Manikganj – microfinance

We grabbed a quick tea at the BRAC office, and met the District BRAC Representative, who checked our itinerary and set us off on our way.

First stop was the village of Joyra where we were to sit in on a monthly group meeting of MF loan recipients. Getting to the village of Joyra was a bit of a challenge.  It was way way way off the main road, down a dirt track, washed out in many places making it difficult to get through.  At one point we had to drive into a field to get by one particularly washed out section of the road.  People were hard at work in the fields and rice paddies, some resting taking refuge from the sun under the shade of a tree.  there was no mechanical farming implements as far as I could see, everything was being done by hand.  A hard day’s toil for sure.

We arrived at Joyra, and despite the very basic houses made of adobe with mat roofs and a few tin roofs, the place was spotlessly clean.  We quietly joined a meeting that was underway.  A group of about 15 women sat on mats, with the village leader and the BRAC MF worker sitting at the head of the group.  Roll had already been called, and they were just finishing up making their savings contributions and loan payments, all carefully recorded by hand into a large computer printout that listed the name, personal details, amount & dates of loan, repayment amount and when paid.

Later, this data would be entered into the database in readiness for the next month’s meeting.  And don’t even suggest the data could be captured as you go – there is no electricity or internet connection in this village.  Everything by hand is more reliable for sure. One lady had received a new loan that day (we missed that – darn!) and I was reminded of such low literacy rates in Bangladesh – she had signed by fingerprint.  Her loan was to buy a cow where she could sell the milk allowing her to repay the loan and own the cow once the was paid off.  This is typical of who receives the loan and what the money is used for.

Women primarily are the recipients of BRAC MF loans, it’s found they tend to have better marketing and network skills as compared to men (who knew?!).  And as mentioned earlier, the household/family tends to do much better when the woman of the household has control over some of the family income.

Other ways the loans are used (at least in this village), was the set up of a little shop, money to purchase a bull’s time to impregnate a cow so that the calf could be sold for a profit, a sewing machine for tailoring services and one lady got a loan for a flat-bed rickshaw for her husband to work with daily. The meeting is closed with the whole group reciting BRAC’s 18 Promises which ranged from promising not to engage in anything criminal, to working hard, to focusing on the welfare of the family, to ensuring kids go to school, to treat boys and girls equally, to practice family planning, to promise not to marry off daughters at a young age, to making their payments on time, to making group decisions  …. the list goes on.  Once the promises were made, the meeting was adjourned and all eyes were on me.

Thank goodness I had an interpreter, it is the way to go for sure.  I found the women confident, full of hope and proud of what they do.  I was trailed through many of their homes – all spick and span, neat as a pin with everything in it’s place.  Each woman showing me something they are proud of – schoolwork their kids had done, the beautiful shalwar kameez recently sewn for a customer, the curd (yogurt) made from the cow’s milk ready for sale, the extra produce from a field that would be sold later that day as villagers came home from the fields.  So many things. shared with me  I was privileged to be welcomed so readily into their lives.  Oh, and I got to hold a week old baby boy which thrilled the group of about 20 onlookers, but scared the heck out of me!

I got the usual reactions when I said I was not married.  One woman actually brought her hands to her face at the horror of it all.  And I was given looks of pity due to the fact I was not wearing any jewelry. All in, I spent close to 3 hours in this village, I could have stayed forever, I just loved the feeling there.  And oh the women, so hopeful for their own and their families futures.  And proud of their accomplishments.

One comment I have heard over and over is the danger of MF loans being equated to North America’s credit card debt – where multiple loans are taken out from an array of MF institutions and moneylenders, basically putting the women into a spiralling debt situation, one she could never get out of.  I asked every women I met, how many loans had they received from BRAC and other sources and what they had used the money for.

Everyone I asked tended to use the money to expand their micro-businesses – buy additional equipment, buy an additional cow for increased milk production etc etc.  I found no evidence (at least in this village) that the subsequent loans were not for expansion purposes.  All said they liked receiving loans from BRAC because of the quick approval decision & disbursement of the funds, the very low interest rates and best of all, the sense of belonging and community and the support they receive from the village group. Definitely a group of BRAC supporters in this village!

All in, I was pretty impressed.  I have a 7-day field visit starting next weekend, about 120km NE of Dhaka and during that week, I will get a more in-depth understanding of MF at BRAC.  I’ll definitely  be able to challenge the model in use  and probe for answers to some of the issues raised by the MF practitioners I have met over the past month.

Next up was a visit to another village, to allow me to see some of BRAC’s health programs in action.

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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3 Responses to Manikganj – microfinance

  1. Isabelle Purcell says:

    Hey Kate, been great reading your updates, brings back a lot of Banepa memories! Sounds like you’ve really found you’re feet in Bangladesh ! Hope this finds you well, all the best with everything to come, can’t wait to hear about it x

    • Kate Coffey says:

      Great to hear from you Isabelle! Where in the world are you now and what are you up to??

      • Isabelle Purcell says:

        Made it to Europe, currently in Croatia with a friend., we’re making our way down the coast before heading to the UK! Spain was amazing, can’t wait to hear what you think about the camino! X

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