Sep 4 - The Amazing Salar de Uyuni

8 years ago, I did the most amazing trip to the Salar de Uyuni--and this year it was just as spectacular, maybe even better! The Salar de Uyuni trip goes through a salt desert and national park just along the southern border of Bolivia. Going there is like going to another world, with a tour through the expansive salt flat, coloured lagoons filled with pink flamingos, bizarre rock formations, hissing volcanic fumaroles, freezing cold nights, steamy hot springs, painted landscapes, and of course llamas!!

We were lucky to be grouped in our 4 x 4 with a fun group of people for 3 days. Unfortunately, they all spoke Spanish, so unless I was concentrating really hard, I tended to miss a good chunk of the conversation. Luckily, Felipe took up the role of social butterfly and helped us bond with the group. This gave me an easy way to just zone out and enjoy the views.

Pardon the Photoshop in some of the salt desert photos, but it was fun just to screw around with perspectives in the desert.

squish them!
flags of the world
at the salt hotel
carlos on a bottle
felipe vs the dinosaur
marin balancing colombians
isla del pescado
tour group jump
balancing act
giant boot
salt flat shananigans
salt flat
hostal de sal los lipez
sitting in a 4x4
walking on the rocks
laguna hedionda
flamingo photos
flamingos flying
sitting on a boulder
wes in the rough
laguna colorada
like another planet
felipe walking in the mist
JP in hot springs
rosa warming her feet
carlos in dali desert
white borax all around
laguna verde
llamas in the scrub
rock formations


taxi, sopocachi to bus term: B$15
bus, todo turismo to uyuni: B$250
salt flat tour: B$700 - $800
--> they're all pretty much the same
isla del pescado entry: B$30
laguna colorada park fees: B$150

Sep 10 - Kiva?

In one of my first postings for this trip, I asked the question about whether Kiva would be what it's cracked up to be, or is there is something better? After watching Felipe go through his fellowship and seeing the impact of the loans, I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed in Kiva.

Not really Kiva, but I'm disappointed in microfinance in general. In Bolivia, I thought the idea of cheap loans would have an impact, because it gives access to capital to people who otherwise wouldn't have any access. But the truth seemed to be that everyone here has access to capital, unless they're out in the boonies. The Kiva field offices would push hard to convince borrowers to take loans, when the borrower already had 2 or 3 loans from other institutions. Interest rates ranged 20 - 30%, which makes me think are the loans just making it worse?

Thankfully Felipe dug up a success story here and there to make me feel better about my involvement with Kiva until now. Out of a group of 10 ladies, 8 of them would have basic businesses with no real chance for catalytic change. Just a continuing cycle of borrow to survive. The 2 shining stars in the group would have potential ideas that could improve their life and their family's lives significantly. I'd like to focus on those, but it's still the bad 80% that makes me shake my head.

And the whole city is a giant market. For example, I look at a stall selling clothes and I wonder how would a loan help this vendor's life improve when there are 10 stalls just exactly like it right beside? How many clothes stalls does the city really need?

I think the country itself has to improve to improve the lives of the poor. In the rich world, we're convinced that we all have the ability to shape our future--but when the country is poor and opportunities are few, it's really difficult to shape your own future. The country has to prosper before its people can. How can we help the individual countries prosper? It seems to me like richer countries need to freely share their own prosperity--we need to stop expecting anything in return.

So for now, I think I'm going to rethink my Kiva strategy, just so that it might help a bit more. I used to invest in grocery stores as a tribute to my Dad who brought us up working in his grocery store. But that's going to change. My lending principles are now more like this:

1. Loan to catalytic loans with more potential for deeper impact like education loans, disaster relief, and loans in places that are truly excluded from the local banking system.

2. Slowly moving money over to Kiva Zip where loans are truly zero interest to the borrower. Higher risk, but borrowers are not tied to high interest rates which is the whole purpose of my involvement here.

3. Don't expect to receive repayments. If they fail to pay back, it's likely they couldn't. So they really needed the money in the first place.

4. Avoid any field offices with religious connections. I don't want to be part of their brainwashing.

5. Wish the best for all the borrowers! Their road is bumpier than mine but we'll all get where we were meant to go.

I'm sorry I didn't have a better story to report, but I guess that was the point of doing this fellowship with Felipe. It gave me a chance to see the impact of my loans and what it really means to the people that borrow.


