bank of Moroccoin Casablanca.
My first month at the organization’s HQ was certainly interesting to understand the managerial activities of a large corporation. Indeed, observing and contributing to the development of strategic decision-making through the interpretation of data gathered from the whole field activity across the country has resulted in a step forward upon understanding how a large company should be managed, and a definite boost to my employability.
Now it is my transition to the field that undoubtedly supposed the highlight of my experience in Morocco. A month at the HQ was certainly educative and immersive yet had not exposed me much to the actual microcredit activity, so I asked to be put more in touch with clients. I got what I wanted and the very day after I found myself at one of the organization’s field branches inBenjdia, one of the oldest districts of Casablanca.
A working-class area, it is not uncommon to see that brand new Mercedes seen on TV waiting for the light to turn green right next to a cart pulled by a donkey while shoeless kids play footie in the middle of the road. Street markets and an alchemy of questionable smells attract wandering pedestrians and flies, and dodging an occasional cockroach the size of my thumb from time to time is not even a surprise anymore. Its people are known for being proud which translates into an iconic district where everyone seems to know each other on the streets, making my “white face” get some curious looks when I ask my way around in a dreadfully broken Arabic. An identity of its own, a few weeks in that lively area was certainly a change from my time at the financial district.
My role there was one of an observer. My rather limited Arabic skills had me obliged to constantly ask questions about what was being done at the office. Now, the most interesting part of the job was when we would engage in on-field visits.
The peculiar aspect that differentiates microcredit from regular credit is that it relies not so much on material guarantees as it does on actual trust and human interaction. Creditors will rely much more on the client’s faithfulness and hence will need to check minutely how trustworthy of a person and entrepreneur the individual in question is before unlocking the loan. We would therefore spend a considerable amount of time visiting people at their homes as well as workplaces, asking them multiple questions about their activity, their ambitions and projections. We would visit family and neighbors too in order to obtain external opinions about our prospective client. Every possible action was considered in order to obtain as much information as possible and project the risk this person may suppose.
I also witnessed some delicate situations, particularly when we had to go after people that owed money. At moments I really felt like in movies, knocking at doors while blocking the eyehole. It is incredible how elusive those who owe can be. Many times we had to question neighbors, check water bills to verify a fugitive’s last activity and see if they had consumed recently. We would even visit mothers to explain the situation hoping the shame would create a family conflict unpleasant enough for the client to eventually show up and discuss a way to pay the money back.
When we would finally find them, some would get aggressive, raising their voices and pointing a threatening finger at us. Never have I experienced that, but apparently some colleagues would have been threatened by someone holding a kitchen knife. We were intruding their homes after all, and their inner sense of self-defense was bursting out.
I came to Morocco to experience a cultural immersion and I can assure that these few weeks have been exactly that. I have entered slums and engaged with uneducated people whose lives are as miserable as they can possibly be. I witnessed uncomfortable situations where the man would send his wife to shut up and even slap her sometimes.
Being affiliated to one of the major banks in the country, we had the power to engage in seizures of property in presence of a bailiff or judicial officer, a privilege that smaller independent microcredit institutions could not enjoy. It was certainly interesting to see clients — men particularly — braving us arrogantly pretending they knew important people too, and then turning all pale when we would come back to take their TV and fridge in presence of an authorized agent. It was not uncommon to see the household’s woman visiting us right away, without the man knowing, so as to find an agreement.
This is the reason why microcredit operates mostly with women. Working class districts in developing countries like Morocco are usually run by a strong patriarchal sense of family that is hardly debatable. Men are usually very proud yet not always rational. Women on the other hand represent the pillar that actually sustains a household. Their maternal instinct and the urge to feed their children will usually (though not always) make them much more responsible and driven to succeed in their endeavors.
Precisely, on one situation, we tracked a female client that had not paid her dues and explained her the worrying situation she was getting into. She seemed to be open for discussion until her brother, who happened to be in the apartment at that moment, showed up, talked over her and aggressively asked us to leave. The lady repeatedly tried to intervene but the man would send her to shut up and eventually pushed her away brutally. That was certainly a painful scene to watch. It was sad to see how a woman was about to lose a lot more than she owed us because her brother, who had no business there, thought he had to deal with her situation because of him being “the man in the house”. Obviously, the woman came to us the very morning after to sit down and find an agreement.Two words suffice here, EDUCATION and EMPOWEREMENT.
Overall, my few weeks on the field were quite an adventure. I got to talk to clients like I wanted in the first place, I visited them, surprised them and pursued them. Canvas were filled and cash was carried around. I got to learn a lot about people, their fears, their ambitions, and about how to treat with them. Mutual trust is such an essential part of our job. Dealing with low-income individuals — most of them being uneducated and living in poor conditions — is certainly not the same as engaging with a regular client of a regular bank. Offices may scare and dissuade them, so we had to go find them in their environments so as to establish the premises of a safe and trustful partnership. I also got to learn a lot about different small and microbusinesses, usually involving trades and handcrafts (sewing, baking, cutting hair, mechanics…), while also learning about the different levels and steps involved in a large corporation’s activity, from the field all the way to the headquarters.
So I’m going back home now with not a single clue still of what I’ll do with my life; but at least I can confidently assert that the tank has been refilled with solid work experience and quite a bunch of ludicrous stories to tell.