Graffiti on a wall in West Beirut. Photos courtesy of Bob Harris.
They live continents apart — Symon in Kenya and Bo in Cambodia — but they have a common thread. Both started small businesses with microloans they received through the networking website Kiva.
Kiva’s website lets users donate $25 as a loan to people around the world who are seeking to start their own businesses and have been screened by organizations in the field. Once the loan is repaid, the donor can contribute the amount again or withdraw it.
Writer Bob Harris contributed his $25 numerous times and then decided to meet some of the people he helped fund. In “The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time“, the Ohio native traveled to far-off lands to meet Symon and Bo and dozens of other microloan recipients.
Harris spoke to us about some of the clients he met and the impressions they made. He used pseudonyms for several people, although they didn’t request it, saying he felt a sense of responsibility for their safety.
Bo works on some of her plants in the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.
“Bo” is about 60 years old, a “sweet lady” who sells morning glories at market and helps her son run a motorcycle-taxi business. Of her business acumen, Harris wrote in his book:
“This tiny Cambodian grandma picking flowers by the side of the road has built a more robust business and retirement portfolio than at least half the Americans I know.”
She buys seeds for $5 and makes a healthy profit by selling the attractive flowers for $40 at market. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m totally in the wrong business’,” Harris recalled, laughing.
She had a persistence that characterized many of the microloan recipients. “There are very few clients I met who tried one thing and then succeeded,” said Harris. “Generally, they try five or 10 things, and when something goes bad, they try another.” Like them, Bo experimented with several products before she found what worked, and is using the profits from her morning glories to help fund her other projects.
Symon and Jenn show off their cow Grace, a Guernsey hybrid who produces more milk than most local cows in Kenya.
Symon and his wife Jenn live in rural Kenya near the city of Murang’a. They purchased a cow, who they named Grace, through an organization called Juhudi Kilimo. The group facilitates the sale of high-yielding dairy cows, which can be milked twice a day. The second batch of milk is what pays off the loan, which generally takes about a year, said Harris.
The program is doing well and a lot more dairy is being produced in the region, so Juhudi Kilimo is now looking for more distribution and supply chains, Harris said. (Read more about the group’s work.)
Harris wrote about trying to get an uncooperative Grace to pose for her picture:
“As I snap several photos, Symon and Jenn alternate between posing proudly, stumbling out of the way of the lurching animal, and laughing at the silly moment, big grins on their faces. Finally, Symon pats the cow’s head and gives its neck a little push, and the cow obligingly turns her head toward the camera, too, as if to say, ‘Fine, you win, let’s get this over with.’ Click. As group portraits go, it’s as sweet as they come.”
A photo of Yvonne’s neighborhood in Kigali, Rwanda, shows some newer houses in the distance.
“Yvonne,” a single mother of three, lives in Kigali, Rwanda. Through a neighbor, she learned to buy staples such as sweet potatoes and sorghum in bulk, and sell them in her neighborhood for a profit.
“Eighteen months before I met her, she was renting a shack for the equivalent of about US$5 per month, and she and her three children were sleeping on a mat,” said Harris. But by the time he came to her town, she had moved into a small but solid dwelling and could send her children to school. They lived in the back portion of the house and the front room served as the shop, “bursting with items all the way out onto the porch.”
Her first loan of US$140 was all she needed to get off the ground. Harris writes:
“Yvonne’s business model is very much the same one used by 7-Eleven and other convenience stores across America. I tell her this — about shops just like hers on street corners in every city, playfully suggesting that she has the beginnings of an empire. She laughs, and for a moment, I can see the young girl she so recently was.”
Harris (seated) poses after getting the “best shave I’ve had in years” from Huseyn’s barbershop in Beirut.
“Huseyn,” who is about 40, runs a barbershop with a couple of chairs in West Beirut. He’s not as poor as the other clients Harris met, but still would have been unable to secure a conventional bank loan.
He lives in a generally violence-free part of the city, but isn’t too far from where former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated and where Sunni-Shiite tensions still smolder.
But Huseyn stays above the fray. “He’ll shave anybody; he doesn’t care. A beard is a beard,” Harris said.
Lebanon was one of the places that Harris said his family and friends asked if he was nervous to go, and whether the people there liked Americans. “It was never an issue,” he said about Lebanon and all the countries he visited. “What I received everywhere I went was a remarkable welcome, not because I’m an American, just because I’m a person.”
He said he’s trying to correct some of those misperceptions in his book.