A Barefoot Banker from Bangladesh
Salam has been having a tremendous impact on Fonkoze's operations since his arrival in Haiti last September. We brought him here from Grameen Bank to see us through the implementation of the Grameen Center methodology. On top of language barriers, there are significant cultural hurdles between the Islamic culture of Bangladesh and the Christian culture of Haiti. Small crowds of confused Haitians gathered the first day Salam put on his traditional Bangladeshi attire,

After nearly six months in Haiti, Salam now speaks the Kreyol of a nine month-old and continues to speak nineteenth-century English that only the British and sometimes, Americans can understand. Needless to say, communication with Haitians and ti machann in particular is not easy for him. But it does not stop him from getting his message of microcredit through.

which to Haitians looks exactly like a dress. He has adapted to all of the cultural differences with humor and grace, from learning to eat with different table utensils, to learning to ask if food is made with pork, to learning how to buy avocados in the marketplace. He has even stopped blushing when women give him a kiss of greeting.

Despite these many cultural barriers, Salam has become the most popular person in Fonkoze. If people could vote for him, they would. He is relentlessly optimistic and cheery. He fearlessly zips around town on the back of a motorcycle. Most importantly, he loves to joke and laugh with Fonkoze staff and clients. His love for people has been important in the way Fonkoze employees view their job. Salam is extremely client and field-oriented and demands that Fonkoze staff follow his example. This orientation has begun to pay dividends as clients feel more valued and Fonkoze superiors are more in tune with field operations that occur under their auspices.

In addition to the personal impact that Salam has had on Fonkoze, his professional experience is so well regarded by our branch office directors that they are making requests for his time over a month in advance. In the nearly twenty years that Salam has worked in Grameen Bank system, it seems he has experienced nearly every scenario conceivable. For this reason, his presence and wealth of experience are extremely valuable to everyone who is involved in the formation of centers of borrowers.

Fonkoze expects these centers to improve both the product offered to its clients and its own operational efficiency. In the past, Fonkoze asked clients to bring reimbursements to the branch offices. Because many clients live and work a great distance from the nearest branch office, it was not only costly and time-consuming for the clients themselves, but also posed a great challenge for Fonkoze branch employees when loans became delinquent. In addition, although Fonkoze attempted to apply the solidarity-lending approach, in reality many clients did not totally buy into it because they continued to make reimbursements individually. Now, with monthly center reimbursement meetings, clients reimburse in their borrowing groups in front of as many as nine other groups, so the peer pressure to repay is considerable. Already, in offices where clients reimburse in centers, delinquency rates are declining.

Centers should also dramatically improve the efficiency of our credit staff. Instead of conducting training and follow-up visits with individual groups, field staff is able to reach many more clients per unit time that they spend in the field. Fonkoze expects average client load per field officer to increase by as much as 50-80% as a result of center implementation.

It is Salam who has kept the pressure on for each branch to get their Centers up and running. Every director now has a map of his/her zone on the wall and is mapping out where centers will be located. Salam has announced to everyone, he wants to attend at least one or two center meetings in all 18 branch offices before he leaves. Believe me, This is a major challenge, given the difficulty of travelling in the provinces and then walking hours to reach a center.

I personally have a favorite Salam story. Soon after he arrived, he told me that when he flew into Haiti and looked down and saw all the mountains and the distances between houses, he thought to himself, "The Grameen approach will not work in this country." But after a few visits in the countryside, he came to me very seriously and said that he had determined that the Grameen approach would work in Haiti. I asked him why he had changed his mind. He said, "Because I now see that the women in Haiti are very strong and they are very independent. They don't mind walking long distances and they don't stay in their homes at all. This is a great advantage."

Anne H. Hastings


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