Banking in Mbandaka

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When I hear of breakdown and regression in Congo spoken of from now on I will think of the banking system in Mbandaka. There is a large, well maintained building housing the Banque Centrale in downtown. But it apparently serves only as a clearing house for the export overseas of earnings by the largest companies and businesses operating in the Province. Smaller businesses, including most of the storeowners in the capital, as well as the general public are left to their own devices.

Those devices are many and varied I am sure but none seem to be attracting as much attention these days as the “caisse et epargne” (credit and savings) groups organized by the Disciples. Both clergy and lay leaders of other faith traditions have been requesting training in this system of micro credit lending and banking.

The principles and process are simple. With two contributions to the group’s fund per month, you as a member earn the right to one monthly credit withdrawal. The following month you are to pay the loan back with a five or ten per cent, depending on the group, rate of interest. Training for the original 25 members of a group includes discussion and critique of each individual’s plan of action. Few to no women have failed to repay the loans in the five or so groups organized to date.

The biggest impact of the credit system comes every six months with the emptying of the cash fund and distribution of the interest earnings plus principal among the members. The “Disciple Mamas’ Cooperative of Credit and Savings” in the poorest quarter in town distributed $1,888 June 30 this year. A pastor’s wife in another group is helping pay the costs of their four children attending university with her earnings and profits. Her sidewalk convenience store offers a host of items purchased with the loans from her “caisse et epargne” group.

The financial insecurity of most Congolese is most apparent among the older adults. Even those fortunate to have a job must delay retirement as long as possible as the expected pension is either small or non existent. “Papa Jean” is now saving to put metal roofing on his house; even at his age of 64, saving for retirement will have to wait.

The four workers, including “Papa Jean”, at the “maison des missionaires” have set up their own savings bank informally known as a “likelemba”. Each of the workers contribute a third to around half their monthly salary to the group fund which is held by the Disciples headquarters’ finance office. Once every four months each of the participants receives their “likelemba” amounting to the total of the contributions received that month. Debts are paid, long deferred projects undertaken and school expenses especially are paid the month of the “likelemba” good fortune.

Contrast this banking among friends with the scrounging of the poor by the “Banques Lambert”, the private money lenders charging fifty to one hundred per cent interest to the unfortunates resorting to this ready source of cash. No one seems to know the origin of the term “Banque Lambert” but a Belgian banker in colonial days no doubt earned a reputation for lending at such exorbitant rates of interest.

I can’t complete this report on Mbandaka’s financial services without mention of where you change your dollars for Congolese francs. Small tables with “Change” painted roughly in the vicinity mark the spot. At first sight, I was astonished to see a two foot high pile of cash on a table in front of Disciple headquarters. There didn’t seem to be anyone near the table but I was assured that even in poverty- stricken Mbandaka it was not “our way” to steal so openly.

News Flash as I complete this posting:

Workers at Disciple headquarters will have to wait until next week to be paid. Funds expected from Kinshasa did not arrive on today’s plane from the capital. The “carrier” who had been enlisted, a Catholic sister, reneged when she learned the amount of cash she would be delivering. The five per cent charged by the two money wiring services is an unacceptably large expense for the Church to bear.