Sunday, April 28, 2013

Trip to Panama (April 24-28)...

Revolution Tower
This trip to Panama is the second time for us. The first one was approximately 10 years ago.

Panama is known for its famous canal connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a small country but due to this strategic location for the world trade, Panama is well known. USA built this canal, using a lock system moving giant ships from the sea level to the lake level through multiple locks and bringing the ships down to the sea level again after crossing the inland lakes. USA stationed a military unit to protect the canal for 90 years and handed it over to the Panamanian government in 1999.

Hop-on Hop-off Bus
In addition, Panama is a hub for the financial sector and transportation sector. There are many offshore banks and attracts depositors from all over the Latin American countries. Panama has Copa Airlines that connect to almost all major cities in Latin America and to quite a few major cities in the world.

It also has beautiful beaches on both the Pacific shores and Caribbean shores. It has been rain forest and is outside the hurricane belt. Its shores have tripical weather but its highlands offer spring-like weather year round. For this reason, Panama is attracting retirees particularly from North America. Panama offers an excellent retirement program, called Pensionado. Under this program, retires may benefit from significant discounts on a lot of commercial and economic activities.
Panama Canal Lock System

Panama once was ruled by a dictator and drug smuggler, Noriega. USA had to take him down in the middle of 1980's to establish a democratic government and Panama has since been safe and stable. Its currency is US dollar and the cost of living remains fairly low although it has increased quite a bit over the past decade. It has several mega shopping malls that offer all merchandises from all over the world. Panama's tourism is still growing but is getting ready to attract more tourists.
Panama City Bus Diablos Rohos

Panama still has many challenges to overcome. Traffic jam is pretty bad. Services need to improve also. Despite the US influence, English-speaking population remains pretty low. Moreover, tropical weather is hot and humid, so everywhere you need to turn on the A/C.
Panama City View from Casco Viejo

Nonetheless, Panama remains attractive to many people for different reasons.

Our trip to Panama was short, but important. We celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. April 25 1983, Kristin and I got married in Seoul Korea. God has been at the center of our marriage and Jesus has been the third strand in our relationship, thus bonding it and holding it up through the high and low seasons. (Ecclesiastes 4:12) At a restaurant called La Mar (Mar means ocean in Spanish.) It was a quiet celebration but we expressed our appreciation for God's guidance and presence in our relationship.

Trump Tower Ocean Club
Panama City View
Three decades of marriage... would not have been made possible without God's guidance and protection. We were envisioning the next three decades of life and discussing about how to live out the remaining life on earth before we leave the planet earth. We may leave earlier to be with the Lord, but it is perfectly okay. May the good and faithful Lord continue to hold our hands in our next chapter of life! - Jeffrey

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Trip to Denver, CO (April 18 - 22)

Fur tree covered with snow
From home in Kigali to a friend's home in Littleton Colorado, it was a 31-hour journey. Kigali to Amsterdam to JFK New York and to Denver. It was a long journey. I was concerned about this journey because I had to take another red eye flight after I took one the night before, from Johannesburg to Kigali. Moreover, I had to work the whole day on Wednesday before I left.

Thanks to God's traveling mercy, I was able to sustain myself. I took two 1000 ml vitamin C pills and one B12 pill before the journey began.

Kristin came to pick me up at Denver International Airport. It was great joy to be received. Denver Colorado was still cold. A couple of days earlier, there was snow. Here and there I could spot the snow. My skins get itchy very much when I come to a colder weather. There was no exception. I had to put on heavy dose of moisturizing lotions and anti-itching lotion to all my body.

We had dinner together with Eunice and Chuck Lee and Mike and Hyunjoo Kim at Hoongs, a Chinese restaurant where we used to dine quite often while we lived here. With a half piece of sleeping pill I was able to sleep for good six hours.

Red Rock Amphitheater
Saturday was a day of preparation for the sermon the next day at Logos Central Chapel and the lecture about Business as Mission (BAM) with the LCC congregation members. Kristin went out for walking with Eunice. They walked at Red Rock Amphitheater. It is an amphitheater that has been built with natural red rocks. Without any speaker system, people can talk and sing and can be heard at the top. It is an amazing spot.