Sep 11 - Last Thoughts on Bolivia

Today, we're leaving for Colombia. Leaving La Paz is a happy event. The weather is cold and the traffic and pollution are bad. The internet was driving me nuts--especially when I needed to use it for work every day. It's time to move on.

On the flip side, living costs were cheap. You can eat at restaurants every day without breaking the bank. The food was tasty, albeit a bit salty. And there was always lots of fruit.

And Bolivian people are awesome: When I lived in Buenos Aires, the city itself was great but the people were cold and unfriendly. In La Paz, the people are great and the city is cold! Bolivians are friendly, polite (except when driving), and curious about foreigners. They make visible efforts to talk to you and ask where you're from--without wanting anything from you, other than a smile and a conversation. The Bolivian people are definitely a highlight.

I will especially miss seeing the cholitas in the streets, mixed in with the regular folk like fancy dolls. They really made the trip exotic and colourful. My hat goes off to them and their uniqueness and I wish them success in this quickly modernizing world.

So that's it for Bolivia. Chau! It's been a slice.


Felipe's Kiva Blog Entry

Meet Margarita Quispe: From Artisan to Branch Manager

I started work with Pro Mujer, my second partner in Bolivia, by the end of July. It has been an amazing experience! Through the borrower verification process, I have visited most of the 12 Pro Mujer centers (Centros Focales) in El Alto, several rural villages by Lake Titicaca, some 3 hours away from La Paz by car, and have met numerous borrowers, loan officers and Centro Focal managers.

Pic 1 - Visit to Pucuro Central, a fishing town by Lake Titicaca.

It was very interesting for me to meet a very diverse array of borrowers, some new to Pro Mujer and some very seasoned and experienced business woman that have had a long history with the organization. Lots of the women told me that they had learned their business from their parents. Some knitted alpaca clothes, some made shoes (“abarcas”) out of the used car tires, some fished on the frigid Lake Titicaca for the local trout, and some crafted rustic furniture. Many of them sold goods, like chuños (dried potatoes), vegetables, and household items.

Pic 2 - Rosas De Pucuro Group monthly meeting to receive Pro Mujer training, make their loan payment and chat about how their business is coming along. I attended the meeting and took the opportunity to explain in more detail about Kiva and about the many lenders around the world that help finance their businesses.

Most of businesses I saw were built for survival and subsistence. But there were a few outstanding cases where the borrower had been able to grow their business, diversify to new product lines, offer extra services like product warranties, and in the end, create a thriving and solid business. It made me wonder what were the factors that made some of the businesses extra successful? How did these businesses jump from a subsistence cycle of loan-buy-resell-repay to a more profitable, stable and higher value-added model?

I decided to interview one of those that I consider Success Stories and hear her views. Below is an interview with Margarita Quispe Huanca, an Aymará artisan that started 20 years ago with a $50 dollar loan from Pro Mujer and today is the manager of one of the 12 Pro Mujer Centro Focales at El Alto. I was amazed by her story. Besides being a very humble and kind person, she is very dedicated and passionate about helping other woman. In this interview, Margarita tells me how she progressed to where she is today, her thoughts on what makes a borrower successful, and the best role for Kiva and Pro Mujer in the process.

Pic 3 – Margarita Quispe Huanca. Manager of Centro Focal German Busch, Pro Mujer, El Alto

Interview with Margarita Quispe – Manager of Centro Focal German Bausch – Pro Mujer Date: 20-August-2014

Please, tell me about yourself and how you got into Pro Mujer

My name is Margarita Quispe Huanca. I am married and I have four children: three daughters and one boy. My husband is an artisan. My daughter is the oldest, she is 30, she is already a professional and works for a Bolivian Bank (Banco Fie). The youngest is my son who is 12 years old. I am also a grandmother of two beautiful grandchildren.

I was born in a rural Aymará community called Collipani, in the municipality of Sorata, province of Larecaja (about 150 kilometers from La Paz). I came to the La Paz/El Alto region when I was eight.

I started working as an artisan, making and selling shoes for men, something that I had learned from our family business. In 1992, I obtained my first loan for $50 USD from Pro Mujer, joining as a member of a communal bank. At that time, there were no other financial institutions or banks that would loan to woman.

