A Quick Cameo

Microfinance isn’t what I thought it was. My understanding was based off of a simple narrative: give a poor person a loan, they use that loan to start their own business, and they lift themselves out of poverty. Embedded is the assumption that loans are positive, and that they should be extended to as many marginalized people as possible.

Over the last two years I’ve changed my expectations, not because I wanted to but because I had to. In the course of my job, I found that several of my assumptions, my expectations for Microfinance, and my ability to change things, were off.

Loans are inadequate in fighting poverty and can lead to negative outcomes. Progress against poverty requires all type of tools and strategies, not just a loan, because poverty is not a simple condition, it affects many segments of ones life from health care, to education, to civil rights… loans are only one of many tools that can be employed.

Loans can cause harm. If a client doesn’t understand the product, if institutional incentives are distorted, if a loan is not applied carefully, it can lead to negative consequences. Missing payments and accumulating debt causes anxiety and loss of self-worth. Clients feel personally indebted to the loan officer and worry about their judgment. Where client protections aren’t enforced, an institution can employ harsh repayment policies that can further impoverish clients.

Loans aren’t for everyone. Many aren’t interested in a loan and don’t need one. Some don’t see the benefit of taking on more debt. Others don’t trust financial institutions. Sometimes a client wants a loan where an alternative would have worked better.

I am not as powerful as I thought. Changing things isn’t naïve if you know what it takes to do so. I was naïve because I didn’t know enough. I thought I could change things if I just worked hard and believed in myself. The reality is much more complicated. The culture and history of Honduras deeply affects attitudes towards credit and foreign intervention.

Hondurans embrace of Americans is cynical. The community never questioned my presence and it was assumed that I had the means to “help.” Association with an American is a sign of prestige. My idea for relationship collateral suffered because I misinterpreted my role and relationship with clients.

I discovered significant forces working against me: lack of economic opportunity, lack of quality and affordable health care, lack of quality education, unsafe streets, an unresponsive government. These are systemic problems whose challenges are not easily met. Many clients fall behind on repayments because of those forces: a fatal illness, high medical expenses, a robbery, large debts to other providers, lack of access to insurance, or poor administrative skills.

My knowledge about the context and culture of clients is incomplete. Categorizing the conditions of poverty, and conducting surveys, cannot sufficiently capture what it means to be a Honduran living in Villa Soleada. That is why it is important to approach MF with skepticism and development work with humility. No matter how much we research MF or immerse ourselves in local culture, we wont know what the best solution is for clients.

Poverty is not emotional. It doesn’t go away if we pity it, it doesn’t disappear when we show it love, it doesn’t care if you give it affection especially from a foreigner. Progress against poverty requires real tangible results. My good intentions are useless if I can’t apply it to something meaningful and impactful. The poor don’t need a friend or a caretaker, they need self-determination, they want the means to decide for themselves, they want to pursue their goals, they want to take care of their own family, and they deserve the means to do so.

Our actions, no matter how small and narrow, lead to unintended consequences. We live in a web of social connection. When we give to some but not all, those on the fringes of the web notice. The people who didn’t receive that dollar or donation, they ask themselves why. They wonder what they have to do to get the same and they change their behavior. And, government institutions feel less accountable because the foreigner is claiming responsibility over their constituents.

It’s difficult to establish honest relationships when the local perception and expectations for your presence don’t match your goals and parameters. Especially when our service consists of giving, we invite a relationship based on what we have and what we can give instead of who we are and what we can learn from each other.

Despite those limitations, I believe that my presence and the tool I chose to offer can lead to change. To do so I’ve had to challenge my expectations and the expectations of those I work with. Change is possible but not in the fashion we imagine. A loan can work if it is designed and applied carefully, but it’s not for everyone, and when it works, don’t expect it to be the silver bullet we were told it could be. It’s on the margins where we find our role. Not as the protagonist, but as the friendly adviser with a short cameo.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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Poverty Is and Poverty is Not

Working in microfinance, aid, and development more broadly, obviously requires talk about poverty and change. Too often though, we set out to find answers to poverty without actually knowing what it is. Gaining a clear view of reality, of what it means to be poor and what our role is as partners in the struggle for advancement, is the first step towards changing things for the better. It’s a dynamic process, a constant evolution that requires patience and understanding.

So here is my attempt at understanding what poverty really is:

Poverty is not an unpaved road. Poverty is the business that has to spend extra money to fix their truck because the roads aren’t fixed.

Poverty is not hot weather. Poverty is not having anything to fall back on when drought withers away your harvest.

Poverty is not frequent power outages. Poverty is the business that grinds to a halt and loses its customers because of the outage.

Poverty is not a room without furniture. Poverty is living on land that’s not yours, not knowing for how long you’ll be able to stay.

