Wells Fargo Global Fellow Agnes Ubalde: “Their Story Is My Story”

Last year, we engaged a team of Wells Fargo employees to provide consulting services to ASHI, a microfinance institution in the Philippines. Here, Global Fellow Agnes Ubalde shares reflections from her time in Manila, during her second week of working with ASHI.

While 21 of our Global Leaders including President Barack Obama met in Manila, Philippines early this week at APEC to discuss foreign trade and economic relations between nations – I and Global Fellow partner Jerry Johnston, as part of our discovery and validation phase of our fellowship project for Ahon Sa Hirap, left the chaos and congestion in Metro Manila to be with ASHI Branch staff & member (Nanay’s) – a term used to describe a ASHI member/borrower’s of Laguna, Los Baños to learn how the rural poor utilize Ahon Sa Hirap (ASHI) microloans to “rise out of poverty”.

Los Baños started as a settlement, a barrio of Bay, called Mainit, the Tagalog term for "hot", alluding to the thermal springs at the foot of Mount Makiling. By 1589, through a Franciscan friar, it became popularly called by its present name, "Los Baños," which is Spanish for "bathing place.

Los Baños, also happens to be the birthplace of Ahon sa Hirap (ASHI) when it was established in 1989 as the first Grameen replicator microfinance institution in the Philippines. It was an action-research project of the University of the Philippines Los Baños. In 1991, the Institution was registered as an NGO and since then has maintained the initial Grameen lending methodology as well as the target segment of low income women.

Many of ASHI’s Los Baños Laguna members face calamities such as typhoons and floods which destroy their homes and businesses every year. But even despite these natural calamities, they benefit and see value in the surrounding natural resources to jump start their local microbusinesses which range from raising livestock (e.g. pigs, chickens), buying and selling “palay” – unmilled rice, running “sari-sari” stores (e.g. variety retail stores – located in or near their homes) and buy & sell products such as: handy-crafts, food-vending and water filtration units to name a few. During our field visits to Los Baños, Jerry and I had a first-hand glimpse into the lives of ASHI members, their families and the ASHI staff whose stories were both heart-breaking and uplifting as well.

Meet Nanay Gina. She was recruited by another Nanay member. Based on the Grameen model of “circle-lending” – in order to be eligible to receive a micro-loan, a Nanay must be part of a group of 5 women – who are all equally expected to have their own micro-business and be part of a “Center” – which serves as their local home base/community where they meet daily/weekly with groups and Development Officer’s from ASHI. Nanay Gina, was introduced to a Development Officer who explained ASHI’s mission. She had to convince her husband before she could join (we later heard more on this and that husbands & children can be critical to members joining and members staying. They can also be factors in member’s exiting the program – this is a key issue that I and Jerry will be exploring as we seek to address improvements for ASHI’s Operations).
Nanay Gina, was afraid to borrow at first but gained confidence with success. She was unfamiliar with the pig buy and sell business but learned through pamphlets, and a seminar she attended at a feed store.

She borrowed 3000P ($63.00US) through an ASHI general loan and used the proceeds to buy a piglet. She bought the piglet for 900P ($19.00US) and sold it after about 3 months for 4800P ($101US). She continued to buy and sell pigs and after 5 years also opened a Sari Sari store (variety retail business from her home) using the proceeds from her pig business and an ASHI loan for 22,250P ($472US). In the same year she also put up a computer store and also designs and creates hand-crafted/weaved bags, purses and accessories. She serves as the Center Chief in Banka, Banka 45 – the Center that we visited and hopes to expose her products to other markets, channels and eventually distribute her goods outside of just her local barangay” (neighborhood).

In the Center Photo: (L-R: Rizza, Maricel, Agnes Ubalde, Ayesa, Cherie & Jaya).

Meet Maricel and some of the Development Officers from ASHI’s Laguna South Branch, Los Baños. Maricel is the local Branch Manager for the area. When we met with Maricel and had conversations with her and her staff, she shared that her job was both a pleasure and a challenge. Her key challenge is overseeing 89 Centers, 1,982 + members and 13 Development Officers. Before the merger of an underperforming branch in her area with the Laguna Southwest Branch; she managed only 43 Centers, 1,200 members and 5 Development Officers. Despite the increasing workload, Maricel is also a mother to 2 children and is the primary breadwinner of her family, as her husband recently suffered a stroke. He is unable to work, but cares for their two children, while she spends her week living at her local Branch Office. In fact, she along with all of her Development Officers live in their branch office location space, away from their families during the week, due to the significant distance between home and work. As a former teacher, and product of the ASHI program, she believes that education is key to many of the Nanay’s success. Beyond the credit and loans that ASHI offers the poor, the value of the program is also thru the empowerment that the staff imparts on the members to find ways to create sustainable livelihoods (businesses, restore housing & education) for themselves and their families. Maricel’s dream is to advance the dreams of the members and she sees hope through the members’ accomplishments, because “THEIR STORY is MY STORY”, she said.