From Mangoes to Skype – A Kiva Fellow’s Take on the Transformative Power of Technology
Have you met my friend Stephanie Sibal? She is dynamite.
A San Francisco local who spent her childhood in Manila, Philippines, Stephanie is a globetrotter and master of reinvention. A tech PR executive turned fashion student and an aspiring entrepreneur, she became a member of Kiva’s 14th class of fellows in Cambodia in January. Many of you who read this blog are familiar with Kiva, a well-regarded non-profit organization with a mission to alleviate poverty. The organization uses the Internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions to allow people like you and me lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity for someone in a developing country.
Since Cambodia’s unreliable postal system prevented care packages filled with the latest issues of Vogue and Elle, Stephanie and I relied on the mighty Web to stay in touch throughout her fellowship. In her limited time at Internet Cafes, I fed her nuggets of information from her homeland, including mobile shots of the latest window displays in SoHo and news regarding Charlie Sheen’s meltdown, Kim Kardashian’s omnipresence and New York’s schizophrenic weather. In return, Stephanie told me about her latest field trips to Kiva borrowers’ mango field and silk factory near Siem Reap, Cambodia’s local and expat community, and her unexpected house guests, two geckos named Gordon Gecko and Lady Koko.
Through our chats and recreational reading, I learned a great deal about microfinance and became fascinated with stories of female entrepreneurs in rural Cambodia. I decided to interview Stephanie as she wrapped up her Kiva projects and prepared for an enviable stopover in Koh Phi Phi before returning to the beautiful Bay Area this month. I hope you enjoy this Q&A and share your thoughts with us.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you became a Kiva Fellow?
I left a corporate job to pursue my dream of working in the fashion and retail industry. I came across Kiva through a combination of friends who loan money through Kiva and also while working for Eileen Fisher, a sustainable women’s apparel designer. I wanted to learn more about microfinance in Southeast Asia and I wanted to see with my own eyes whether it actually works, and so I applied to be a Kiva Fellow.
How accessible is technology education and basic equipment in Cambodia? What surprised you?
Very little money flows from central government to schools, which means tech is less of a presence than what everyone would like. However, you would be surprised at the education that involves technology. While waiting to interview a borrower in the Kandal province, I met her teenage daughter, who attends the local high school. She and I had a conversation in flowing, perfect English, and I commented that she had no trace of an accent. She told me that she practices her English using Skype at her school with a tutor who lives in California!
How is technology perceived by Cambodian society, and specifically, by women?
Putting a daughter through formal education is not seen as a worthwhile investment by rural Cambodians. When daughters are old enough, many are pulled out of school and sent to work at a garment factory. Unfortunately, if they cannot sew, many daughters are sent to the capital to become sex workers, or must rely on scorching, back-breaking subsistence farm work. In fact, school fees are paid on a daily basis since so many families cannot commit to even a week of tuition for their daughters. Education at times takes a back seat to supplementing family income.
How has Kiva incorporated technology education into helping female small business owners?
A number of the microfinance institutions that Kiva works with, in the mission to do more than just self-sustain, are offering workshops to provide women with solid business skills. For a woman with a basic education, an office job earns up to $200 per month, which is a developing nation’s equivalent to hitting a goldmine. Jobs such as these are hard to come by without knowledge in Microsoft Office and how to surf the web for the information they’re seeking. If you were to ask any woman whether she’d prefer to work on the farm or train for office work, I’m sure you already know what the answer would be.
I worked in an office with women who were from very tiny villages in rural Kandal– and thanks to scholarships, they ended up majoring in IT at universities. Prior to their last years of high school, they had no idea what IT was even useful for. However, local NGOs and their university professors help them to see the growth potential in a field such as IT and programming. Since they are a population that is over 50% youth (under the age of 25), they’re a lot more tech-savvy than the previous generation are and lean towards this work.
What’s your take on technology’s role and potential in breaking the cycle of poverty and illiteracy for girls in Southeast Asia?
Educating girls and giving them access to technology is important in ways that many don’t consider. In addition to helping them to secure better-salaried jobs, technology helps to connect them with news of what is going on in their country. Cambodia is an incredibly corrupt country and access to information is often unreliable, and the information itself may be doctored or untruthful. They need to be able to learn to use the Internet as a tool to educate themselves to make informed opinions on the issues that affect them the most. It sounds dramatic, but with so much of the population being under the age of 25, the future rests on them and their reaction to the examples being set before them.
Can you tell us about an encounter that made an impression on you?
In one of the provinces I visited, I met a 26-year-old garment factory worker and learned that not only were we the same age, but we shared the same birthday! (Cue the “Oh my god, no way!” expressions here) The coincidence was made more unsettling by the fact that we led such different lives. She worked at a garment factory, where she’s worked since she was 16. She worked 11-hour days, 6 days a week for a salary of $80 a month.
She had just given birth to a baby girl, and her pay was reduced to $40 per month while she was on maternity leave. She works for a garment factory that’s well known for being generous– many women have to quit their jobs and hope their position is waiting for them when they return. Oftentimes, many return to work earlier than expected, because they desperately need a paycheck. She was planning on returning just over a month after giving birth.
To help her family out, she took out a small loan to start a small side business, selling candy and convenience goods out of her home. I asked her what her goals for the future included. She said ,”stop work at the garment factory, open a store, and send my daughter to go to school. I don’t want her to have a life like mine.”
Any last words you’d like to share before you head to Phi Phi Island?
It shocked me that so many women were so self-enterprising. You see self-owned businesses everywhere, and helping a woman to start a business is so much more empowering than one might imagine. It frees her from a life of garment factory work, or subsistence farming, or work in the sex industry. It allows her to be her own boss, learn how to run a business, and gives her confidence in herself.