Microfinance in Honduras: learning how to save

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People in Honduras who ask for a microcredit are often sent on a course. The idea is that accounting and computer skills help small entrepreneurs succeed. In Central America, Honduras is a pioneer in financial education. Reporter Alejandro Pintamalli explains how a shop owner and a peasant woman have learnt how to save.

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How is financial schooling applied in Central America? That is the question that is taking me to Hondruas. In my bag is a pile of papers: dull, technical information, or else so comprehensive, it's dazzling.

My "mental hard disk" still stores a previous experience in Nicaragua. For a series on microfinancing in different parts of the world, in 2009 we followed a Nicaraguan woman who made a living baking tortillas. After work, she and a number of female colleagues took several courses.

Click here to watch the video.

The tortilla baker introduced me to financial education, a controversial topic in microfinancing. Proponents say it helps small entrepreneurs and makes them more resilient. Critics argue it's rather patronising to force them to follow courses in their free time.

I was expecting all the students to be small entrepreneurs who had managed to overcome poverty. To my surprise, there were also people who had taken out microcredits for very different reasons.

"Financial education should result in changed behaviour, a critical target group and educated clients," explains Juan Vega, the director of the Programme to Promote Financial Services for Low Income Groups in Central America (PROMIFIN). There are people who have been able to buy a plot of farmland with a microcredit and thanks to financial courses they have learnt how to make the most of the money. Other groups have used the microcredits to build a school, a road or waterworks.

The state is largely absent when it comes to microfinance, especially in rural areas such as El Paraíso and Intibucá, which I visited together with PROMIFIN.

Small banks
The organisational level is staggering. Honduras has a total of 3746 local microfinance schemes and that’s not even counting the unregistered schemes. They operate like small banks: groups of up to 30 people save together and finance their own company.

A good example is Marvin Sánchez. Thanks to microfinancing, he has been able to open a tiny shop. The course has taught him to how to save. For example, instead of having a Coke, he now drinks water when he is thirsty.

"My goal is to open a small supermarket in the near future. Maybe I'll be able to send you a picture pretty soon!"

In the plane I had prepared lots of critical questions about financial education. After hearing Marvin Sánchez, however, I'm completely convinced.