Poverty is not trash-strewn streets. Poverty is a lack of garbage pickup and a faulty sanitation system.

Poverty is not a choice or a lifestyle. Poverty is feeling trapped by a shortage of jobs and opportunity.

Poverty is not an open-air classroom. Poverty is a mother who is unhappy with her child’s school, unable to put her child in another. Poverty is a failing school system that doesn’t give teachers the resources they need to succeed and the teacher who hits his students instead of talking to them.

Poverty is not a shortage of family values or love at home. Poverty is a single mom whose parents weren’t around when she was young and has to learn, on her own, what it means to be a parent.

Poverty is not a tourist attraction or an act of solidarity. Poverty is the lawyer who gets shot for representing the underprivileged in the face of powerful interests.

Poverty has nothing to do with the look of the place. Poverty is feeling unsafe in your home because of a robbery that occurred down the street the other day knowing that the police never showed up. Poverty is petitioning your local government for a police presence only to get turned away.

Poverty is not a business opportunity. Poverty is choosing between funding your home business (which pays for everything else) or sending your child to school for a year.

Poverty does not define the poor. Poverty is just one part of a poor person’s life. That poor person is also a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a soccer player, a musician, a jokester, a card player, a dancer, and so much more.

Poverty is not just about income and material needs. Poverty is a generation who loses their culture and traditions because they look up to the foreigner, and his way of life, instead of learning about their fathers and forefathers from their past.

Poverty cant be neatly defined on a website or encapsulated in a picture. This post doesn’t even come close to defining what poverty really is. What we can do is understand that there’s nothing we can read, see, or experience that can give us accurate insight into the problems of poverty. This understanding serves to challenge our assumptions and put our relationship with poverty into perspective. The complexities of poverty make it impossible for an outsider to fully understand the problems of a community. Maybe outsiders do in fact have a role to play, but it’s not the part of “hero”. The heroes of this story are the poor.

I am still learning about what it means to be poor, what it means to be Honduran, and where I fit into that narrative. I do know that it’s not up to me to fix things. Its up to the poor to understand their condition and advance their cause. And if in the meantime they ask me to stand with them, I’ll be ready to help.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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Coffee and Donuts

Image by Kim Geiser via Etsy Shop

“Somos cabeza, no somos cola”

We are the head not the tail. They sang a hymn for me on the day after my birthday. Reina on the guitar, Norma at her side, Carmen at mine, Marlenia at the opposite end of the table, and nine other women joined in.

It was Saturday morning at our weekly coffee and donuts gathering. This Saturday however, was June 14th, the day after my birthday. Clients found out about my birthday last month when Josefa, another La Ceiba client, spread the word. Josefa had celebrated it with me last year. In an intimate gathering, we shared an afternoon at her home. Josefa cooked a delicious chicken and we broke a piñata afterwards. On this day, the women of Villa Soleada planned to sing songs and share gifts.

“Por eso gozo y nadie me quita el gozo”

That’s why I’m happy and no one can take that away. Carmen had the loudest voice of all.

A year ago Carmen moved away from Villa Soleada. Carmen is a big lady, with dark hair, black eyes, and a round face. She is gentle and affectionate and always gives tender hugs. Carmen has a loud singing voice but a soft yet confident and firm tone that makes speaking to her an intimidating experience.

Carmen is best known for her work as an artisan. She is a leader in Villa. She often has the best quality products and sells the most clutches during volunteer season. As such, she commands respect among the other women. When one does business with Carmen, it is easy to see why.

Carmen is savvy. In meetings, Carmen usually employs a specific pattern. She will greet me, give me a big hug, she will tell her children to do the same, she will ask how my family is doing, and finally how Dr. H is doing. Only then will she get down to business in a direct manner while maintaining an affectionate tone. In a past life I am certain that Carmen was a politician. She knows how to use the art of flattery and misdirection in her favor.

Carmen moved back to Villa recently. She asked if she could receive a loan. Carmen received a loan in January of 2012, that debt is outstanding. I explained that she could not receive another until she paid her debt. This was not an acceptable answer to Carmen. She gently questioned the policy, and asked me to double-check my records. After several minutes of back and forth, Carmen finally gave in and accepted the policy. She left me uncertain however, and belabored the point so effectively that I felt unsure of it myself. I felt the need to confirm it with my colleagues.

“Despues de quitar prestado, vamos a prestar”

After getting a loan, we will lend. Reina learned how to play the guitar by reading “how to” manuals and watching famous guitarists play on TV.

Reina is one of La Ceiba’s most active clients. Reinas husband, Rigoberto, uses part of Reina’s loan to fund his medicine sales. This serves to support their family of six. Rigo lives in El Progreso, apart from Reina, and visits Reina on the weekends. In a recent visit, I found that she was sick with a cold and migraine. Reina was upset with Rigo that he hadn’t come home yet or sent any money. Reina stays at home to care for their four children. She works hard to keep the house together. Sometimes Reina feels that Rigo needs to be home more and that he isn’t fulfilling his responsibility as a father.

