Fridays at HOPE Congo are different. Our usually bustling courtyard feels empty without the typical 60 clients awaiting loan disbursements. Fridays are instead reserved for client trainings, repayment meetings and other staff meetings. It is also the day that loan officers venture out into the field for the client selection process, and I decided to tag along.
I was joining Merveille, a loan officer who has been with HOPE Congo for the past year after starting as an intern working on HOPE’s partnership with KIVA. There were three potential clients Merveille planned to visit that day, spread out in different quarters of Brazzaville. Client selection is a process that takes place before the start of a new loan cycle – some BACO groups have lost members who have decided to take a break. New candidates are then put forward to take their place, often the friends or colleagues of previous group members. Prospective clients fill out an application with the loan officer and set up a meeting for the loan officer to examine their business.
Our first destination was behind marché total where the road became increasingly bumpy and we decided to get out of our taxi and walk the rest of the way down the road. With the sun already baking down on the dried earth road as we stepped carefully along the edge, darting over the side as a particularly aggressive driver went by. As we got close, Merveille started asking vendors at small stands about our candidate- where did she live? Did they know her? What was her business? This is part of the process Merveille explained, checking out the potential client’s story to ensure they actual live and work where they say they do and haven’t simply arraigned to be present at somebody else’s business.
The neighbors confirmed that the papeterie or stationary shop was indeed our client’s, but when we walked inside we discovered that she wasn’t there! These are some of the challenges loan officers can face: travelling for sometimes great distances only to discover that despite their phone calls, the client is out. The trip wasn’t for nothing though, we were able to verify that she does in fact have a well-organized stationary and office supplies shop, and has a small fridge to sell drinks though it was rather empty. That’s what she wanted a loan for, to expand her drink-selling business in addition to her shop. We went around back to her home where her children let us inside. I was timid about walking into the house, but followed Merveille’s confident example, taking off my shoes at the door and stepping into the dark house with a single television sitting on the floor with several kids clustered around it. Our candidate’s daughter showed us the two great freezers she has to keep drinks cool- and discovered she also makes small bags of juice to sell as well.
“That’s why we do these visits,” Merveille explained as we walked out back. “We’re able to verify what they say and discover any changes- such as the fact that she also makes juice to sell, I didn’t know that!” Client selection days also provide the perfect time for loan officers to check up on current clients that are close by. Since we were right by marché total, we passed through market to say hello to a few other of Merveille’s clients that sold there. It was my first time walking through the market on foot, and it was treacherously muddy after last night’s rains and crowded with people pushing past and calling out to me. We squeezed our way through, thwarting pickpockets and walking round piles of trash to finally reach the road.
It was time for my first bus ride. We sat in the front, meaning we weren’t quite as cramped as those behind us, but getting stuck in city traffic inside a metal container with no air conditioning meant sweat trickling down our skin. Stepping outside into the district of Mfilou, we greeted the open air with relief.
Mfilou is one of the districts of Brazzaville that is closest to the forest, on the outskirts of the city. Here, things started to feel a bit more rural, as if we’d left he city behind. We walked down the railroad tracks and through a small market of corrugated tin stalls selling auto parts, clothing and food with people crowded around a TV. It took a while to track down our next potential client. We had to ask several people for directions since addresses can be a bit difficult to place here in Congo where streets don’t always have names, but are just dirt roads and alleyways. Eventually we discovered the client’s daughter who led us to her mother’s working area. There she proudly showed us her stock of prepared manioc, a local food made out of a root also known as cassava.
This woman had an interesting story herself. She was only three months into her manioc business, which would normally mean that a loan officer would tell her to come back after she had spent a bit more time in her sector. In this particular case however, she was a widow who was forced to take a break from her business activities to tend to the affairs of her deceased husband. Merveille wanted to give her a chance, and we discovered that she had indeed worked hard to create an impressive stock. Manioc is constantly in demand in Congo as a staple starch like rice or bread, and people eat it with most meals. Merveille was thorough in her questioning and investigation of additional goods and location, leaving satisfied that we could place the client in a BACO-low group and see how she did from there.
Our last potential client of the day was in marché PK, one of the cheapest markets in Brazzaville due to its proximity to local fields and gardens. It was a long walk, and lots of backtracking around the market as we attempted to find the client based off her description. We were able to run into several old clients of Merveille in the market who greeted us enthusiastically and helped me get some bananas extremely cheaply! Finally we found our last candidate selling flour in the market, spoke with her briefly and then set out to find a taxi back to the office. This far away from the city center finding a taxi willing to take you back is no easy task, and we walked and waited for at least half an hour before finding one.
Despite being hungry, tired and slightly sunburned I returned full of energy. It was exciting to see the process HOPE takes in recruiting clients and how the loan officers check them out beforehand. I loved getting to see more of Brazzaville, where clients live and work and getting to walk in Merveille’s footsteps.
Loan officers have a difficult job. They walk for hours in the hot sun, without taking a break to eat or drink (they made sure I was carrying water) and attempt to track down clients who are not always where they say they are. Merveille definitely had a great rapport with her clients, past and prospective, and was both thorough and friendly. Loan officers also have one of the best jobs. They get to be out there in the field everyday, witnessing firsthand the change in the lives of clients – and they love it. It’s hard work – and incredibly rewarding.