Tongan ‘Bout Business

It’s been almost seven weeks since I first landed on that tarmac in Fua’amotu, Tonga. It’s an international airport with one terminal, three “custom” (as in makeshift) customs stands, and one baggage carousel. But what brought me here?

Two 737’s and an A330.

I know, I hate me sometimes too.

With the generosity Boston College’s Career Center and Clough Center, I am currently interning at South Pacific Business Development Microfinance (SPBD) in the Kingdom of Tonga.

Thanks to ⌘ + K, I just saved you a bunch of Googling time. Yeah, you can thank me now.

Side note #1: I love that I can highlight a selection on Chrome and right-click to Google the term. I don’t even have to bother with the keyboard. It’s the little things in life, ain’t it?

Why Tonga?

There’s a rather sizeable Tongan population in Seattle, and we’ve gotten close to a few Tongan families. All the Tongans I’ve met are super fun and friendly, so I thought I should check out the real shebang. Last autumn, I started to look into summer internships in Tonga.

Joon (Tongan: Sune) reporting for duty. Rockin' that kie-kie and tupenu.
Joon (Tongan: Sune) reporting for duty. Rockin’ that kie-kie and tupenu.

I stumbled upon South Pacific Business Development Microfinance Ltd. (SPBD) and was instantly attracted to its microfinance core. The freshman summer reading for Intro to Business Ethics was The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund and champion of the microfinance mission. The book completely changed the way I thought about business and social entrepreneurship. Microfinance brings the two worlds of banking and socially-minded business together.

Side note #2: Crazy connection. I was doing a summer writing course in Mussoorie, India, and we used Woodstock School’s facilities. Woodstock School is a small boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas, on the outskirts of Mussoorie. Jacqueline Novogratz is married to Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, and he attended the Woodstock School! Interestingly enough, The Blue Sweater focuses on the world’s interconnectedness. Cool, right?!

What is microfinance?

Microfinance provides small, unsecured credit and other financial products to the economically disadvantaged. SPBD is based on the Grameen Bank model, in which each borrower is part of a group that co-guarantees the loan. This relies on the concept of solidarity between members. The purpose of these loans is to help women jumpstart their businesses and elevate their families out of poverty.

Weaving is a popular business among the women. It is lucrative, always in demand, and allows them to work from home.
Weaving is a popular business among the women. It is lucrative, always in demand, and allows them to work from home.

Why microfinance?

Microfinance is a special type of business; it is the bridge between traditional charity and commercial banks. The borrowers would typically be rejected from banks for credit that they need to improve their conditions. Genuine, sustainable social change cannot come from tangible resources alone- it requires the same attention and discipline as for-profit businesses, backed by compassion and commitment to its members.

My little desk in this tiny island in the vast Pacific.
My little desk in this tiny island in the vast Pacific.

Why women?

International development research reveals that women are much more likely to put their money into their children. Plus, it should come as no surprise that in many cultures, women are not given the same, if any, opportunities as men. As The Blue Sweater quotes, “Help a woman and you help a family.”

Mafi is 72 years old and has eight children and seven grandchildren. With an SPBD loan, she connected electricity to her home, where she, her husband, and two of her daughters and their families reside.
Mafi is 72 years old and has eight children and seven grandchildren. With an SPBD loan, she connected electricity to her home, where she, her husband, and two of her daughters and their families reside.

“In the villages, the men are sleeping while the women are working.” – Anu, an SPBD client

Anu runs a samosa-delivery service and a DVD shop in her village on Tongatapu.
Anu runs a samosa-delivery service and a DVD shop in her village on Tongatapu.

Why am I here?

I am using the Open Data Kit (ODK) to create a mobile data collection solution. SPBD uses the Member Annual Profile (MAP) metric to measure the social condition of members. On a three-point scale, the field officer scores the household’s housing, income, and business conditions. This has always been done with a paper and a pen, and calculated by hand.

The MAP on paper.
The MAP on paper.
The temporary filing system... I hope one day it'll all be on a server.
The temporary filing system… I hope one day it’ll all be on a server.

Now, the survey can be conducted on a smartphone with all the calculations programmed in. The MAP data is then stored in Excel format. Moving to an electronic system will eliminate miscalculations, illegibility, and incompletion, while also giving SPBD an easy way to analyze data and social performance.

SPBD Field Officer Tupou uses ODK for MAP.
SPBD Field Officer Tupou uses ODK for MAP.

These weeks have flown by. Next week is my last week here. All that’s left to do is smooth out the system. Island time is supposed to be slow, but it’s passing like sand through a sieve.


3 things I’m thankful for:

1. Funding

2. Keyboard shortcuts

3. Education 

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