“Rigo sends his birthday wishes,” Reina told me before she started singing and shortly thereafter Rigo himself called.

On this day, Reina was not sick, her young ones were playing close by, her oldest was at home playing on their new (used) computer, and Reina herself was leading the group in song.

“Nacimos para conquistar”

We were born to conquer. Norma was sitting off on the corner but her presence was certainly felt. Her body swayed back and forth in her chair as she clapped to the beat of the song and sang in her raspy and off-tone voice.

Norma is a small lady. She has grey and brown hair. Her face is marked by deep lines around her mouth and across her forehead. Norma’s most prominent trait is her jovial spirit. She is affectionate, has a great sense of humor, and silly mannerisms.

A few minutes earlier Norma arrived bearing a gift. She bought me a pair of socks and wrote a short but heartfelt note. We sat as I thanked her for the kind gesture. She asked me all the usual questions until we touched upon a new topic. Another woman asked Norma how many children she has. Norma responded that she didn’t have any. She had two sons who died a while back, and a third she lost in a miscarriage. As she remembered those she lost, her eyes began to water; she stopped speaking for a moment, and wiped away tears. Her jovial spirit was gone. There was a long tense pause at the table. She looked melancholic. “It’s a hard thing to lose a child. And now I am alone.”

I’ve known Norma for over two years and this was the first time I had heard her speak about her children. Suddenly, I looked at Norma differently. This woman, almost 60 years old, with no family except for her husband, had so many reasons to shrink from the world, to succumb to despair and grief, and to become cynical. It was admirable that she had kept this to herself throughout our entire relationship. Now, I understood her jovial spirit differently. It wasn’t merely a quirk or a fun character trait, it was a manifestation of something else: of her hopefulness and resiliency.

“Si se puede, claro que se puede”

Yes we can, of course we can. Marlenia Urbina wasn’t singing, instead she clapped along to the rhythm of the song.

Marlenia lives in Monte de los Olivos. Marlenia has had success with La Ceiba. She won first place in the Business Plan Competition, she participated in three financial literacy classes, she started her own business and built it into the most successful one in her community, she is supporting her four kids, she helped in leading the movement to win the land she lives on now by organizing sit–ins and protests at the mayors office, and she just recently won a jump with La Ceiba (a 4,000 lempira loan), her 10th loan.

Two months ago Marlenia took in her eldest daughter who had been living with Marlenia’s ex-husband. Marlenia was hurt and disappointed when her daughter left home. She ran away with a neighbor apparently motivated by love. Marlenia tried to advise her daughter to stay in school, get her high school degree, get a job and stay with her where it is safe and stable.

She told her daughter that nothing comes easy in this world, if she wished to start a family and find success in her life she had to work hard and make sacrifices, that everything Marlenia had done, all the success and stability she had found, came as a result of perseverance, hard work, and grit. Marlenia told her daughter to take the initiative, not to wait for good things to happen, but instead believe in herself and invest in her future by studying hard.

Marlenia’s advice was reminiscent of something Seth Godin or Steven Pressfield would say. I was also reminded of my own lessons, hard won through the challenges and struggles of my job. Marlenia had learned many of the same lessons on her own, through her own challenges, and was making those work for her and her family. This quiet, often expressionless, lady was fierce and tough under the surface. And yet, she wasn’t satisfied; she felt that she was failing as a mother; she wanted to do better.

The kind gestures and expressions of affection moved me. But that was not what resonated with me most. What I was reminded of that day was that these women, who many would classify as poor and ignorant, are, in so many ways, the opposite. They are rich in character, they are wise, they are complex, they can be mean, they can be loving, they are struggling, and yet they are confronting their battles on their own, making progress little by little.

Its easy to make assumptions about those we don’t understand, its even easier to get lost in the technicalities of interest rates, repayment rates, and bottom lines. What we cant forget is that these women are full individuals, capable of achieving great things, and yet at risk of getting hurt. We have a responsibility to learn from them, to continue to widen the path towards understanding, and to remember that they are not our subjects, but our equals.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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Mirtala and her Machete

I always wondered how she kept such a nice house. From the outside you could see that her walls had been plastered and painted. Her windows were reinforced with elegant black iron, and she just started to build a cement wall around her property. What stands out most about Mirtala’s house however, is the large pile of chopped wood on the side of her house. It’s a huge pile, about 4 foot tall comprising about 10 large bundles.

Mirtala is a small woman with a stern and grim face. She looks fierce with a large nose, deeply embedded eyes, dark hair, and sharp wrinkles on her face. She is a single mom of three and caretaker of her granddaughter.

