In a courtyard, Sobirova is a woman of few words; it later turns out that, in this patchwork country of races and clans, she is Uzbek and understands little of the translator. However, she tells a story of climbing a rung up the ladder: how the bakery, in the family for 40 years, was galvanized with a $300 loan in 2000 and now bakes its way through five bags of wheat-flour a day for sale in the local market; how it employs three family members and has helped her daughter set up an embroidery business, proudly displayed in a room off the courtyard; and how it has not only empowered a family but kept it in existence.
"Our business helps us to keep the family together," Sobirova says. "I have been able to arrange marriages for three of my children. Two are remaining. Hopefully I can manage a marriage for them as well." With business good, her husband and son have never had to follow the herd to Russia for work; both drive taxis in Dushanbe.
Paid marriages and family unity will never show up in microfinance statistics, but nothing comes through more strongly in borrower comments than this: not the size of a house, or the food on the table, or a car, or a cow, but the sense of providing properly for a family. Sobirova sums it up: "Before, life was difficult."
Lenders, too, like to keep families together – it’s good for business as well as society. "It is a role model for the next generation: to have a family consisting of a mother, father and children," says Mavsuda Vaisova, general director of Humo and Partners – the suggestion being that this has not been the norm.
This is one of the happier borrower relationships. Sobirova poses cheerfully for pictures with an Imon branch manager, staging a chat about company accounts at the kitchen table, before handing out generous amounts of fresh bread. But is it always like this?
Cost of funds is a common refrain among microfinance lenders, particularly when lending in local currency. "The basis for pricing is the cost of funds," says Sydykova at Arvand. "Since somoni are much more expensive, the interest rates are accordingly higher." Arvand charges 22% to 26% a year in dollars, 30% to 38% in somoni, but Sydykova says this is much better than working with a loan shark. Robiya Asrorova, a loan officer at Imon, says 10% a month is not an uncommon loan-shark rate – without sympathetic repayment terms – and adds: "There were cases where individual lenders gave out loans for a term of three or four months, then required the money back before the term expired."
Cost of funding comes up in Kyrgyzstan too, where MFIs cannot do transactions in hard currency, yet get their funding from overseas. Bai Tushum & Partners, a Kyrgyz MFI, says that four years ago the hedging costs for it to manage this risk were 3% to 4%; today, a commercial bank will charge 12% or 13%. "In this situation, it is hard to talk about reducing interest rates for our loans," says Gulnara Shamshieva, general manager. She says that, depending on external factors, interest rates on loans have swung from 48% a year in 2000 to 24% in 2005, before climbing again. "We have to provide a balance, but MFIs cannot directly affect this situation," she says. Besides, it’s not an easy business to do cheaply. "We are an institution that operates in rural remote areas, trying to reach clients far from towns and cities," she says. "We provide loans without any collateral. It’s high risk, high cost."
Lenders say they have flexible repayment schedules, giving the impression that they are not particularly tough on missed payments, and that their delinquency rates are incredibly low, from negligible to 2%. Asrorova says that Imon has never, in 12 years, sold any property that was pledged as collateral for a loan: Sydykova says Arvand’s non-payment rate is 0.5%, adding: "The repayment rate is very good. It is because the loans are short term." This is an interesting point, and on the face of it counterintuitive: why does a short-term loan make it easier to pay? Perhaps for someone new to debt, the immediacy of a deadline makes it easier to plan for. Sobirova, the baker, asked about the challenge of repayment, says: "It wasn’t difficult for us. The first loan I received was just six months and I had to repay in instalments."
SOME 25 KILOMETRES EAST OF Dushanbe, the scenery turns to farmland. Near a cluster of houses, a boy is driving a cow across a field. Neat pats of manure dry outside the entrances to the homes, to be used for fuel. In one of these homes, we meet Mastura Asoeva, the basket-maker. "I am an entrepreneur and farmer," she begins. "[Before microfinance], our living standard was average." Then 10 years ago, an international NGO got involved in the local community, providing training in agronomy, engineering and farming, building capacity and eventually an introduction to Humo, one of Tajikistan’s bigger MFIs. A loan provided agricultural inputs, from seeds to training, and the modest 0.1 hectares of land she owned became the source of tree branches for her basketry.
