Afghanistan was the making of me, microfinance expert tells TEDx Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 February, 2015, 6:27am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 February, 2015, 10:04am

Afghanistan is widely perceived as a harsh, barren land in perpetual conflict. In living memory, the country has weathered the Soviet invasion of 1979, followed by civil war, then the Taliban takeover in the late 1990s. Gunmen wielding Kalashnikovs and the bloody aftermath of bomb blasts are the scenes most commonly portrayed in the media.

And that's just what Etienne Mottet had in his mind when he was asked to travel to Afghanistan to help set up microfinance software for Oxus Development Network, a French-based NGO that provides credit to small enterprises.

But he was in for a big surprise. It was 2007, and Mottet was on a gap year from engineering school Mines Paris Tech, working as an intern for another French NGO. His first assignment involved travelling around South Asia, gathering information on the state of latrines, pumps and shelters.

His next job was to learn how to use software for microfinancing - a subject he knew little about. After mastering the task, he was asked if he'd consider going to Afghanistan to set up the system.

"When I arrived, I was shocked because people were dynamic, positive and entrepreneurial, and the country is incredibly beautiful," says Mottet, now 28, adding that there was great demand for small business loans there.

"You have a real feeling of peace when you're inside because people are so sweet and soft," he says.

Mottet's story gripped his audience at a TEDx conference in Hong Kong, although his parents had understandably been far from pleased with his plans. "I had never travelled abroad before. I don't come from a family of travellers," says Mottet, who hails from Rouen, a town in Normandy, France.

"My parents are teachers and were a bit scared, but I told them I had to go for my mission and I was motivated to go."

After receiving training in Tajikistan, where Oxus opened its first microfinance institution, Mottet landed in the Afghan capital Kabul in December 2007 to open the office. He soon realised media coverage of the country was misleading.

"You see those images of total war - that you can't go out - when it's actually the complete opposite. Afghan society is very peaceful and the social links are very strong. For example, you have very little petty crime. The concept doesn't really exist in Afghanistan because everyone knows each other."

Alexis Lebel, who was Oxus' chief of operations for Afghanistan when Mottet arrived, was at the TEDx conference, and adds: "They have very strong moral values because of Islam, except for the extremists."

Mottet's lack of experience turned out to be an advantage. His motivation inspired the Afghan staff, and helped them win respect in a place where it is mostly reserved for elders.

"They have a strong respect for hierarchy. But if you are young, motivated and switched on, in this context, it makes it easier for a young manager who doesn't have much experience," he says.

To get the operation off the ground, the team reached out to microfinance experts from Bangladesh. The concept had become a great success in that country thanks to Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus' pioneering Grameen Bank. But the experts - competitors of Grameen - could not adapt their system to Afghanistan, so Oxus made its own plans.

Microfinancing in Afghanistan works differently from other countries, Mottet found. The programmes usually focus on women; in Afghanistan, it is mostly men, and they can borrow individually, rather than as a group. (Members of a group tend to rally round and ensure everyone pays their dues.)

Mottet worked for five weeks helping to get the system up and running before heading back to Paris. It was time to return to university - but he could not get Afghanistan out of his mind.

"I talked to my mum, saying I really liked Afghanistan and was thinking of going back, but she told me to finish my studies and see how things go; she was secretly hoping I would change my mind."

When Mottet graduated, a year later, he found work in Paris but did not feel fulfilled. When the opportunity to return to Afghanistan arose, in part because of a lack of applicants, Oxus rehired him as chief of operations, supervising 10 offices and 200 employees around the country.

Mottet went on to spend almost 2½ years in the country. He discovered Afghanistan was an ideal place for microfinance because banks do not lend to small and medium-sized businesses. Oxus lends sums ranging from a few hundred US dollars to US$20,000.

Loans went to shopkeepers who needed the cash to buy stock or equipment. Women sought funds for handicrafts, clothing and carpets.

Microfinancing usually works best with women in African countries, Mottet says. But in Afghanistan, women are mostly house-bound, and only about a third of the loans are granted to them. Loan managers were also mostly men, so it was harder to monitor women's loans, making them more risky.

Kabul was the only place where Oxus lent to women entrepreneurs who owned and managed shops, Mottet recalls. "We even had some women running a female sauna because, in Afghanistan, they don't have showers at home, so they go to public baths."

Oxus' biggest success story was a man who made wheelbarrows using metal from Kazakhstan and rubber from Pakistan. "Everybody had wheelbarrows in the street. It was a common tool for every worker," Mottet says.

Going to Afghanistan was the best decision I made in my life. I would have been stupid not to go
Etienne Mottet

"The first time we gave him a few thousand dollars, and then the last loan was US$20,000. He now has a company with eight to 10 people. It was one of the best success stories we had. He expanded his business thanks to microfinance."

Repayment periods would range from between six months and two years, depending on whether loans were for inventory (short term) or assets (long term). Repayment was never a problem.

"Afghans didn't want to be seen as bad payers. They were always motivated into repaying, so that's why we could have a very high level of repayment in spite of the very difficult context," he says. "Many people finished their loans quite fast, repaying one, and then taking out another one."

Mottet points out that it is crucial in Afghanistan to be well integrated into the society. "If the community accepts you for being useful, you have little problem with security. If you start having issues with the community where you work, you can get into trouble very fast," he says.

Mottet says he was never worried about his personal safety, but seemed to have a knack for timing. "There were times when we were in the wrong place, not at the wrong time, but just a bit after or a bit before things happened.

"In Afghanistan there are three main causes of accidents for expatriates. First, there are car accidents. Second, there is the problem of water boilers exploding - the ones in the bathrooms, which are very old. Third, there is terrorism.

"This is the same for any developing country - danger is more related to accidents than real attacks. I tried to explain to my mum that it's more dangerous to cross the road in Paris than Kabul, but I could not convince her," he says.

At the end of 2011, Mottet decided on a change of scenery and moved to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to work with Open CBS, the company that develops the microfinance software he had used.

Looking back, he says he gained a lot of self-confidence, and feels that he made a difference. "Afghanistan has such a bad image, but when you see the people are so nice, motivated and hardworking, you feel optimistic for the rest of the world," he says.

"What I learned from Afghan culture is politeness, kindness and not to make people lose face. I have met the most complete human beings. Some are really nice and learn diligently, and some have a very hard fighting spirit because they have been through hard times.

"Going to Afghanistan was the best decision I made in my life," Mottet says. "I would have been stupid not to go."