One day I asked Mirtala where she got all that wood and what she keeps it for. She chopped and gathered it herself, she said, and she keeps it for her and her family, she sells the rest. Curious how this seemingly fragile and elder woman could gather all this wood on her own, I asked to come with her on one of her wood gathering trips.

Mirtala’s home is nice from the outside, but on the inside its virtually empty. She had a wood table with a few pots and pans in one corner, plastic chairs stacked upon one another in the opposite corner, and open space everywhere in between. The inside is dark and solemn, with dim lighting, the grey color from the cement engulfs the room.

She told me to come by her house at 1pm. As I walked up to her door I found Mirtala sweeping outside her house, with a machete hanging from her hip. “Hi Mirtala.” When she looked up, it looked as though Mirtala was surprised to see me. “Grab that machete over there and let’s go.” I grabbed the dull machete and followed her into the palm trees. Along with her daughter, we walked deep into the adjacent palm tree farm.

Mirtala has a son in the US. Her son supports Mirtala financially and will fund construction projects through monthly remittances. Between this son, another who lives with her, and her wood selling venture, Mirtala meets most of her needs. She has an outstanding loan with La Ceiba.

“You have to tap the wood to see if it is dry.” We seemed to reach an area where the wood was ready to cut and gather. “Hold the wood at an angle, like this, and strike it hard.” Mirtala swiftly cut through a thick piece of wood, cutting through it in two strokes. She watched as I tried to do the same. I fumbled through fallen branches. Grabbed one that I thought was adequate and hesitantly whacked at the branch. Mirtala laughed at my halfhearted attempt to cut through the piece. It took me several strokes, many adjustments in positioning and handle on the machete, but I did it.

Mirtala has a tough appearance but a gentle manner. Any time I see her in passing she gives me a hug and kiss on the neck. “How are you Tiago?” she says. She’s gained the respect of all of my colleagues. Once described as, “one of the hardest working women in Villa,” Mirtala earned her reputation through her constant activity, seemingly endless energy and focus on her kids and granddaughter.

After 30 minutes of chopping wood, we gathered all of our pieces and organized them in a bundle. I had about 10 pieces of wood, each about 3 feet in length. I tied them together with a thin piece of rope and hauled them up on my shoulder. Mirtala had twice as many logs as me. She roped together her bundle, carefully placed a clumped t-shirt on her head and lifted the bundle of wood onto the t-shirt. My bundle must’ve weighed at least 40 lbs. I had to switch the bundle onto the other shoulder several times. Each time I did this, Mirtala asked, “are you ok Tiago?”

“Listen Tiago, I know I am late on my loan. Be patient with me, I have a lot going on right now.” When we got back to her house, Mirtala gave me a glass of water and spoke about her loan.

I thought about Mirtala, this tireless woman, caretaker of two, single mother, with nothing but her machete, her stern look and gentle nature, and I knew that the loan didn’t matter. Whether she paid her loan or not, she would continue to chop wood and make incremental progress towards her goals. Her granddaughter was in school learning English, her son was sending money to improve the house, and her daughter was close by. Perhaps what little she earned from her wood sales would be better spent on supporting herself and her family rather than paying a loan to foreigner who can barely chop wood.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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Smiling and Simplifying

Guillermina has a winning smile. Her enduring kindness makes those around her feel comfortable and at ease. She has a jolly and convivial disposition but she doesn’t thirst for attention. She’s like the witty aunt who takes part in banter from her chair in the corner. Despite her age (40’s) and a 4th grade level of education, Guillermina makes a point of advancing her education. Guillermina has showed up to every financial literacy class La Ceiba has offered. Further, Guillermina is enrolled in an adult education program with the Honduras public school system. Every Saturday, for three and a half hours, she receives classes and tutoring from high school students. They give her lessons and individual attention that complements thick study packets for homework.

Guillermina isn’t a typical microfinance client. She doesn’t own a business and doesn’t have any aspirations to do so. She is responsible for one minor, her daughter. They live together in Monte de los Olivos, a tiny and new community in El Progreso. Monte is poor. It lacks basic infrastructure like a sewage system, running water, paved roads, electricity and law enforcement. Her daughter Sulma has an unusual health condition that requires monthly visits to the hospital for check ups and, if required, shots and tests. The costs are tough to cover all at once. Guillermina is only able to pay the fees in parts, an agreement her doctor and health providers have agreed to… for now. Guillermina takes advantage of La Ceiba’s hands off policy by investing her loan in medical expenses.

Guillermina has interesting repayment habits. She likes to pay her installments in bunches and large sums. A couple of months ago, Guillermina requested a new, bigger loan but was rebuffed. Her repayment was poor, reflected in her credit score, and she would have to repeat the loan amount.

