Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Small Loans, Big Results

June 2, 2008
by Tamara Schweitzer

Thanks to a microloan from half a world away, a Cambodian rice winemaker named Phal An is ready to expand her growing business.

On the day that Phal An is interviewed about her business, her modest home in the village of Damnak Sankae, Cambodia, is crowded with excited family members. Phal An is a rice winemaker in her late 50s -- and one of thousands of entrepreneurs listed on Kiva.org, a website that facilitates microloans to entrepreneurs in developing nations all over the world.

This past December, Inc.com embarked on an editorial project to cover the rapidly growing phenomenon of microfinance. As a staff, we contributed a modest sum and became lenders on Kiva.org, sponsoring a diverse group of entrepreneurs that includes Phal An, as well as business owners located in Peru, Ecuador, Uganda, Tanzania, and Tajikistan. Updates on these entrepreneurs and their businesses and how they are using their loans are being posted frequently on a new Inc.com blog called "The Kiva Connection."

The following Q&A with Phal An (pronounced Paul Anne) was conducted with the help of Jessica Young, a Kiva fellow in Cambodia, and with Ponnak Kiry Pa, who is Phal An's loan officer in Cambodia. Young has been working on the ground in Cambodia for several months to help bridge the gap between Maxima, the microfinance institution that disbursed the loan to Phal An, and Kiva borrowers in the region.

The interview questions for Phal An were sent via e-mail to Young, who along with loan officer Kiry, visited Phal An at her home in late March. Young posed the interview questions to Kiry in English, who in turn translated the questions into Khmer, Phal An's native language. When translated Phal An's answers back to English for Young to record, he referred to Phal An in the third person, acting in effect as the narrator for Phal An's story.

The interview took place at a central gathering place for the family -- a table used for cooking, eating, and sleeping. In an open, covered space in the back of the home, Phal An has her winemaking equipment set up. It is common for Cambodian entrepreneurs who live in the countryside to operate their businesses out of their homes, because it requires less start-up capital and travel expenses are reduced. In addition, family members often contribute heavily to the business and female entrepreneurs are able to stay home and care for the household while working.

Here's her story:How long has Phal An been making rice wine?

She has been making rice wine for four years, and all of her siblings do as well. During the Pol Pot regime [1975-1979], her family went to Thailand and stayed at a U.N. camp. While there, her younger brothers learned how to make rice wine and have since taught her.

Phal An received a $700 loan funded through Kiva. What is she using the money for?

Phal An has 10 middlemen in her village who rely on her production. Often, she can’t produce enough to meet the demand of all 10, so she borrowed money to buy more rice in bulk. She also used the funds to purchase rice wine from her brothers. They have only one middleman in their region, so she buys their surplus and resells it to her middlemen.

Who are her primary customers?

She sells to local middlemen who then sell her wine to small pubs in the countryside.

Does Phal An have any local competition?

There are five to six other producers in her village, Damnak Sankae. It’s a large village with a population around 3,500, so the rice winemakers aren’t heavily concentrated.

How long does it take to produce the final rice wine product?

The entire process takes six days and four hours.

Can Phal An describe the process?

The longest step is the preparation. For six days, a mixture of rice, water, and a chemical called Tam Bae soak in a bucket. Then, the combination is transferred to a boiler -- the first main piece of equipment. The tin boiler is sealed air tight, with only two exits (one serving as a chimney through the roof of the house, and the other as a pipe to transfer the liquid as it evaporates). A fire is lit with hay underneath the tin container, and rice husks are shoveled inside to fuel the fire. For two hours, the mixture must boil.

As it evaporates, the steam travels through the pipe to the second piece of equipment -- a clay storage container -- where it condenses. (The rice is thus left in the tin boiler, and the wine is transferred to the clay container.) This process takes an additional two hours. Tubing attachments let the wine drain from the large container into smaller jars, and from one evaporation cycle 60 liters of wine will be produced.

How much wine can she make in a day?

Ninety liters.

What is her daily income?

This is complicated, as her rice wine sales (135,000 riel/day or $33.75/day) only cover the cost of the wine production. Her family income is generated as a result of using a byproduct of the wine (the enhanced rice) as pig feed. The family owns and raises several pigs in addition to their rice wine business. Once the rice and wine separate, the leftover rice is combined with factory-produced pig feed. The combination helps their pigs grow faster so they will yield a better market price.

It takes four months to raise the pigs, and Phal An sells them three times a year at 12,000 riel ($3) per kilo. Usually, she can sell between seven and eight pigs to earn $1,680-$2,160 every four months. After covering the $50 start-up cost per pig, the family business makes roughly $400 per month.

Do her husband and other family members help with the business?

Yes, her husband and one of her sons help. They all share the same responsibilities so that if one is absent, production can continue. Often Phal An oversees production alone while her husband and son gather firewood.

What is her biggest challenge in running the business?

The biggest challenge is being able to maintain a profit relative to her increasing costs. The price of rice keeps increasing and the middlemen’s purchasing price for wine isn’t rising at a comparable rate. The other difficulty she faces is that occasionally, her pigs will die before she is able to sell them. Because this is where her family income is generated, the health of the pigs is critical to the family’s livelihood.

What has the experience of receiving a loan through Kiva been like for Phal An?

She has greatly benefited from Maxima’s services and its door-to-door policy. Maxima's home visits have saved her from spending time and money traveling to Phnom Penh. It would take 10,000 riel ($2.50) and two hours for her to make the trip. More importantly, she feels safe knowing her loans are disbursed at home and she won't have to travel carrying such a large sum.

The loan funded through Kiva has also had a considerable impact on her operations. Before the loan, she had to buy and transport rice every other day. Now, buying in bulk, she gets a better price and has cut transactions back to one purchase per month. She now has the capacity for increased production and is able to meet her customers’ demand. Her production since the loan has tripled from 30 liters per day to 90 liters per day. Using the new sales, she’s purchasing more rice to maintain the higher production level. She now makes more pig feed than she can use, and has generated a side business of selling the excess feed to her neighbors.

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