From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City: MetLife Foundation Makes An Impact!
Vietnam is long and narrow hugging the South China Sea and I traversed the length of it on my recent trip to meet with MetLife Foundation partners and my colleagues from BIDV-MetLife.
From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City [formerly Saigon], Vietnam, like most emerging markets, is multi-faceted. As of 2014, it has an estimated 90.5 million inhabitants, making it the world’s 13th most populous country. Sky-scrapers co-exist with majestic colonial buildings, and well-to-do neighborhoods provide a stark contrast to congested poor communities. It is also said that since 2000, Vietnam's economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world. There is constant sense of urgency, industry and movement. Hawkers peddling traditional Vietnamese handicrafts jostle for space with those selling Louis Vuitton and Prada purses.
Microfinance and Microenterprise
This industriousness manifests itself in an extraordinary number of microenterprises across the country – small “Mom and Pop” operations selling lunch, groceries or other fast moving goods. To finance those businesses, low-income individuals have turned to a number of microfinance institutions [MFI], which have proliferated across the country over the recent past. Given that financial inclusion is core to MetLife Foundation’s strategy and the fact that it encompasses both research and providing quality, affordable financial services, it was not surprising to find two very different organizations being funded by them.
In Hanoi, MetLife Foundation funds the Vietnam Microfinance Working Group, an organization primarily focused on research and dissemination of best practices in microfinance, and in Ho Chi Minh City, they fund the Capital Aid Fund for Employment of the Poor, more commonly known as CEP, a non-profit institution founded by the Labour Confederation of Ho Chi Minh City to create employment and income-generating opportunities for poor families through the provision of credit.
My visit with the VMWG began with lunch. Perhaps, I did overeat on this trip but it was hard not to. Vietnamese cuisine is both tasty and healthy, aromatic herbs, variety of pho's (soups), and lots of protein make it hard to resist, and the hospitality makes it harder!
Post lunch I sat down with Ms Mai Tuyet Thi Nguyen, Managing Director of the VMWG to talk about how the research is informing the microfinance industry in Vietnam. Given the large number of microfinance organizations there is now a growing need to ensure the professionalization of the industry, and for the safety of the low-income borrowers, to put some compliance and risk management structure around these organizations. Her team is doing field work and research to understand the needs of the organizations and ensure that appropriate training is available. A professional industry will also provide comfort to the policy makers to ensure that regulations meant to protect consumers won’t stymie the ability of the MFIs to actually provide quality financial services.
On to Ho Chi Minh City
That evening a 2-hour flight on Vietnam Air got me to Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam. While Ho Chi Minh City is no longer the Saigon of Graham Greene’s, ‘The Quiet American,’ there is still an indisputable charm to the old buildings and meandering streets, the open-air cafes and the broad boulevards of District 1.
There are two things that stand out vividly for me in Ho Chi Minh City - the War Remnants Museum and my visit with Ms Van Hoang Thi Nguyen, Managing Director of CEP.
Given the mission of CEP, which is to provide credit to poor families to create employment and income-generating opportunities, I got an on-the-ground look at microfinance in action. Driving by car to District 8, a poorer and more densely populated district, we were met by the local CEP branch manager, the client relationship manager, and a communist guard. Pleasantries exchanged, I was getting ready to get back into the car when I was told the only mode of transportation to the area was via motorcycle! Nothing is too much in the line of duty and on I jumped and off we went.
Driving through labyrinthine lanes of District 8, we reached Ms. Hoa, a 47-year old woman, married with two sons, one of whom is also married with a small baby. Ms. Hoa and her extended family – eight people in total - including her 80-year-old mother and a chronically-ill sister live in a small rented house, which is around 270 square feet in size and costs $200 per month to rent. While the adult members contribute towards the living expenses, it is tough to make ends meet on their income.
Microfinance in Action
Ms. Hoa is seeking to grow her family’s income by selling Vietnamese snack foods from a stall outside a local school. Her husband helps her as and when he can in between his work as a motorcycle taxi driver. Her hard-working assistant is her mother who also sells bread outside their home to earn additional income for the family, and helps out at the stall in the afternoons when school ends for the day. Together they make between $28-35 per day or approximately $100 per week. Much of the family’s income is spent on medical care and rent and while they qualify for some financial help from the government it doesn’t cover all their costs.
Ms. Hoa has taken three loans, totaling $710 from CEP since joining at the beginning of 2014. Each loan has been repaid in 40 equal instalments over a period of 40 weeks. She used the first loan to establish her business and her subsequent loans were used primarily for working capital as well as to cover some large household expenses. Some people think all microfinance funds should be used only for the business – it makes sense since the goal is to improve small businesses. However, the reality in low-income families’ lives is that sometimes household needs – a hospital visit, paying for school fees and uniforms, fixing a broken motorcycle – must be taken care of, or they threaten the families' overall goals. In this case, the ability for someone like Ms. Hoa to borrow for personal needs, knowing that she can repay the loan from her business, allows the family to improve their meagre quality of life.
Since 2014, Ms. Hoa has also been able to deposit around $3 in savings each week with CEP and she currently has total savings of $215. This saving certainly isn’t easy for Ms. Hoa as family and business needs are many. But she is convinced that having these savings is essential to her family – for emergencies and to help her consider several future goals – to ensure her grandchild’s education, and perhaps even to upgrade her business.
From 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Ms. Hoa is at her stall and at night she and her family members prepare the ingredients they need for the next day. I said, “I know this must be hard, you have a lot of responsibilities. Do you ever get disheartened?” And, she said, “No not really, I have a steady income and CEP is a great source of comfort and support to me.”
According to Ms. Van there are thousands of microentreprenuers, like Ms. Hoa, who are catered to by CEP’s local branches. Currently in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, CEP is looking to expand its outreach to meet this growing need. Ms. Van, who has been with CEP since its inception is a driven woman. She has huge issues to tackle and she does it with energy, humility and good humor.
Poor in parts but never squalid, Vietnam is developing at an astonishing pace. The place is buzzing with economic progress at all levels, old blends with new, and the modern with the traditional. It is a country whose people believe in strong community and family values and all are welcomed with warmth and graciousness. I hope to go back one day with my family, till then “tam biet!”