What Matters Most

As I pass the halfway mark in my fellowship, I’ve been taking some time to reflect. A self-diagnosed pragmatic dreamer, I’m forever faced with the challenge of having to keep my feet on the ground but not wanting to let my dreams fly away. This period of reflection has led to an overload of questions that I struggle to answer when my heart is telling me what I want to hear but my mind is always there to provide a counterargument.

Are we winning the FIGHT against poverty?

What are the biggest BARRIERS in our way?

How can we do BETTER?

These are big issue questions and certainly worthy of debate however I could spend the next two months of my fellowship searching for answers and still not be any closer to the truth. Thankfully I have over 3,000 Kiva borrowers in Armenia to keep things in perspective and help me focus on what matters most to them. As the following encounter illustrates, the most important question our borrowers ask themselves is how can they ensure a bright future for their children.

Gayane lives in a rural village and farms a small plot of land to earn a living for her family. Gayane has had it tough in life. She lost her husband ten years ago and her heartbreak was compounded by the everyday challenges of having to raise three young boys on her own. Two of her sons are grown up now but the youngest, Sarkis, is only thirteen and Gayane is working hard to make sure he has every opportunity to go to university and pursue his dreams.

When I visited Gayane at her home, I was struck by her ingenuity and her determination to make the most of what she has. Her self-made irrigation system is dictated by the natural slopes of her land and this nourishes a bounty of fruits and vegetables. Chickens, cows and goats graze the surroundings and Gayane cleverly dries the manure to produce an efficient fuel source. Most impressively, Gayane has made sure that there will always be bread on her table. She proudly cultivates her wheat before milling it into flour and baking it in an underground clay oven which her boys helped build in the garden. A staple food in most parts of the world, the role of bread takes on an almost spiritual significance in Armenia, something recognised by UNESCO when it was added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014.

Clearly, Gayane is a remarkably resourceful woman and provides well for her family. However, like all of us, she needs a helping hand sometimes and when Gayane decided to borrow money earlier this year to buy potatoes seeds for her farm, she found it difficult because she had struggled with a previous loan and this damaged her credit history with the banks. Thankfully, Kiva partners with a microfinance institution in Armenia called SEF International who take a more holistic view when lending, noting the character and work ethic of borrowers like Gayane. SEF were able to provide the loan Gayane was looking for as part of their 2nd Chance programme which is committed to expanding access to finance where it is needed most.

Gayane harvests potatoes thanks to her Kiva loan

Gayane spoke cheerfully to me about her future plans for the farm but the widest smile of all was reserved for when she proudly announced she would become a grandmother for the first time later this year. So as I take stock during half-time in my fellowship, one simple learning stands out - microfinance is an important means to an even more important end.

If you would like to help SEF reach more people like Gayane, click here to browse their loans fundraising on Kiva and while you’re at it, make new friends with Team Armenia.

About the author

Mark McDonagh

Born and raised in Dublin city, Mark caught the explorer’s bug as early as eight years old when he made his first trip abroad without his parents - a cub scout's trip to the Isle of Man! While studying business with a Master’s degree in Finance, Mark’s university years took him to Italy and the Netherlands where he soon realised his passion for working with people from different cultures. After graduation, he joined HSBC which gave him the opportunity to work abroad in places such as Malaysia, Canada and Poland before coming back to Ireland in a role managing corporate lending relationships. However, a recent vacation to Sierra Leone opened his eyes to microfinance and its importance as a tool for development. Mark has been eager to learn more ever since and is really looking forward to working with Kiva in Armenia.