After a couple of months in the capital of Santo Domingo, I headed to La Romana to visit a more rural branch office of Esperanza, one of Kiva’s partners in the Dominican Republic. For a little less than two weeks, I worked with the exceptionally welcoming La Romana staff to conduct a Borrower Verification (BV), an audit to ensure that Kiva partners administer your loans with the highest integrity.
Although La Romana is famous for its beaches and the well-known hotel Casa de Campo (so frequented by celebrities, they keep an annual list of celeb visits), I spent the majority of my time meeting with Kiva borrowers in bateyes. Bateyes are communities located on or within sugarcane plantations, generally made up of Haitian immigrants – most of whom are undocumented in the DR (for more info: a recent UN report and a wiki link). Plagued by geographic and social isolation as well as lacking basic necessities such as electricity, running water, education and healthcare, bateyes are known as some of the poorest and most disenfranchised communities in the DR.
In the bateyes, there are two seasons: the zafra (harvest time) and the tiempo muerto (dead time). As you can imagine, the bateyes are bustling during the zafra, but the bustle significantly decreases when there is no harvest. Some agricultural work such as field preparation is done during the tiempo muerto, but most community members search for supplemental income or return to Haiti during that time. Regardless of season, the income for families in the bateyes is low and many families start up smaller businesses selling food, clothes, and other products to supplement their income from the sugarcane harvests. Esperanza provides loans to these entrepreneurs so they can make the up-front investment in their businesses (usually in the form of raw materials or products) that they could not otherwise afford. Rafaela (pictured below) is one such entrepreneur who sells fried chicken from her fritura in Batey Palo Blanco.
My visit to complete the BV happened to fall during the tiempo muerto, which meant that (1) organizing the BV was a bit more difficult than it would have been during the zafra, and (2) I got well acquainted with lodo and lluvia (mud and rain) as it’s currently hurricane season in the DR and roads turning into rivers is less than uncommon. Esperanza loan officers even graced me with the compliment of being called a dominicana when I stripped my shoes and socks off without hesitation to traverse a 3 -foot wide river (of what seemed like Class III rapids) that had formed on the sidewalk outside the office to reach my ride home from work.
Organizing the BV was somewhat more challenging for a couple of reasons. First, Esperanza uses the solidarity group lending model, which means that the entire group is responsible for the loan. In Esperanza, these groups are called BDEs (Bancos de Esperanza) and are made up of between two and eight subgroups of five individual borrowers. The loan officers typically schedule two-three meetings per day, which means we could be meeting with upwards of 100 borrowers in one day. Secondly, many of Esperanza’s clients make their businesses mobile during the tiempo muerto; instead of selling products out of their homes as is usually done during the busy harvest season, they often put their products on their backs or their heads and journey to other communities to sell. Mejor dicho (better said), we were organizing upwards of 100 potentially mobile people daily – and the La Romana staff does this throughout the entire dead season! Words cannot describe how impressive the tenacity of both the loan officers and the entrepreneurs in the bateyes is, the entrepreneurs for doing whatever they can to provide for their families in exceptional circumstances and the loan officers for doing all they can to serve their clients in those circumstances.
On my last borrower visit in the bateyes, I met Alicia (pictured below), who runs a business selling clothing in Batey Tocones de Cacata. Although only 21 years old, this young woman is the president of her loan group, has been helping support her family with her clothing business for the past two years, and recently received her high school diploma. Finishing high school is an incredible accomplishment in the bateyes as attending school means paying for long bus rides into the city every day in addition to working, scarce resources, and complicated visa issues. Not only did Alicia earn her high school diploma, but she is also preparing to leave for college to study psychology.
To support more borrowers like Alicia and Rafaela, visit currently fundraising loans in the DR on Kiva here!