Case Study: Microfinance in Ghana [2011]

In 2011, Cristoforo spent the summer with a small team documenting the microfinance operations of Opportunity International in areas surrounding Accra and Kumasi, Ghana. The short stories they captured were conceived for presentation at a conference of the Clinton Global Initiative and looked at microfinance loans in the context of rural schools, small business, and agriculture while spotlighting the methods of workshopping loans in communities through trust groups.

UPDATE: Of the original four videos, two remain available in their original form and are shown below through the external links. The rest, either publicly removed to reflect changes in operations or folded into newer work by other filmmakers, are not featured here.

Cristoforo filming in a kente cloth weaving factory with teammate Adam Sorin.

Kente Cloth Traditions of Ghana

Banking on Education

Micro loans can have very high interest rates, which makes clear, finite objectives, good advising, and a strong social network important. One school used a micro loan to create a borehole down to the water table, which in addition to better training and education regarding clean water practices, aimed to eliminate a dependency on water trucked in and distributed to students in plastic sachets. By removing this overhead, the micro loan then ideally could be more readily repaid and the continuing savings invested in other needs like textbooks.

Cristoforo gets low for the shot outside a local school.

Investing in Women (& Trust Groups)

Opportunity International operated banking trucks that drove out to communities, bringing access to folks for whom the often multiple hour drive to the nearest brick and mortar bank could be prohibited. These trucks offered ATMs with biometric scanning and interfaces intended to simplify use for those whom literacy requirements may have impeded regular savings account access. Loan officers would also be on board the trucks extending the reach of loan mentorship and support.

These efforts were complemented by encouragement of female entrepreneurs, regular community meetings, and trust groups in which members would assist one another when one was in danger of missing a payment or near default.

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Up before dawn to capture a sunrise time-lapse from a bank balcony. A breakdown in communication with company liaisons led to an early morning bank guard gunpoint exchange before being permitted in.

Agricultural Finance

A friendly local farmer machete-slashed through the brush, indicating to the film team plants that were competitors and of potential harm to the cocoa. This was Cristoforo’s first exposure to agroforestry, where different crops grow together in a mixed environment rather than in long isolated rows as one might picture the monoculture of the American midwest. It also became apparent that few cocoa farmers actually had hands-on experience themselves with the chocolate end product (a topic since covered in the Netflix-featured series Rotten).

One role of microfinance among the cocoa farmers was access to resources that would permit them to increase their yield and grow their businesses. To de-risk these loans, there might be specified partners who would directly supply these resources, such as pesticide, rather than farmers getting the loan money directly. While no malfeasance was observed, removing choice and competition from areas like pesticide selection and giving contracts to specific partners seemed like it could be a potential area for concern and corruption.

Limits on the scope of the project and access kept the team’s documentation more of a public relations measure than investigatory journalism, but it did open a window to a realm of small scale financing in one corner of the globe.

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