We stayed at the Lee's as before. The Lees have allowed us to stay at their home for the past three years. Chuck is a physician and Eunice is a dentist. They are people of God, loving and serving God with all their hearts, minds and strengths. It is a blessing to know them and to fellowship with them. I felt sick with the cold, with frequent coughing 

Driving on a snowy day
On Sunday, despite the coughing, I delivered a sermon, titled "Ambassadors of Christ" based on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. It was not easy. I had a dry mouth and had to drink water quite often. We all are ambassadors of Christ with the mission for reconciliation. The reconciliation is first between ourselves with God, others, self and the rest of creation. Next, this mission of reconciliation is for others to reconcile with God, themselves, others and the rest of creation also. This mission for others centers around people, but it should also deal with our vocations. Vocations are what we do to live the life of reconciliation. It is not just for a living. If it is for the living, it should be for the life of reconciliation. Our Lord will be pleased when we dedicate our life for the mission of reconciliation.
Abundant side dishes at Korean restaurant

After lunch, I gave a led.

In the evening, Chuck and Eunice, our host, invited a few dozens of members to welcome the new members to the church. It was a big crowd, easily 40-50 people, including children. I was exhausted and still sick, but survived.

Monday was the check-up day: medical and dental. Blood draw, physical check up, dental check up and cleaning. All went well. I was told I was in great shape. Good to go at least for another year. I was grateful for God's grace and protection. In between, I saw Kelvin and Keya. It was good to see them again. It started snowing in the afternoon. The weatherman forecast that it was going to snow 3-5 inches. Well... we were supposed to go to the airport early in the morning on Tuesday and the snow would be a hindrance. After a delicious dinner at a Korean restaurant, we went back to the Lee's and started packing.
Aircraft covered with snow

On Tuesday, early in the morning, it was still snowing and the road was packed with snow. My driving skills on the snow was a little rusty but I had to drive. Thanks to God's guidance and protection, we were able to drive safely to the rental car company and return the rental car. The Delta Airline upgraded our seats to the First Class. What a treatment! We were able to travel comfortably to New York.

Our trip to Denver was short, somewhat struggling but sustainable with much blessing. - Jeffrey

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Opportunity International CEO Conference April 2013...

An intensive session for two days
Once or twice a year, Opportunity International holds the CEO conference. It used to be for Africa Region, but Eastern Europe colleagues started attending it from a year ago and it has now become a combined session. Also, Global Microfinance Operations or GMO colleagues regularly attend this conference. GMO is a shared management services that provide support for all Implementing Members of Opportunity International Network.

Moreover, supporting members such as OI US, OI UK and OI Canada colleagues also attend this conference regularly to better understand the programs and needs of implementing members in Africa because of the strategic importance of African countries.

Along with all these people, many board members also attend the conference.

April this year, a total of 36 people attend the conference. 12 CEOs, 12 GMO staff and 12 board members. This time, the conference had an interesting mix.

Unlike previous conferences, this year has special sessions, called Deep Dive for each implementing member. Each implementing member CEO has given a two-hour presentation about his or her operation in details. Quite a detailed presentation was followed by many detailed questions. I gave a presentation about UOB on the first day.

A scenery of the hotel
We reviewed the first quarter performance plus the last year's performance. Emphasis is placed on what we do for transformation and non-financial services. I shared the challenges we face in the aftermath of the suspended or reduced foreign development aid and introduced several new initiatives, including Client Service Point (CSP) Strategy, Holistic Community Development and Linkage Loans. My presentation of 72 slides was well received, thanks to God's grace.

Franschhoek is a wine country nested in the valley. A stream flows next to the hotel where we are staying and the scenery is beautiful. It is an early autumn in S. Africa and tree leaves have started changing the colors.

