The United Nations Development Programme ranks Samoa as one of the world’s least developed countries. In the summer of 2009, through funding from a Dean Rusk Program Grant, I volunteered as a Kiva Fellow with South Pacific Business Development (SPBD) in Apia, Samoa.
As I walked through its streets and beaches, I saw countless manifestations of poverty. The drastic change of living style from Davidson shocked me. Samoans don’t have all the luxuries that characterize the Western world. Many people wear faded second-hand clothes donated from developed countries. Their homes are in poor shape—some are infested with termites, some have makeshift walls of tarps and plywood. The Samoan diet is very unhealthy. Cheap imports of processed and canned foods f lood the market from New Zealand and Australia. Canned meat, especially corned beef, is considered a delicacy. As a result, Samoans suffer from diabetes, obesity, and heart problems, and their quality of healthcare is poor. They often wait in line for hours and hours for their appointment, and doctors’ pay is very low, compared with more developed countries.
Kiva serves as a hub of person-to-person, microf inance lending. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can lend small amounts of money to budding entrepreneurs in various countries through partner microfinance institutions (MFIs). As a Kiva Fellow in Samoa, I trained the local staff, helped organize my host MFI’s Kiva processes, and interviewed borrowers.
In my earlier travels, I had seen the dilapidated shops of Aleppo, Syria, the beggars in Chennai, India, and peddlers in Cairo, Egypt. These impoverished people need and deserve the same kinds of financial services that Western countries have. Kiva fascinated me for its novel model of addressing this need—connecting individuals across the world through online lending. Through Kiva, MFIsall over the world can advertise to a wide range of small lenders.
At SPBD, I found women to be the main beneficiaries of the microfinance program. But while microfinance helps many, it is not a cure-all for poverty. Some borrowers can get stuck in a debt trap, becoming dependent on loans to keep up their lifestyle. But many entrepreneurs are very successful, and every lady graciously shares her story. I heard this one from Tumua Senituri, a Samoan woman who inherited 3.5 acres of land from her father. Like many Samoans, she learned how to sow crops from her farmer parents. But she was never able to use the land she inherited because she didn’t have the resources to buy seeds, fertilizer, harvesting equipment, and other supplies. For a long time, the land was unused.
Senituri joined SPBD in 2005 when she took out her first loan of 300 Samoan tala (120 USD). She used her loan to buy fertilizer and pesticides in bulk, saving her a considerable amount of money. But even today, nearly 15 years after inheriting her land, Senituri uses only 2.5 of her 3.5 acres. She has plans to expand her plantation over
the next few years to include the last acre. Now that her business is doing well, she hopes to be a role model
for other women by continuing to expand her own plantation. Using her own experience as a successful entrepreneur, she coaches the women on their business and budgeting skills.
I know how lucky I am to have been born into a society free from many of the hardships that plague developing countries like Samoa, and I am proud to have helped the partnership between SPBD and Kiva grow, facilitating
poverty-alleviation stories like Tumua Senituri’s all over the world. Such stories convinced me that microfinance is a powerful tool for poverty alleviation—and bolstered my decision to pursue work in microfinance after graduation.