This was my third visit to Mama Bahati Foundation (MBF) the Five Talents project based in Iringa, Tanzania.
My last visit was in September 2014 so it was interesting to see how the project has developed over the last 18 months. The intervening period has been a tough one for MBF. As the programme has expanded, we have not been able to fund the project to the extent that they would like.
The trip was the usual round of meeting clients and hearing their stories; as well as hearing from the leadership about the plans and budgets for the future. In addition, two of our team were also looking at the possibility of raising funds via some non-traditional channels.
I was interested that some of the centers which had been closed for a period and then reopened were now operating with renewed vigour. Several of the clients mentioned that although there were other MFIs working in the area, once MBF was able to restart they preferred to come back to them. We heard from a client who told us that although she had come across MBF at her local church, it was the word on the street that had persuaded her to come along and take a loan. I found both these aspects very encouraging as they show the high regard that clients have for MBF and the loan officers.
At one of the meetings I attended it was a great privilege to hear one of the loan officers giving business advice about increasing your client base and how to market your business. I'm sure that it was far more effective to be given by the loan officer rather than one of the visitors via a translation. Another highlight of the center visits was seeing loans being issued through M-Pesa and hearing mobiles buzzing and ringing at the end of the meeting.
It was great to hear about the plans that MBF has for expansion with another branch office to be opened in Morogoro. There was also talk of expanding the work in other dioceses of Tanzania - with the caveat that it would only be possible with additional funds, the right people to operate the new offices, and robust systems to ensure that the new operation can function in a sound manner. There were also exciting plans for additional services to be provided such as the solar loans.
Currently MBF is very fortunate to have Japhet Makau as the Chief Executive along with Donald Mtetemela; who as the founder and now chair of the trustees have guided MBF to its current position. However, MBF needs to be able to retain the quality of loan officers that they currently have and to be able to train up members of staff to fill the new positions that are emerging as the work expands. It was interesting to note that at the time of our visit there was only one female loan officer and Japhet acknowledges that they want to recruit additional women so as to improve the balance in this area.
One area, which I think, still needs to addressed is how does MBF continue to look out for the rural poor who have no other access to financial services or credit. At the time of my initial visit in 2009, it was envisaged that after a certain number of successful loan cycles clients would be able to graduate to an MFI which was prepared to loan to established businesses.
However it appears that clients are reluctant to move on and other MFI lenders or banks are unwilling to take on the clients. This puts an increasing stress on the funds that MBF has available and makes it increasingly difficult to continue to focus on the core clientele, the rural poor. Although this is a structural problem within the Tanzanian MFI/banking sector, it is to the credit of both Japhet and his loan officers that they are aware of this problem and are seeking ways to maintain the focus on the rural poor while also seeking to meet the needs of larger existing clients.
All in all it was a very enjoyable trip and was well organised by both Five Talents and MBF in Tanzania. I would thoroughly recommend any supporter who has the time to make one of these visits to do so. You will learn so much about the practicalities faced by the clients and come away with a better understanding of what both Five Talents and the project you visit are seeking to achieve. However when travelling in Africa you do have to be prepared for the unexpected despite how well you prepare for the trip beforehand.