As a member of the communal bank, I acted as their Treasurer. For several years, I also worked indirectly for ProMujer as a “promoter”. I would be paid for each group of women that formed a communal bank with Pro Mujer.

Through my previous exposure with Pro Mujer, some of the loan officers encouraged me to apply to work for Pro Mujer. I did not think I could. I knew how to add and subtract in my head for my business but I did not know how to use a calculator. At that point, I had only completed grammar school. But the loan officers kept on encouraging me and I decided to apply. Before the interview I learned how to use the calculator and tried to prepare myself as best as I could. I passed. Pro Mujer opened a door for me. So in 1997, I joined as a direct Pro Mujer employee.

I knew I had to learn to read and write much faster. So I decided to attend an institute for mature students (CEMA) to finish high school. Years later, I attended a technical institute to complete a degree as a banking technician.

Since I joined Pro Mujer I have worked as a loan officer for seven years, and then as a manager of one of the 12 Pro Mujer branches in El Alto for ten years.

You have gone a long way from Artisan to Branch Manager showing a remarkable progression to a leadership position. What do you think has been the key factor to your success?

I believe that it was the opportunity that Pro Mujer gave me and all the doors they opened for me. It all started with the trainings they gave me when I first joined the first communal bank. For two hours a week, over six months, they taught me about communal banking and business skills. Those trainings really reached into my heart. I also know that every time I make a step forward I need to improve myself. And it has been very rewarding. Throughout my work with Pro Mujer I have been able to educate my children to the point that some of them are already professionals. Also my husband has been able to work fewer hours, dedicate more time to our children, and attend school meetings. What good is money if not to make your family life better?

Through your 20+ years of experience with Pro Mujer (and as member of a communal bank, Loan Officer and Branch Manager) you have met many individual borrowers and communal banks. Why do you think groups/individuals fail/succeed?

They fail due to too much debt. Also, due to lack of orientation, training and focus. I always advise my clients to invest in businesses, instead of borrowing to pay for parties or to celebrate the festivities. I also deter them to borrow to pay for other loans as this can get into a vicious circle.

Nowadays, there are many micro-finance institutions and banks that provide loans to woman and compete with Pro Mujer. Why would someone choose Pro Mujer over any of the other institutions?

The banks only care to give a credit and that is it. The borrowers see the loan officer the day of the disbursement and that is it. The banks do not provide trainings and don’t care to develop their clients. At Pro Mujer we talk to them, we listen to them. We understand their pains. We ask our clients what they like from Pro Mujer and I often hear that they like to meet and share with other woman. At a Bank you spend time in line, pay or perform a transaction and then you leave. At Pro Mujer if you are sick or have a headache, we advise you to go to the doctor. In the end, I believe the training and health services that we offer our borrowers make a big difference. We foster solidarity; we foster sharing of ideas and provide a space that is conducive for woman to help each other. We encourage each and every one of the groups to be outstanding.

After spending a few months in the El Alto and La Paz region, it is my impression that the families and communities have strong ties to tradition (e.g. culture, rituals, believes, economic activity). Do you think this factor hampers innovation and a deeper insertion into the modern world?

I think that the women are breaking away from being shy more and more all the time. You can clearly identify a woman that comes from the rural areas. They do not want to get into debt. They are very responsible and reliable. They also depend very much on their husbands. They always think: “What would he say?”. At Pro Mujer we tell them that YOU decide. You decide how many children you want to have, you decide in what you want to work. I also see that the government is changing the message at schools giving the message to woman that you can accomplish things (“You Can”). We also see how the rural towns are changing. We used to have only candles and kerosene to light our houses. Now we have electricity and cable TV. There is also a lot more education, we have technicians that know how to grow quinoa, they are improving the milk factories, and the agro industry. I see that things are changing for the rural side in a positive way. When I retire, I want to go back to my province, grow fruits and have animals. But not until I am old. For now, until I have energy, I have a commitment with Pro Mujer and other women to keep opening opportunities for other women!

Pic 4 – Margarita Quispe providing training to the Loan Officers (Agentes) from her center so that they can in turn train Pro Mujer borrowers on business skills.




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