One of the most rewarding aspects of being a Kiva fellow is travelling to remote towns and villages and meeting borrowers whose lives are impacted by our loans. Recently I had my first field trip in Azerbaijan and would like to share some observations and stories.
Leaving the Baku cityscape behind you everything quickly turns rural and much more basic. Go beyond the main highway and up any narrow side track and you are transported back in time to a land where the horse and cart is more common than the tractor and shepherds still dutifully tend their flocks.
I’d like to highlight the stories of just two of the many people I’ve met. They are representative of what I’ve invariably found.... hardworking, proud, family orientated people who rely on micro-finance to make small, but for them significant, improvements to their lives or who need the lifeline of a loan to cover some unexpected expense such as medical treatment or urgent repairs.
I met Nailya, a 59 year old mother of 5 children, from the village of Kabirli. It took almost an hour's drive from the regional town of Beylagan along a potholed track to reach the small compound where she lives with her family and animals (2 cows, a calf and some chickens). It was almost dark by the time I arrived but in the gathering gloom she told me how grateful she and her family were for the loans they've received, the difference it has made to their lives, and the fact that the loan officer (from AzerCredit) is like a family member to them.
Then there was Niyaz a 33 year old entrepreneur with a wife and 3 beautiful young children. He took a startup loan from Azercredit so he could form his own business buying and selling cattle (well one calf actually), feeding them up and selling on for a profit. He lives in an IDP (refugee) settlement near the regional town of Agjabeyi. It took considerable time and effort to locate exactly where he lived. The settlement sprung up so quickly no one bothered to name the streets or erect signposts. Some helpful neighbors eventually guided us to his home. During our talk it transpired the loan officer was also his old school teacher. Proving yet again how integrated loan officers are in the local community. The officer tells me Niyaz is an accomplished musician and singer. After some prompting in Azeri he shyly stands and sings a traditional ballad, a love song. I did not understand the words but it was sung beautifully and with great feeling.
Niyaz relies on the small loans he receives from Azercredit to improve the standard of living for him and his family and is very grateful for the support he has received.
I could have recounted similar stories from the other people I’ve met. Life here is very difficult with most people requiring 2 or even 3 jobs to make sufficient income to make ends meet. The thing that struck me most was not one person complained about their situation. Rather they were grateful for the little they had.
Travelling back through time to Baku I see the imposing city sky line shimmering in the distance. Driving through the city a billboard proudly announces the upcoming European games in 2015. Huge development is taking place in Baku ahead of these games. Luxury apartments, high tech stadia and impressive shopping malls are all in various stages of construction. I can’t help but contrast this vibrant and affluent city with the harsh and uncompromising life I’ve seen in the regions.
Getting back to the question at hand. Does modern day Azerbaijan need our help? The answer has to be no… modern Azerbaijan does not. However for the rest of Azerbaijan, the vast majority, micro-finance is essential for incrementally improving their standard of living and providing a safety net when needed most. Without these loans what is already a challenging existence would be incredibly difficult if not impossible.
Spare a thought for the people in rural communities when you watch the European games next year. Success for them is not a gold medal but simply putting a meal on the family table.
Vince Main, Kiva Fellow, Azerbaijan