Study Tour Bulgaria: Our Amazing Bulgaria Team

Study Tour Bulgaria: Our Amazing Bulgaria Team

May 19, 2012 at 5:16 PM - by Leah Gage - 0 comments

Of all the things I have learned on this study tour to Bulgaria, one of the most poignant has been the strength of our team in Bulgaria. Their impact here is apparent: not only through the financial portfolio – Bulgaria’s portfolio at risk is 0% – but through the close relationships we saw between the clients we met and the Bulgaria team members.

Mira Andonova, Bulgaria Country Manager, and a member of the Niva 93 staff.

Mira Andonova, Bulgaria Country Manager, and a member of the Niva 93 staff.

As an investment vehicle, Oikocredit is unique because of it’s local field staff – people hired to manage Oikocredit’s partnerships based on their special expertise and local knowledge as country nationals.  Bulgaria’s country office is staffed by 5 people – country manager Mira Andonova, and four project officers – Lachezar Stoyanov, Nikolay Draganov, Blagovesta Petkova and Lazarina Doncheva.

It’s the job of our local country staff to manage the relationships with our 44 partners in Bulgaria and monitor the loan agreements of our 96 loans there. But these are not just bankers managing loan agreements. Our country staff bring an added value of expertise, flexibility, and a long-term commitment.

Over and over, I was told something very important by our partners: even if they could take a loan from a commercial bank, they would not. There were many reasons for this – for one, Oikocredit’s expertise and understanding. Most of our project officers understand agriculture, and one has a degree in agronomy. This means that they understand the needs of agricultural partners in the ways a traditional bank would not. Also, Oikocredit has been flexible and reliable. One coop chair told me that although they could take a loan from a bank at a percent lower interest rate, they preferred working with Oikocredit. There was a time when Bulgarian banks would not even consider funding coops; now that they have proven successful investments, banks are actively seeking them out as potential clients. But Oikocredit’s long-term commitment is actually more valuable than an extra percentage savings. Agriculture is not always reliable given its reliance on climate. And these coops have seen Oikocredit restructure their loans in the past to account for droughts and lulls in income; they know that they can count on Oikocredit’s staff to work with their needs.

Finally, Oikocredit’s staff invests capacity in its partners. In two weeks, for example, Mira, Lachezar, Blagovesta and Lazarina have organized an annual summit for all of our agricultural cooperatives. About 70 people from many of Oikocredit’s partners to share knowledge and learn from each other’s experience. In addition, Mira has arranged for two lectures – these agricultural partners will hear from a government official about how to navigate the confusing waters of EU agricultural subsidies; they will also hear from an organic farming expert about bio-gas implementation.

From client after client, we heard the praises sung of Mira, Lacho, Laza, Nikki, and Buba. It’s not just that Oikocredit was there for them when no one else was – it’s true, we were funding agricultural and credit coops in Bulgaria before any bank would. These cooperatives are now better organizations given their relationship with Oikocredit. I heard one interesting thing from Yordanka Ilieva, chairwoman of Doverie Credit Cooperative. She told me, “Oikocredit has changed our work on a professional level. In these last years, Mira has taught us how to work – absolutely. We are very thankful to the Bulgarian team of Oikocredit.”

Me, pictured with dear friends Laza and Nikki

This week, I was invited into several homes and offices, welcomed with gifts, and provided honest and straightforward answers about very personal topics. Can you imagine if a foreigner came to your house and started to ask you, “What do you think of your mortgage company? What do you think of the interest rate, is it low enough? How’s your business doing – has the economic crisis effected your family?” But I was allowed to do this, because I was trusted. It was very clear that any friend of the Bulgaria team was a friend of theirs. I’m so proud to call them my colleagues, and friends.

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