A two-day session discussed in depth about T24 model bank migration. Opportunity Bank of Malawi has begun the migration process to T24 R10 standard version due to the system instability. Opportunity Bank of Uganda and UOB are up next scheduled for August. We have formed a task force that will work to prepare for the migration. - Jeffrey

Monday, April 15, 2013

Rwanda Genocide Memorial 19th Anniversary...

19th Genocide Memorial Sign
April 7th, 1994 is the day the Rwanda Genocide against Tutsi began. It lasted for 100 days, killing at least 800,000 people, including Tutsis and moderate Hutus. It has been recorded as the fastest progressed genocide. It ended even before any of UN's armored vehicles arrived in Rwanda.

For a week from April 7th to 13th, Rwanda commemorate this tragedy. All over the country, commemoration ceremonies are held. People remember the horror, pains, agony, fear and death. Many deaths. Actually most of the deaths were slaughters performed by machetes.

Cruel. Horrible. Terrifying.

There is an on-going debate whether it is good or bad to remember the horror. I am sure there are pros and cons on both arguments. But it is the fact that the genocide occurred and it is the desire of all that it does not repeat again. Ever. People tend to forget the past, whether glorious or painful, as time goes by. This tragedy should not be forgotten. From this argument's perspective, it makes sense to hold the commemoration services for people not to forget. The other argument is that such ceremonies only relive the past pains that make the scars deeper. It has a point but I am not sure if it is convincing enough.
Kigali Genocide Memorial Center in Gisozi

This year is the 19th anniversary and the mourning week ended on April 13th. I noticed a couple of differences in this year's anniversary billboard signs from the past.

The first one is the change in color that decorates the billboard signs. It used to be predominantly purple, but now it has changed to gray. People explained that the purple came from the color of the Lent, Christian 40-day period of repentance primarily for the Anglican church and the Roman Catholic. Rwanda's traditional color for the sorrowful event is gray. So the color change signifies the shift from the religious focus to the cultural one.

President Kagame among mourners
The other change I noticed is the theme. Previously it was "Never Again." This year, the theme has changed to "Striving for Self-reliance." To me it signifies the shift from "looking back" to "looking forward." I think it is positive. Not repeating the past is important but the best is the status quo. The new slogan projects hope into the future. This theme is relevant because Rwanda is still going through the tough times coming from reduced or suspended foreign development aid because of an UN report alleging Rwanda to have been involved in backing M23 rebels in DR Congo. This pain is real and now while the genocide pain is in the past.

At any rate, the mourning week is now over. Until the Liberation Day on July 4th, the mood of people may show some swings from time to time, but the country will move on. The immediate task is to normalize the flow of foreign development aid and the economy that is putting tremendous pressure to many Rwandans, particularly the poor. It is my prayer that God spares His favor and grace upon this emerging country that striving for self-reliance. Amen! - Jeffrey

Sunday, April 14, 2013

RSwitch, Rwanda's National Payment Switch...

RSwitch is the legal entity name for Rwanda's national payment switch. It clears and settles most of  electronic payments in the country, such as ATMs and POS (Point of Sale) transactions. Its former name was SIMTEL. This name gives a bad and bitter taste for many Rwandans for its poor service.

"ATMs never work in Rwanda!" was a common complaint on the Kigalilife, Rwanda's most well known e-mail-based social network. "You cannot use international credit or debit cards in Rwanda" was another.

It is changing, however.

SIMTEL changed its name to RSwitch in 2010. This name change followed the ownership change from the central bank and commercial banks to Africa Development Corporation or ADC in 2008. Commercial banks still maintain a minority ownership, but the most of the ownership is now with ADC.

The name change and ownership change would not have been sufficient to claim that RSwitch's reputation is changing.

The functions and services are also changing. The ATM up-time now has exceeded 90% and aims to reach 96% by the year-end. It is commendable. Also, people now can use both RSwitch'es proprietary cards, called SmartCash and international cards. That is a significant improvement.

But the credibility can hardly be gained over night, particularly when it was damaged and lost. People notice the difference but remain cautious. They want continuity to give the benefit of doubt again.

