Whole Planet Foundation’s annual Field Officer Awards for the Latin American region were distributed in August 2020. This special honor is designed to go to a Field Officer who has gone above and beyond his/her role to provide financial services to low income entrepreneurs . Often, award nominations are submitted that showcase Field Officers that have overcome various hurdles and made a particularly positive contribution that enabled their organization to be successful. This year, Field Officers and the microfinance institutions (MFIs) they work for had their biggest hurdle to date with the onset of the pandemic, but nevertheless they have found creative ways to continue motivating their clients. One of the best assets that MFIs have is their committed loan officers, that have been willing to navigate additional difficult barriers to ensure clients’ success.
The 2020 Latin American awards honored 9 organizations. The 5 organizations with the top winners were Microserfin of Panama; ASEI of El Salvador; Fundación Paraguaya of Paraguay; Funder of Honduras; and Friendship Bridge of Guatemala. The 4 honorable mentions included ADOPEM of Dominican Republic; Sembrar Sartawi of Bolivia; Banco do Povo of Bolivia; and Grameen of Costa Rica.
Each winner has a unique story but here are some of the ones that stood out for us.
Juana Flores of Microserfun Panama handles a portfolio of US $253,731 with just 2.34% default rate and was chosen for her ability see how each of her clients is unique. Juana’s clients are spread out across Panama’s rural interior.
Getting to clients has always been time-consuming and there’s been times when rain has made the path so difficult that she missed the last bus home and had to stay in the community where she’s working overnight. She’s never deterred from visiting her clients though because she knows they face the same difficulties and more every day, just to transport their business activities all the way to town and back.
The arrival of the pandemic on Panamanian soil was a challenge for Microserfin as Juana and her colleagues were physically separated from clients for several months due to quarantine. Now that internal travel is permitted again in Panama, Juana and other field advisors are finding new routes to reach clients by car, bus, horseback or on foot.
Pre-Covid, a typical day for Mildred was to get up early to attend to her husband and her 5-month-old son before she then took the bus to meet her first village bank meeting. Mildred attends on average four groups in one day while also managing promotional activities, pre-credit training, and new loan applications. In the evenings, Mildred is pursuing her last year of university with a career in Special Education.
When COVID-19 hit Guatemala, daily visits to clients was forced to an abrupt halt. Mildred and her colleagues began calling each client one by one to get on the ground information regarding the level of knowledge clients have about the situation and their concerns. Friendship Bridge immediately started offering clients the option to restructure their loans to include grace periods, prepayments with no penalties, and reduced interest rates. They also offered Telehealth Services for clients and began an international fundraiser to provide emergency food relief for clients stuck in quarantine with no income or access to food.
Kenia Surisadday Cruz Gómez is another notable winner. Kenia works in areas with a 40% literacy rate and has helped customize adult-learning training on topics such as Organization, Financial Education, Savings and Behaviors, and Cash Flow Management, using Funder’s participatory methodologies with illustrations and real-life examples. By the end, participants prepare and analyze their own financial statements.
While the pandemic has inhibited Funder in many ways, they were still able to work with agricultural clients in the deep interior of Honduras, to assist them in the application of biosafety programs, and deepen their financial education and business expertise to guarantee that their crops will arrive on time: for their sake and for the sake of the whole country that depends on their outputs. The financing needs of families were addressed through digital means, a financial education program was also created via zoom, and messaging via WhatsApp and SIM has been used to stay in contact with clients, as well as meetings via telephone to continue providing technical assistance and financial services to organized groups linked to the main productive chains of the country, such as: coffee, vegetables, red beans, corn, cocoa, okra, among others. Thanks to farmers’ success and to good weather conditions, good production is reported throughout the country.
Like many businesses around the world, our microfinance partners have had to reinvent themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. This transformation has required great agility and commitment from the Field Officers who serve as the faces of their institutions. Thank you to all our partner’s Field Officers for being examples of persistence, allegiance and integrity, even amid chaos.