I met with Guillermina to tell her the news. We sat around a table in her living room. I explained her situation and the decision not to extend a larger loan but she didn’t quite understand. Between the language barrier and the technical vocabulary inherent with financial products, the explanation of why she couldn’t receive a larger loan was not very clear. She later admitted that she didn’t understand much of what I said. The message she was hearing was that her performance was poor and that is why she couldn’t receive a larger loan.

When she heard this message she bore a disgruntled look on her face. In a dramatic change, her face morphed from her content smile, to a displeased smirk and squinted eyes. Her brows were furrowed and she was motionless. Her stare was locked on my face, I felt as though she was shooting daggers out of her eyes.

I kept trying to rephrase my explanation. I used different vocabulary words, analogies she could understand, and visual aids. I felt it necessary, out of my own discomfort, to keep reassuring her that she should not worry or be upset. After about a half hour of back and forth it was clear that I had done as much as I could. I told her flatly that her next loan would be the same amount as the last and to call with any further questions. We shook hands and wished each other a curt farewell.

A month later Guillermina called me. “I’d like to talk to you Santiago,” she said. We held the meeting at her house again, in her back yard this time. As I sat down I didn’t really know what to expect. Some part of me thought she was going to voice displeasure at my service or the product. She initiated conversation, “I’ve been thinking, I want one installment paid in six months.” I was surprised.

She wanted a one lump sum. I had never offered or given a loan with a one lump sum over that period of time but I saw no reason why it wasn’t possible. I told her the interest might be higher than if she paid in weekly installments. She said she didn’t mind. She found that keeping track of many installments was too much work and our credit score too complicated for her to try and calculate herself. She was simplifying. She wanted one payment in 6 months when she saved up enough to pay it. If she could pay it earlier, that option was open to her too.

I realized I had made a mistake. I dismissed my first conversation with her as a complete communication failure. I assumed that she didn’t understand anything what I was saying. She understood a lot more than I thought. And, she was able to analyze her situation astutely so as to ask for a schedule that fit her needs best. It’s this ability to understand your own situation that I was overlooking. She turned her weakness from her previous loan, paying many installments on the same date, into a strength by paying her entire loan in one installment.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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Little by Little

She recently finished construction on her cement patio, extended the roof of her porch to reach the sidewalk, installed a six person picnic table, and built cement steps for customers to step up to the window. Inside, Josefa shows off her economic engine. “Esta vacío ahorita,” its empty right now. Josefa’s pulperia, or convenient store, is run out of her home. She sells everything from candy, to rice and beans, from bags of water, to 3 liter bottles of Pepsi. Her pulperia is what allows her to make improvements to her home and business.

Josefa (40) has a pleasant demeanor. She is soft spoken, generous and motherly. She is small in stature, about 5 ft. She has a young face with delicate eyebrows, rosy beige cheeks, a warm smile, and soft eyes. Welcoming in nature, she offers food and drink to all her guests. With such a tranquil and gracious manner, it is hard to guess that she is a single mother with 10 children, that her only husband died 15 days before their wedding, that she’s never attended school, and that she was one of 10 children.

Josefa grew up in San Jose de Negrito, near El Progreso. San Jose de Negrito is a remote mountain town accentuated by thick vegetation and rolling hills. The nearest pulperia was a two-hour walk from her home and the nearest school was a three-hour walk. Josefa is the second oldest of her brothers and sisters. Her siblings looked up to her and depended on her to take care of them. Josefa’s mother worked as a maid during the day and expected Josefa to take care of the family while she was gone. Thus, Josefa spent most of her youth cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, fetching water, and caring for sick siblings.

Josefa was 18 when she met Dionosio Escobar. Dionosio was a farmer who lived near Josefa’s home. Josefa remembers him fondly, “le amaba mucho,” I loved him very much she said. They were together for six years and had four children. Dionosio worked on a farm for a wealthy landowner. He made enough money for the family to live comfortably while Josefa spent time at home with her children. She remembers those as happy times and planned to officially marry Dionosio. Tragedy struck however, when, just fifteen days before the wedding, Dionosio was shot and killed.

“Jueves, 19 de octubre, 1997.” Josefa murmured, in a low sad voice, the date Dionosio was killed. Her eyes watered and tears ran down her check as she sat silently in thought.

With no wealth of her own, no job, no status, and coping with the loss of her fiancée, Josefa took to cultivating the land. She had enough land to grow beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers and coffee. Soon, Josefa was growing enough food for her family to live from and there was enough left over to sell in the market. What’s more, word got out throughout the community that Josefa was growing her own food. Eventually Josefa found herself juggling job offers from three different commercial farmers. She worked for a respectable wage of 140 lempira ($7) a day. It was an unsustainable venture however, as agriculture punished Josefa physically. After three years of farming, she decided to move.