Someone said: "Trust is difficult to gain and easy to lose. Once lost, it can hardly be regained."

It is the current status. But RSwitch is changing.

Konde Bugingo
There is a reason for all these changes. These changes do not happen incidentally. Konde Bugingo is the new CEO who has been leading this turnaround process for the past year and half. He is behind these changes. He was a banker as Chief Operations Officer of one of the largest banks in Rwanda. He was quite vocal about the mediocre and slow changes that RSwitch was making. He took the driver's seat for RSwitch and has been driving the company quite well.

The record so far is quite impressive. It is only my wish and prayer that these changes will continue, establish credibility and make the past bitter experiences only a distant memory.

Then, only then, Rwanda can claim that it is now modernizing the financial services sector as well. I remain hopeful with cautious optimism and there is a reason. UOB is distributing 50,000 debit cards to its clients and they carry SmartCash logo and will clear through RSwitch. - Jeffrey

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Huye Branch Grand Opening...

On April 5th, we held the grand opening ceremony of UOB's Huye Branch. It was the newest branch and 43rd business outlet.

Unlike the past ceremonies, this ceremony was rather short and sweet. Since it is located on the first floor from the ground (European way) we did not have a big space to put out the tents and hold the traditional dancing. We all stood and held the ceremony standing. The Huye District Mayor, the RDF Regional Commander and the Police Chief all attended and congratulated us on the opening.

From back of the parade
Although the space was limited and the ceremony was short, the promotional impact was even greater than before. It was because the Police allowed us to use speakers on both sides of the building, broadcasting the ceremony including the congratulatory remarks. Moreover, a handful of radio station anchors whom we hired carried out the program playing UOB's jingle that is playful.

After the ceremony, we held the usual parade with a half dozen blade riders, 30 motorcycle riders and UOB's mobile branch. The famous female anchor Anita was on a truck promoting the bank. She is well known to most Rwandans who listen to radios all the time. Many people said that they did not know Anita was so young and so skinny. Her deep voice tends to make people believe she is older and bigger than she is.

Before the parade
The impact was tremendous. We opened 35 accounts on the day and 25 accounts the following day. Our affordable account features and three ways of accessing the account (branches, cell phone and card) must be attractive to the clients. UOB's savings account has no minimum balance to open and no maintenance fee. Indeed it is for all Rwandans as the bank's slogan indicates: i.e. Banki ya bose or Bank for All.
Before the ribbon cutting

It is our prayer that Rwandans in the Huye area may also benefit from these services without the cost. We are grateful for the success we have so far achieved with the branch. May we continue to receive your favor, Lord. - Jeffrey

500 Teachers Bible for Pastors in Rwanda...

We have been able to secure 500 Teacher's Bibles at reasonable costs through PEACE Plan of Saddle Back Church in California. These are like a mini version of commentary bible. They should be useful for teachers and pastors.

We are distributing these bibles to pastors at seven Christian denominations in Rwanda. They include Assembly of God, Methodists, PEFA, Anglican Churches (Kigali and Shyrah dioceses), Presbyterians, Friends etc.

We trust that these bibles will equip and strengthen the pastors (and some teachers) so that they may be able to teach their congregation members with greater impact.

Thus far, UOB has distributed 6,000 Kinyarwandan bibles, 7,000 English bibles and now 500 Teacher's Bibles.

May the Word of God be proclaimed boldly to all Rwandans more powerfully than before! - Jeffrey

Friday, April 12, 2013

Financial Diaries of Rwanda ...

["Portfolios of Rwanda" represent a deep root survey with Rwandans on their actual financial activities. They are financial diaries of their transactions. "Portfolio of the Poor" is a book that was co-authored by several one of whom is Daryl Colins. As part of Bankable Frontiers Associates, she conducted this survey in Rwanda, sponsored by VISA and Access to Finance Rwanda. I was on the panel after the presentation to respond to questions. The following is an article that CGAP wrote after the presentation and based on the report. - Jeffrey] 

New Rwanda Diaries Ask, "Can We Build a Better Goat?"

