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Home  > Article

Exploring Microfinance in Benin

By Natalie Mazur

It was a typical summer day in West Africa, and Sebastien Arnold was on his way to collect loan repayments in the isolated villages of Benin.

A short summer storm had left humidity hanging in the air and made the humdrum pace of men and women going about their daily lives seem markedly removed from the frenetic gait of Western societies. Or at least, so the world seemed to Arnold as he found himself zooming through the bare and open African landscape on the back of a rickety Chinese motorcycle, the dust sticking to his sweaty face, imprisoned inside the helmet they had felt obliged to provide the foreigner with. On their way, he and his companion stopped at a little shack for an authentically African lunch break consisting of mashed yams and meat. They then continued down the long bumpy road, embarking on one of many journeys to collect loan repayments in the villages.

Sebastien Arnold, a Swiss citizen who grew up in Tanzania, Bangladesh and Switzerland, was not unfamiliar with the vast continent of Africa. Having traveled to Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Tanzania, Swaziland, Kenya, South Africa and Namibia, Arnold was quite familiar with the African continent. Last summer, however, after his first year as a history and economics concentrator at college, he set off to gain new insight and visit a different part of Africa. Together with a development consultant, he left for Parakou, Benin to evaluate the impact of the Swiss government's funding of a program intended to promote literacy in Benin. Having taken econometrics and statistics in college, the initial purpose of his trip was to set up basic surveys to evaluate the program and to use computer programs to analyze the results. However, after a few days of interviewing people involved with the movement of alphabetization in Benin, Arnold came to realize that the organization had not implemented methods of self-evaluation, nor did they have a clear vision of their own goals. Thus, Arnold's fellow consultant took over the role of providing workshops while Arnold shifted the purpose of his trip and decided to take part in the work of a sister organization, Sia N'Son, a microfinance institution of a few thousand borrowers which operates out of Parakou (the second largest city in Benin), and was started in the 1990's by a group of Beninese.
   
Although Arnold came to this group unannounced, they were happy to have him. As co-director of Harvard College's microfinance group A Drop in the Ocean, Arnold was able to provide useful assistance.  He participated by going to the fields and collecting loan payments, assisting in filling out paperwork, and providing people with basic computer training. Although these tasks were seemingly simple, they allowed him to gain new insight into the world of microfinance.
   
An abundance of literature exists on the increasingly popular and controversial topic of microfinance, but to see this process in action is a different story. It was "really nice to see how simple everything was," Arnold says. "Just a stack of money in a jar, a mobile phone as calculator and a notebook was all it took."  

In addition to getting a taste of the work atmosphere, Arnold also realized the implications of his visit; the children of the villages he visited appeared "never to have seen a white man before in their lives." Although they were not able to communicate directly, the children were thrilled to see the results of the pictures Arnold snapped. "Even if you don't speak the language you can always communicate," says Arnold.  He found ways to connect with the children who very rarely experienced the presence of a foreigner in their isolated villages. One of the highlights was the innocence, excitement, and eagerness that the children of the villages displayed.
   
There was, of course, also an element of inevitable culture shock spanning from the local cuisine to experiencing every day customs and traditions. It was often hard to refuse meals as a guest and most people did not seem to understand the feeling of being a foreigner since many had never left the country. It was "the only time in my life I really felt like I was the only foreigner there," Arnold describes. Indeed, especially in smaller villages, few foreigners venture to Benin.
   
Overall, Arnold qualifies his trip as an "enriching experience" and one that allowed for "personal development." Although previously well-acquainted with Africa, Arnold states that during his trip he "learned more about Africa than by spending four years in Tanzania." This goes to say that a travel experience that truly integrates you into the culture and inner-workings of the country is most valuable in gaining an intimate knowledge of a country.
   
His participation in the microfinance organization provided him with an immediate friend and guide: the charg' de credit of the organization who was in charge of collecting the loan payments. The trips to little isolated villages also provided valuable insight into the workings of microfinance in the country. To go beyond the major city of Parakou and see the places where microfinance was truly having an impact was an invaluable experience. Although the loans were very small-scale (around sixty American dollars), Arnold was able to see that they had really made a difference. People were able to set up their own businesses and take a step towards economic empowerment, and Arnold was able to witness and analyze the direct results of microfinance in Benin.

If you are interested in a similar experience, please contact Sebastien Arnold (sarnold@fas.harvard.edu), Co-director of A Drop in the Ocean (ADITO), a Harvard College microfinance group. This group will be sending interns to Sia N'Son in Benin next summer. ADITO also has several other exciting opportunities ranging from "Banking for Socially Ostracized Women in the Islamic World" to "Creating an Environmentally Responsible MFI in Panama." For more general information, contact ADITO by email (info.adito@gmail.com).






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