Josefa found an opportunity in the community of Siete de Abril. Josefa could buy and own the land, an ambition of hers for many years. It came at a cost however: the conditions were dismal. Her house was built from cardboard, rusty tin, scavenged wood, and cloth. To start a construction project on a worthy home in Honduras, one needs a total investment of about $10,000. With her salary of $2.50 a day working at a restaurant, five children to take care of, and another on the way, Josefa’s dream seemed far off and unobtainable.

Josefa moved to Villa Soleada in 2008 through a project of Students Helping Honduras. Her home is small yet comfortable. The front room is divided in two, by the pulperia, on the left side of the room, and the living space, on the right and backside of the room. A multi-colored hammock hangs across the front of the room near the door. A couch lines the right wall. A frail metal stand houses a small television and stereo set. The grey cement walls are decorated with pictures of her children with friends and family. The pulperia claims two large refrigerators and a 4 by 6 ft shelf stand. The shelves are neatly filled with rice bags, cookies, bread, eggs, and beans. About 50 chip bags line the left wall. Her pulperia is the only one on her side of town, and serves about 22 households.

Josefa doesn’t keep formal records of her financial activity but she knows that the pulperia produces enough money to cover most of her needs. The pulperia produces enough money to pay for food, electricity, water, school tuition fees for most of her children, and enough is left over for cell phones, transportation, and construction projects.

Josefa currently has a 5,000 lempira ($250) loan with La Ceiba. She’s had nine loans dating back to 2009. Josefa used half of her current loan to pay off other debts. The other half she invested in her pulperia. For example, Josefa’s mother was sick recently and she didn’t have enough money to pay for medical expenses. She asked a neighbor for help who agreed to lend Josefa 3,000 lempira ($150). Josefa used previous loans to pay off more toxic debts. For example, the furniture in her home was bought on credit. The store let’s customers buy furniture on credit and will charge interest on payments. Some stores charge as high as 30% monthly interest and exorbitant late fees. Additionally, Josefa or her home might get robbed on occasion… the life of a Honduran. Josefa was recently robbed in El Progreso and she found the La Ceiba loan useful in supplementing her lost cash.

Josefa acknowledged that she has come a long way. She listed improvements from a year ago: a cement porch, new home furniture, a refrigerator, shelves for her inventory, she is planning new investments in her home, her pulperia is growing, almost all of her children are in school, and everyone is healthy.

As Josefa finished telling her story, she settled her stare on the cement brick wall as if her story were hidden in the cracks. Suddenly her posture changed and she sat back in her chair. Her expression went from that of a pensive and serene one, to one of satisfaction. A slow smirk came across her face. She looked at her daughter attending to customers at the window, at her son Nelson, laughing and playing outside, and at the pulperia. Her gaze turned to the wall where the pictures hung of her, her children, and her daughter in a graduation toga, and finally, she looked at me. Completely silent and peaceful, her thoughts turned to the future. “Poquito a poco,” she said, little by little.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on March 14th, 2014)

Blade and Baleadas

When we arrived the whole family was waiting for us. Laura Isabel Luque, her sister Karina Luque, and Marina Eliza were in the kitchen cooking. The smell of cooked steak, with its herbs and spices, filled the air. As we approached several children greeted us, a lady sitting outside on her sewing machine got up to shake my hand. The three women in the kitchen quickly stopped what they were doing to greet us at the door.

Ana Lucia Galo, Eduar Isidro Reyes and I had lunch at Karina’s house on Saturday, September 21st. We are the La Ceiba team in Honduras. Laura and Karina invited us for lunch a week earlier. When I received the invitation, I was excited but skeptical. Part of me thought the lunch was planned with another motive. I thought perhaps the women wanted to receive larger loans than we had given.

Walking into the house, one cant help but feel comfortable despite its cement composition. The first room in the house is a large one that acts as the living room, the kitchen and the dining room. The walls are decorated with Winnie the Pooh pictures with Spanish sayings. The sayings contain a message of love and family. “What would you like to drink?” Laura offered us water, Pepsi, coffee or juice. “Coffee please.” Ana and Eduar asked for Pepsi.

Laura has worked with La Ceiba since January of 2013. She is a close neighbor of Elizabeth Discua, Maria Carcamo, and Tania Carcamo, all successful La Ceiba clients. Laura is a single mom with an eight-year-old boy. She has a L 1,250 ($62.50) loan with La Ceiba. In nine months, La Ceiba never asked how Laura pays her loans, and in that time, Laura received 11 loans and paid all of them back ahead of time. I was concerned because she originally asked for a larger loan than we could give her. Why does she want a larger loan? What kind of income does she have? Why does she keep inviting me to lunch?

