Foundation for Sustainable Development, Cochabamba, Bolivia
Summer Entrepreneurial Internship Program
Foundation for Sustainable Development
I am sitting on a crowded bus on my way home from work. The organization that I worked for was located in the southern region of Cochabamba, past La Cancha, South America's largest open-air market. This meant that every day after work, I would ride the bus through the market, slowly but surely, as I observed the working people of Bolivia. Technicolored bags, sweaters, and keychains gave the market a distinct brightness that can be recognized from a mile away. Smoke rising from street food carts was also hard to miss. When I close my eyes and think “Cochabamba, Bolivia,” I hear the persistent street vendors incessantly advertising their cheap prices and limited-time offers. I see the burnt-faced parents dragging their crying children with a baby or babies wrapped in a blanket on their backs, trying to avoid the cars and motorcycles whizzing by. I have seen the diligent, hard-working people of New York City busily cross the streets, but this was another level. It is scenes like this that have endeared Cochabamba to me and why I will always keep Bolivia and its people in my heart.
During the summer of 2017, I worked as an intern for the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. FSD assigned me to a local organization called Asociación Programa de Desarrollo Agropecuario Integrado (PDAI), or Association Program of Integrated Agricultural Development. PDAI is a micro-finance organization that specifically works in the financial support of workers in the agricultural sector of Bolivia. Not only do they offer small loans, but they also sell high-quality equipment at relatively cheap prices for efficient and reliable irrigation. They also give loans to some small business owners depending on their circumstances.
My role with this organization was to develop an educational program and directly interact with the clients. The Foundation for Sustainable Development has every intern develop a work plan with a budget according to the needs of each organization so that they have a clear, organized plan of a set of objectives to complete with the goal of ultimately contributing to the organization. After discussing with my supervisor at PDAI about the most pressing needs of the organization, I got the impression that the biggest issue was the lack of awareness among the clients about the importance of repaying their loans on time. Initially, this took me by surprise, thinking anyone taking a loan would understand the implications that come with it. However, I then realized that these were people who have lived on their farms for their entire lives. Many of them were used to taking loans from informal moneylenders, with no documentation or credit history. Once I realized this, I understood the organization's need for an educational program. Consequently, I did research, both online and with documents and papers given to me by PDAI, so that I would be well prepared for my workshops with the clients. At first, I thought that a big workshop with 40-50 clients at a time would be most appropriate, so that I could reach as many of their clients as possible. However, my supervisor informed me that gathering these clients in one place would be very difficult because of the large distance between them and their lack of free time. So, we decided that the best way to run this program was to hold a mini-workshop with each of the clients individually as they would come into the office to pay off their loans. This would then become a daily occurrence, as 7-8 clients would come into the office every day. During the time when there would be no clients in the office, I would register and archive payments and file documents.
As part of the educational program, my supervisor requested that I use the seed grant of $300 given to me by FSD to fund the purchase of file folders to give to the clients as a token of encouragement. This meant that I had to find a local artisan who could make these folders for a low price and embroider the PDAI logo on it. Luckily, a coworker knew of someone and gave me his contact. They ultimately offered us a good price for 80 file folders. I took trips into the city on different occasions to request the folders, negotiate the price, order them, and finally pick them up and bring them back to the office. Furthermore, my supervisor wanted me to make pamphlets to supplement these workshops so that the clients could take them home. I did not begin the workshops until I had these pamphlets and file folders ready for the clients. Creating the pamphlets was difficult because I was initially trying to print them with color at a different location, such as the university 30 minutes away. However, because the transportation and the printing would cost us extra funds, we decided to use the black and white printers we had in the office. At first I was disappointed because I worked hard on the color schemes to make a clever design, but I understood that saving money was more important for the organization.
A couple weeks into my internship, I finally began my workshops. With the research I had done and the materials ready, I felt prepared to meet the clients. At first I felt very uncomfortable approaching the clients. After they would leave my supervisor's office, I would approach them and ask them if I could sit down with them for five to ten minutes to “chat”. I felt like I was imposing on their busy day and that they would not be willing to listen to a 21-year-old foreigner give them financial advice. Moreover, I wanted to make sure that my Spanish was perfect for these workshops to garner any level of respect from these farmers and business owners. However, after a couple sessions, I began to feel more confident and more comfortable speaking to them. Most of them were very welcoming of the advice and very friendly. This quickly became my favorite part of the workday. In order to make the workshop more personal, I would first ask them about their farms or their businesses and we would first discuss the reasons for taking our loans from PDAI. Once I got to learn their stories, it became much easier for me to tell them about loan repayments and credit history because I would relate it specifically to their personal situations.
I believe my work with PDAI and FSD was very successful. Perhaps it was not exactly what I had expected prior to the trip, but I believe my workshops with the clients had a positive impact on their lives and their attitudes towards the organization. Furthermore, my work with PDAI had a positive impact on me. Many times, the clients would be willing enough to tell me about their personal issues and specifically why they were having trouble repaying their loans on time. For me, that not only gave me a good sense of what the common issues were with loan repayment in Bolivia, but it also allowed me to connect directly with the Bolivian people in a constructive setting. This was undoubtedly an invaluable experience for me that I will never forget.
While I came into this work expecting an experience related to my economics major, it ended up not being so much about economics and finance, but rather about understanding personal stories and offering possible solutions to their personal problems. Therefore, an economics or finance major is definitely not required for this type of work. However, I would recommend a pretty strong command of the Spanish language. I found it not only important to be able to communicate to the clients, but to also show that I had a strong command of the language so that they would take me seriously. If I had been stumbling with grammar mistakes and vocabulary words, the work I had done would not have been as effective as it was.