Asoeva exemplifies that – apart from the fact entrepreneurs can thrive anywhere – money is not a lot of use without training to go with it, which somewhat blurs the line between a commercial lending operation and a development organization. "Initially, the quality of our products was low," she says. She got advice on improving them; now she trains people throughout the local region, receiving income for doing so. Today, she talks like a venture-capital recipient. "I have always been able to pay on time," she says. "I was confident in myself and I have always produced my products with confidence that I would be able to sell them and repay my loan." She has bought a plot of land to build a new workshop "to expand my production"; the foundations are being put in as we talk.
She has no doubt that, as a woman, life would have been much worse without the loan. "It’s important women have got this motivation, this desire of developing, of moving forward," she says. "If a person tries her best, she will never fall into poverty." Without microfinance, though, she says she’d have to go to "individuals", a common shorthand for loan sharks. "There are many of them in this country," she says. "They try to make you bogged down in debts." All four of her children have been educated on the proceeds from the baskets.
The loan started simply: Humo came to the village to explain what it did. Along with the loan came training, on subjects including canning vegetables, cooking biscuits and writing project proposals. Asked what difference microfinance has made, the answer is familiar. "Our business has made a tremendous change to our life," she says. "We had only a two-room house. With the money we received, we built additional houses, we arranged the weddings of our children and we provided for our children’s schooling." One is at university. The next goal is "to buy a new tractor to improve our life".
It is time to get moving to Kyrgyzstan. Heading south in a Land Cruiser with Lotte Pang from the global development institution International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is producing a video on microfinance, Euromoney is swiftly among cotton fields, then craggier, dusty land where little agriculture is supported, beyond hardy troops of goats. It’s out here, in the rural areas, where microfinance reaches places with no alternative. The road becomes uneven, then disintegrates. At times, it is a river bed. Late in the night, the driver points across a river at dim lights on the other side. "Afghanistan," he says.
After that it takes a full day of driving along the Panj River, which marks the Afghanistan border, to reach Khorog, the capital of the semi-autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan. This is not so much Tajik as Pamir territory, and fiercely independent. Tribally and culturally different, it took the losing side in the civil war, and not much development funding has come this way from the government since. There was a time when money in Khorog ceased to exist, and traditional barter took its place, before the Aga Khan started pouring in money. Today, it hosts the University of Central Asia.
Getting this far into the wilderness gives one a new perspective of the challenges that face MFIs. "There are some technical problems faced by microfinance organizations in remote areas, such as not having a computer or internet," says Khoshakova. Also, keeping track of a far-flung and often large client base with a low average loan amount is a headache. Sourcing personnel is another challenge, since microfinance organizations generally don’t pay well.
Euromoney might have overdone it. Driving up the Pamir Highway, built over the mountains by the Soviets, we blow a tyre at 2am, at an altitude of 4,000 metres and 90 kilometres from the nearest village – in a blizzard. The drivers get out to change the wheel. They hand me a torch and tell me to walk in circles around the car. "Watch for wolves," one says.
Surviving this, we arrive at dawn in Murgab, a half-Tajik, half-Kyrgyz town, where electricity alternates between the two halves throughout the day. It is utterly bleak and barren but beautiful, and it’s hard to see where an economy could be built here. Much employment comes from the NGOs who have set up here to help. As the sun rises, a stream of grinning children, some probably no older than four, arrive with pails to get water from the well. Japanese stickers on the well’s pump show its foreign provenance.
IT IS ANOTHER FULL DAY’S DRIVE amid the mountains and alongside a Chinese border fence, newly moved after Tajikistan ceded a chunk of its territory to China in exchange for road-building assistance, before we reach the magnificent inconvenience of a Central Asian border and cross into Kyrgyzstan. On the other side, the land is more fertile; more populated by yurts. And that brings us to Kyrgyzstan’s theme of microfinance: the fact it is 66% rural (and 34% below the poverty line).