“Lunch is ready.” We sat around the small wooden table adjacent to the living space and the kitchen. Despite its size, the table accommodated the six of us comfortably. Karina served us. We were having mini baleadas. On our plate we had four small handmade flour tortillas placed under diced steak, onions, tomatoes, lime and cilantro. It was a colorful display and a modest serving. We bid “salud” to the food and to our hosts and enjoyed the rich taste of the fresh ingredients.

Karina is a new La Ceiba client. I knew very little about Karina and her finances. Despite my efforts not to do so, I couldn’t help but observe Karina’s house from a lenders perspective. That is, the material things in her house served as indicators of economic wealth. Karina has a television and a fully furnished home. These are signs that Karina and her family have a high economic status. I didn’t want to take advantage of the invitation into Karinas home so I put those thoughts at bay.

“Santisima madre!” Everyone in the room chuckled at Ana’s outcries. We sat down to watch the movie of the day on TV: Blade: Vampire Hunter with Wesley Snipes and Jessica Biel. It was a bloody and violent movie. Every time a vampire was mercilessly decapitated, Ana would yell out in shock. “How is your family?” Laura asked in between decapitations. “Fine,” I responded. Where is your mom from? How did you learn to speak Spanish so well? Did you enjoy the food? Laura and Karina kept asking questions about me. They wanted to learn about me and my family.

Microfinance institutions (MFI’s) are taught not to trust clients. Its never stated explicitly but our operations, our products, our requirements all function under the assumption that clients, poor clients, are risky investments. And, since they often are not included into a formal credit scoring system, the MFI has to gather that information on its own. To do so, loan officers employ methods that seek “accurate information.” For example, loan officers might show up 30 minutes early to a meeting just to catch a client and their business off guard. A loan officer might show up unannounced to see how things are run when a client isn’t expecting her lender to visit. Loan officers will ask research-tested questions that seek to reveal the character of a client and afterwards will ask neighbors questions to verify information.

Eduar told the room a story. One day he was dropping off Laura’s loan. They met in front of Laura’s house. Eduar read the loan contract to Laura and handed her the check. In the exchange, Laura mishandled the check and dropped it in the mud. Eduar poked fun at Laura for being careless to which Laura responded, “I remember the first time you gave me my loan, you were so nervous you couldn’t speak!” Everyone laughed at the friendly banter. I felt as though I was in a locker room with my team, exchanging inside jokes after a hard fought game. “How are your friends at the University?” Laura already knew several of our La Ceiba students. Laura told me to tell the students hello and to invite them to baleadas.

“Santi, you all are invited to baleadas next week too!” Laura made sure to invite us all back to her sisters house. It was our cue to leave but I still hadn’t gotten asked about a larger loan or for a favor. In fact, for the duration of the reunion, we never once talked seriously about loans or finances. The topics of conversation were focused on friends and family. We were getting to know each other simultaneously. We were learning about each other’s history, our customs, our likes and dislikes, we were becoming friends. For that afternoon, for two hours on that Saturday, Laura, Karina and Marina were my friends and not my clients. They fed me, they cleaned up after me, they took care of me and I had nothing to offer them accept my good graces and my friendship. It was a genuinely good time, and I didn’t need to ask a neighbor to verify that.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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More of my blog posts at: laceibamfi.org

(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on September 25th, 2013)


Tania Maricela Bobadilla Carcamo

Tania Maricela Bobadilla Carcamo, 28, is from La Ceiba city. Eight years ago Tania settled down in Las Brisas where she still lives today. Tania followed her sister Maria Carcamo to Las Brisas, whom married a man from the town. For two years Tania lived with Maria and her husband. During that time, Tania worked at the nearby pool hall. Maria’s husband was the owner and he needed someone to help manage money and sell drinks. Tania learned how to budget, save money for the business and manage operations, all while serving drinks until late at night.

During her time at the pool hall, Tania met Nelson Discua. Nelson proved a gentlemen, he walked Tania from the pool hall to her house every night after work. They married and Tania moved in with Nelson and his family. Tania remembers those as uncomfortable times, “I didn’t get along with Nelsons mom very well.” Tania wanted to move out. Luckily, Maria’s neighbor happened to move out. Tania and Nelson moved into the new home, it was an improvement but Tania was not satisfied. The land belonged to Marias brother in law. They didn’t have to pay rent but they couldn’t stay there forever.

La Ceiba met Tania in 2010. At the time, Maria was already working with La Ceiba. Maria explained to Tania how La Ceiba loans worked but Tania remained skeptical, “I thought it was propaganda of some kind.” But, Maria and another good friend, Suyapa Santamaria, convinced Tania that La Ceiba loans were real. Tania reluctantly accepted her first loan of L 575 ($28.75).

