Take a deeper look into the day-to-day experiences of being on an initiatives team working on a project.

Mentors Philippines 2017 Team Experience

By Tom Gibson – MMI Initiatives Consultant

It’s been three hours, and we’ve moved eight kilometres in tightly packed traffic. How is this even possible? The temptation to leave the Taxi is at a maximum, but the fact that we don’t have a working phone or any idea where we are holds us to the confines of the air-conditioned Toyota Camry.

Drenched in sweat we stand out the front of the Mentors International Office in Pasig City, Manila, Philippines. We’re here for the next week conducting a needs analysis across the entire organisation, deciphering how we can integrate a culture of education amongst its field staff and microfinance loan clients. We’ll be asking the tough questions; how do you balance the pressures of loan collection and educating the client on best practice business activities? Or what is the best medium to conduct training efficiently and inclusively in developing communities?


We enter the office nervously; it’s 10 AM. We were supposed to be here at 8 to get a head start on the focus groups that we were hoping to run with several different departments across this leading microfinance institution. After managing to shuffle into what seems the world’s smallest reception a roar of laughter emits from the back like a bunch of giggling school children.

“Hello?” we say trying to reach out to the unknown laughter. Then one by one multiple heads poke out from behind a grouping of desks that look as though they’ve been recently painted in a nice shade of baby blue. Actually, everything in the office is covered in this overpowering blue paint.

Then as if it was all at once, a rush of people come up to us shaking our hands, introducing themselves with great cheer. The last person we are greeted by is EJ. He is head of education and training at Mentors and the contact we’ve been liaising with over the past three months to prepare and learn more about the challenges of the education programs that Mentors is currently grappling with. The research we collect over the next seven days will form the basis of the pro-bono consulting work that we hope will reshape the learning programs implemented by Mentors for their clients.


With a huge cheesy grin on his face, EJ belts out “Welcome to the Philippines! How was the traffic? It was good this morning. I only got in ten minutes ago.” We proceed to let him know what is probably an all too familiar story for everyone in Manila – humidity, chaos and of course traffic. He leads us up to the ‘board room’ where for the first part of the day we will be conducting three different focus groups across field, administration and senior staff.

First up are the field staff. Buzzing with excitement we all cram into the boardroom to kick off. Taking the lead, we pull out the all the amazing question and research we had compiled over the first three months of our project. We thought this would give us all the right answers. Butchers paper, whiteboard markers and good ol’ post-it-notes. We proudly announce the first question. Radio silence. Not even one word. Did we say something wrong?


We would soon learn that a) We were speaking too quickly and b) Jumping ahead of ourselves with complex tasks and tools that even we didn’t understand. Who would have thought? Over the coming days we found that the best insights came from the conversation not complex, over-thought questions. Whether it would be in the back of a Jiminy or on the floor of the homes of Grameen loan clients. This is the best place to learn and be inspired by those impacted by microfinance.

Straight from the focus groups, we headed out with the field staff. We’d each been paired off with a different staff member, and I was lucky enough to be placed with my soon to be best friend, Joseph. “Come, let’s go!” We leave the office at pace and cram straight onto the back of a motorbike, three on a motorbike, why not? We’re off to meet with some of Joseph’s clients to collect payments.

We dart in and out of alleys, I am hot on the tail of Joseph who knows this complex maze of alleys like the back of his hand. We reach the home of my first Grameen loan client, Mary. I am nervous, and I can tell she is as well. She kindly welcomes us into her home that wouldn’t be any bigger than ten by ten feet. Removing my shoes at the front door, I squeeze in to make myself at home with her pet cat, Chewy (cute).

As Joseph does his thing, I listen intently to the translation that he provides back to me. Then it’s my turn to ask questions. Looking down at my list of complex questions we had compiled I flip the sheet over learning from the morning's mistake and ask “Tell me about your family.” Well, that opened Pandora’s box. The conversation leads from one thing to another, and I discover Mary is a single mum with three children. Her husband had since passed away a year ago, and she’s used the microfinance loan from Mentors to start a vitamins and vitamin beverage business from her front door in downtown Pasig City, amazing stuff!


Then almost suddenly Joseph cut the conversation short to discuss missed loan repayments. Ultimately, microfinance had failed Mary at some point and this where I truly saw the value in the training project that we were working on for Mentors. People like Mary need to be supported and encouraged with good business practices so that they can build a future for themselves and their families while utilizing Microfinance loans. For the remainder of the afternoon, I would meet women like Mary with similar stories and determination. It lit a fire in my belly.

Hot, sweaty and most likely dehydrated from Manila’s sweltering humidity I return to the office to find the rest of team in the same state. As we settled back into the air conditioned baby blue office, we exchange stories. All very similar but different in their unique way. We were lucky to be joined by five other Interns who were spending three months with Mentors from Utah State. Upon their recommendation, we would join them for a Halo Halo; a must have dessert while in the Philippines. We settled into one each and dwelled on what the next few days had in store for us.


That concluded our first day consulting for Mentors Philippines in Manila. The week flew by during which we had the opportunity to engage with incredible people utilising microfinance loans for good. However,  microfinance still has many wicked challenges to solve. The research trip all seemed to happen and finish as quickly as a rollercoaster ride, except for the traffic. That didn’t change.

The Mentors Philippines team is currently compiling the research they collected from their international trip to Manila. They’re expecting to deliver their research, findings, and recommendations to Mentors International at the end of the year, finalising their year-long consulting project with Melbourne Microfinance Initiative (MMI).

By Tom Gibson – MMI Initiatives Consultant