"We are a mountainous country and we don’t have many big cities or towns," says Shamshieva at Bai Tushum, whose own client base is 80% rural. That’s a business model, as well as a challenge. "We provide access to financial services for all unbankable people in rural areas," she says. "They have no attractive collateral."
It is not an easy model to run. In a place lacking financial literacy, the problem of over-indebtedness is acute. "Our credit bureau [an IFC-backed initiative aimed at helping lenders assess indebtedness of potential clients] says about 35% of clients are running between institutions," she says. "When business is going well, maybe you are able to repay multiple loans, but when it comes to a crisis, it creates problems – and not only for one institution." Bai Tushum won’t lend to any client who has more than 70,000 som (KGS) – $1,536 – in outstanding loans. Not every lender applies such standards.
There are other problems. We spend the night in the city of Osh. Barely a year ago, this was the scene of bitter violence that one could justifiably call ethnic cleansing. There is still an edge here; a policeman was killed the night before we arrive. Stalin has a lot to answer for in this part of the world: it was he who set the random jigsaw puzzle of borders around these Central Asian states, where in the space of 100 kilometres one can go from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan, back to Kyrgyzstan, and back, and back again, and in to Tajikistan, without turning left or right off the road. Tensions between these nations flare frequently, particularly if something such as a proposed hydro plant in one country threatens to cut water flow to agriculture in another – and this is yet another challenge microfinance must face.
Driving further through Kyrgyzstan, another problem becomes evident: corruption. Euromoney is stopped seven times in a day and fined each time. "It is illegal to photograph gas stations," says one policeman, moving through the pictures on the cameras. There are no photographs of gas stations, but he fines us anyway.
here is a big push on microfinance in Kyrgyzstan. President Roza Otunbayeva has long championed it as a cause, and the National Bank’s Emil Saryazhiev, who heads the department for methodology and licensing, lists the statistics with some pride: 630 microfinance organizations, including four microfinance companies; 317 microcredit companies; 111 microcredit agencies; and 198 credit unions. Shamshieva at Bai Tushum says there is KGS18 billion ($397 million) in microfinance lending nationwide, or 30% of the total banking sector loan portfolio, covering almost 400,000 clients – far more than the banks. Even then, she estimates that only 17% of the economically active population of the country is banked.
Despite the huge numbers, Saryazhiev says: "The National Bank is doing its best to focus more on the quality of microfinance institutions than the quantity." Amendments are going through on the licensing of microfinance, allowing institutions to upgrade to commercial banks, with the aim that they can provide a greater range of services to rural people, including leasing.
Talking to a central banker, though, exposes another area of potential conflict with this rapidly growing sector. "[Microfinance organizations] should be for the people, not the people should be for them," he says. "Therefore they should not think about their own profit, they should rather think about assisting people to make up capital and start their own business. Those that are concerned only about their own profit should be pressed out of the market."
This approach sounds public-spirited but provides no reason to encourage anyone to lend. Microfinance providers believe they do good. "This is our social mission, to help eliminate poverty," says Shamshieva. However, they also hope to turn a profit.
Sydykova at Arvand says: "The profitability and sustainability of microfinance means it is a long-term activity. It means it will exist, it will expand and it will cover larger areas." It prompts efficiency too, she argues. And Asrorova at Imon suggests customers don’t mind lenders making a profit. "There is immense trust between our organization and its clients," she says. "Both parties are interested in getting profit out of this business."
MFIs are also wary of being seen as somehow an infallible solution to poverty. "Sometimes microfinance is perceived as a treatment for all pains, all diseases," says Vaisova at Humo. "Microfinance provides access to finance. It is not a solution to all problems."
She is right, and as Euromoney leaves Bishkek, questions remain about the whole model: the rates, the supervision, the habits it can engender. But it is, today, the best available model, and indisputably improving many lives. "If an MFI does not operate in this country, just think of all those people in remote rural areas," says Shamshieva. "Who will go there? Who will finance them? Nobody."