With money from the loan, Tania invested in silver with the intention of selling to residents in her area. Her operation was mobile, she went house to house and over time she developed a strong client base. Additionally, she set up a credit system of her own. Tania allowed clients to pay for her silver in parts. That is, they paid for some of the silver at the point of sale, and paid the rest in monthly installments for two months. This system worked well for Tania because, as she recognized, it gave clients a flexible method of payment where they might not be able to pay large sums all at once. Tania recognized other benefits. She never had worrisome amounts of cash at the house and if sales were slow the next month, she could rely on payments due from the previous month to cover costs.

In less than a year Tania received and paid five loans and worked her way up to a loan of L 2,500 ($125). As her loans grew, so did her income.

Tania’s plans changed a few months ago when a family member left the country. The family member left behind two businesses that were unmanned and in bad shape. Tania, along with her mom and two sisters, jumped at the opportunity. The family could benefit from a group endeavor where everyone involved received a steady income. So, Tania left the silver business and prepared herself for the new challenge. The two businesses were a chicken restaurant, and a food stand at the local school.

Tania’s mom is the boss, everyone works equal hours, and everyone splits the profits evenly. After three months on the job, sales have increased. Additionally, Tania increased her savings and covered all her home expenses.

Tania estimates that the food stand makes between L 2,000-2,500 ($100-125) a day while the chicken restaurant makes L 8,000 ($400) a weekend. However, their success is not without its challenges. Two weeks ago the food stand was robbed. One morning, Tania’s mom opened the stand only to find the door broken open and their products were gone. They had nothing to sell that day. Tania happened to be eligible for a L 5,000 loan with La Ceiba. The loan was large enough to replenish most of the inventory and Tania paid back the loan ahead of time the next week.

With her new income, Tania and Nelson, who works in a factory, are able to take a step towards Tania’s dream. Together, the couple saved enough money for a down payment on a plot of land. The sight is nearby in the neighboring town of Primero de Enero. They are paying what is left in installments and are on schedule to finish the payments by February of 2014.


Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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More of my blog posts at: laceibamfi.org

(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on September 20th, 2013)

Marlenia Urbina

Monte de los Olivos is a difficult place to get to. It’s a small town composed of 24 houses and a community center. The town is located about three miles from the closest paved road. To get there you have to park in Villa Soleada and walk on a dirt road lined by a palm tree farm. After a 10-minute walk through the shady grove, you can find the town of Monte de los Olivos.

Until she moved to Monte, Marlenia Urbina, 42, never lived in what she considers a safe or stable community. Her life is marked by instability and friction with her parents. Two years ago, Marlenia settled down on the small plot of land that is now Monte de los Olivos.

The move to Monte came about after a long struggle. Before living in Monte, Marlenia lived in a community by a riverbank. The land was not hers and the government seized the property where she lived. Marlenia, her husband and her four daughters, were forced to move but had nowhere to go. So, Marlenia and a group of over 30 families went straight to the Mayor’s office. They organized sit-ins and protested in the streets until finally, the Mayor granted the group a few acres of land behind the existing town of Villa Soleada.

In January of 2012 La Ceiba held an interest meeting with all the families in Monte. Marlenia describes her initial reaction to La Ceiba’s loans as that of “disbelief.” “The interests are so low! I couldn’t believe that there was no collateral. We thought it was part of a plan to take our land.” Marlenia tentatively accepted her first loan of L500 ($25).

Marlenia owns and operates her own pulperia, or convenience store, out of her home. The pulperia provides Marlenia with consistent income. It is one of only two pulperias in town. Marlenia depends on her pulperia to pay for the water bill, her daughters school expenses, unexpected expenses like sickness costs, any debts she may have, and whatever is left over Marlenia invests in her home and her pulperia.

Marlenia says that her loans with La Ceiba were initially unsuccessful. She used her loan to help a family member but the family member never paid her back. Marlenia was afraid La Ceiba would not work with her anymore. Eventually, through income from her pulperia and support from her husband, she was able to pay her loan. Marlenia worked her way towards a larger loan of L750 ($37.50). This time Marlenia decided to invest exclusively in her pulperia. Marlenia bought several products to sell including 18 “ristros.” Each ristro has 12 bags of chips. Marlenia sells each bag of chips for L5 (25¢). As a result, Marlenia says that her sales have steadily increased.

In addition to her pulperia, Marlenia is the head of a group of entrepreneurial women in Monte. Together, they develop business ideas and execute them. Their activities include the production of artisanal crafts and hair products. They also work together to find new markets outside of Monte, specifically in the city of El Progreso.

Marlenia says she learned a lot from La Ceiba’s financial literacy class. One of the concepts the class covered was that of savings. Marlenia learned how to organize her finances and save towards a specific project or item. Marlenia is currently saving her money to invest in one of her group’s business ideas.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
Get Social with Santi:

More of my blog posts at: laceibamfi.org

(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on September 17th, 2013)