Much of the work in the financial inclusion community focuses on how to extend reach — how to create access to financial services for the more than 2.5 billion people who remain outside the formal financial sector. But just opening accounts is no guarantee that the services will be meaningful in the lives of consumers or make business sense for providers. In markets like Rwanda, where significant strides have already been made to extend the reach of financial services, the evidence suggests that our challenge is less one of access and more one of relevance.
A woman works on a sewing machine
Photo Credit: Jonathan Kalan
In many cases, even in markets where formal financial services are readily available, individuals continue to utilize a variety of informal mechanisms, such as shop credit, money guards or investing in livestock as savings. These offerings are fulfilling critical financial needs in ways that formal products are not, but when it comes to quality, some are very inadequate. For example, Rwandans told us that borrowing from family and friends can be humiliating and damage social relationships. Goats provide a great cushion against shocks, but are easily stolen, stink up the house, and eat through neighbors’ gardens. In these contexts, the question becomes how can we design services that are equally relevant and convenient but offer greater security and reliability?
According to FinScope Rwanda 2012, a nationwide survey, traditional barriers to access — proximity, identification, cost — are already being tackled. More than 90 percent of adults live within five kilometers of a formal financial institution, 93 percent have a national identification card and only seven percent of the unbanked cite affordability as a barrier to formal services.
Building on FinScope and utilizing the Financial Diaries methodology derived from Portfolios of the Poor, Access to Finance Rwanda (AFR), Visa Inc., Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) and Ntare Insights recently completed an in-depth analysis of the daily cash flows of Rwandan households to better understand their needs and offer product development insights to the financial services sector. The full report, Portfolios of Rwanda, is available here.
The diaries tracked the daily cash flows and financial activities of 59 individuals from 40 households over a two month period. We found that:
  • Like their counterparts in Portfolios of the Poor, low-income Rwandans are active money managers, using on average six financial instruments per person and cycling multiples of their income through those devices.
  • The underserved primarily use informal instruments. Of the six instruments used on average, only two come from formal providers. However, respondents indicate that many informal instruments are not meeting their needs for privacy and reliability.
  • Respondents view different devices as complements to one another rather than substitutes and seem to select the type of device based on the size of the need that must be fulfilled.
  • Few respondents cite access as a barrier to formal instruments. Formal services are primarily used for “big money” transactions and are not considered as useful for frequent, smaller-scale needs related to smoothing cash flow.
By recognizing the deep-seated aspirations, fears and habits of the financially underserved, we start to identify the financial jobs that people need their products to help them do. Where there are shortcomings in current strategies, financial providers have enormous opportunity to provide clients better options — options that are meaningful across a wider range of use cases beyond the financing of big investments.
For example, respondents told us that they often face difficulties meeting daily spending needs when hit with an illness that keeps them away, even for a few days, from their casual work or small business. They struggle to hold onto the small kinds of liquid savings that could help them through a period like this and instead tend to borrow from friends and family, which comes at a very high social cost. Power dynamics shift and relationships suffer. But with widespread reach and the efficiencies of mobile technology, formal providers can compete by filling this need with products like quick emergency lending over mobile money and cash benefit micro-insurance.
Similarly, households struggle to save at home for their children’s educations. At times, the temptation to divert that cash is just too strong. While savings groups impose that kind of discipline, payouts do not always coincide with school fee due dates. Despite the importance placed on education, coming up with the cash at just the right time is difficult. Respondents told us they sell off household assets, forego food or simply keep children home until funds are available. By creating more flexible products or, in some cases, more effectively educating clients on existing offerings, service providers can both capture business and help meet critical needs.
Financial service innovations in health, agriculture and insurance — along with the widespread adoption of mobile technologies — demonstrate the sector’s ability to adapt to changing needs and market forces. Continuing to learn from the day-to-day lives of underserved consumers is essential in making sure that the full benefits of expanding access are realized and clients have a wide range of services to achieve their goals for the future.