By AYOOOLA OLAOLUWA
Due to their inability to secure soft loans from money deposit banks for their businesses, many Nigerians have continued to approach microfinance banks to access credit.
According to BusinessHallmark findings, microfinance banks operating in the country are now reaping from conventional banks’ strict and cumbersome loans application and approval process, with Nigerians daily trooping to them for bail out, not minding the huge cost.
Owing to the deluge of customers that patronize them daily, many of these microfinance institutions have grown in strength. One of them, Lift Above Poverty Organization, popularly known as LAPO, has become a phenomenon in Nigeria. Founded in 1987 with the mission to assist the poor to break out of the grip of poverty by having access to credit facilities to invest in small and medium scale enterprises, the organization has recorded impressive performance and growth over the years.
The company, which currently has 7, 233 personnel on its payroll, disbursed loans to the value of N140.4billion in 2016, to it’s over 2.9million customers scattered all over the country, with greater concentration on rural and urban poor women.
With its skillful organizational ability, the company has been able to capture the informal sector of the nation’s economy. According to its founder and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe, LAPO has been able to put smiles to the faces of Nigerian men and women by lifting them out of poverty.
However, with the exception of many of its customers, many Nigerians do not know much about the firm, despite its popularity. Our correspondent finding revealed that despite the ease and convenience of getting loans from the firm, the road to repayment is laid with thorns.
Perhaps unknown to the management of LAPO, its customers and informed Nigerians in the thrift business employ the sobriquet ‘Ko mu le lantern, meaning ‘Your breast on hot lantern’, while referring to the company or its loan schemes.
Some of LAPO’s customers who spoke with to BH explained the slang ‘Ko mu le lantern’, to mean the troubles associated with paying back loans from the firm.
“The day you collect a loan from LAPO is the last day you have sound sleep. Sales or no sales, you must pay back the agreed amount every week to the collecting agent of you are in deep trouble”, said Mrs. Bolaji Osolana, a trader at the popular Jankara Market in Ijaiye-Ojokoro, Lagos. “It is either you pay up or face serious embarrassment and humiliation from collecting agents. You can no longer sleep well until you offset the loan.
“That is why the scheme was labeled ‘Your breast on hot lantern. Can someone who put her breast on a hot lantern have rest”, Osolana demanded.
To appreciate the process it takes to secure a loan from LAPO, our correspondent visited the Old Abeokuta Road office of the firm at Agege, and met with a female customer service official on duty. After introducing himself as a private school proprietor based in Oko-Oba, he was told that they only give only women loans.
When BH enquired why the loan is given to only women, she blurted. In spite of persistent pleading, she refused to bulge, insisting, “That is company policy. We can’t bend the policy for you.”
She later asked our correspondent if he was married. When he answered in the affirmative, he was told to remove his name as the loan applicant and his wife’s own. Right away, a set of forms was given to him to be filled and returned after they must have been completed.
Second step, they (our correspondent and his supposed wife) were told that after they have completed the form, they should come with the sum of N4, 000 as initial deposit and insurance premium of N2, 000, making it N6, 000 altogether, in addition to one guarantor.
The guarantor, our correspondent was told, is mandatory for individual borrowers, but waived for groups or cooperatives. He was told that as a first timer, he can’t get more than N60, 000, at 20% interest rate, payable within 32 weeks.
However, the facility is subject to upward review depending on the borrower’s assessment as far as liquidating previous loans is concerned.
The interest rate is however moderate, just 20%, compared to the close to 40% charged by deposit money banks. For example, our correspondent will pay back N72, 000 for the borrowed N60, 000 at the end of eight months. However, by the time the insurance fee and initial deposit are added, it will rise to 25%.
BH spoke with some customers of LAPO on their experience with the organization and their reactions are mixed. While some praised the initiative and vowed to continue patronizing it, the unlucky ones rendered tales of woes, vowing never to go near the organization and its numerous loan schemes.
For Mrs. Taibat Abass, a popular food vendor at Agege, if not for LAPO, she would have relocated to her hometown of Iwo, in Osun State, when she ran into financial trouble in 2017.
Radiating smiles on her face, she told BH how her food business almost collapsed in 2017 when the Lagos State government demolished her shop to make way for the Agege/Pen Cinema Flyover.
“My business came crumbling down in July 2017 when my shop was demolished for the Agege, Pen Cinema Bridge. After running around for some time, I was able to raise the N220, 000 as rent for another shop.
“That was when my problems started. Because I couldn’t raise more money to run my business, after paying for the new shop, people stopped giving me loans. I was in a dilemma until a friend introduced me to LAPO. I was initially skeptical, but since I had no option then, I followed her to the Agege branch of LAPO.
“After fulfilling all their conditions, I was able to secure a facility from them. And my fortunes changed for the better. I kill at least three big goats every day, not to mention the cartoons of fish and beef from the Oko-Oba Abattoir as complements.
“The secret is that you must pay back your loan every weekend, by making sure that you make so much money to cover the set target by the time LAPO officers come to pick the money”, Mrs. Abass said.
However, the road to liquidating the loan can sometimes be laced with thorns, as experienced by the unlucky borrowers. A foodstuff seller at the Agbado Market in Ogun State, Alhaja Bolatito Tajudeen, narrated her bitter experience in the hands of PAPO’s debt collectors.
“Initially, things were going well for me after collection a loan of N120, 000 from them. I used to travel far and near to buy food stuffs to sell to customers and pay back N8, 000 every week until the vehicle conveying my goods from Ogbomosho in Oyo State had a terrible accident before Ogere in Ogun State.
“Though I survived the accident, all my goods were destroyed in the accident. That was the beginning of my troubles with LAPO. After I failed to make the necessary payment at the end of the week, the company contacted my guarantor who led a team of debt collectors to my shop. I pleaded for more time to pay up and they were magnanimous. They gave me the grace of one week to pay up.
“Thankfully, I was able to raise N24, 000 from family and friends for the first three weeks. That is where the good news ended. After the third week, I couldn’t raise any money to continue paying.
“I was shocked to see a crowd at the front of my house the next Friday calling me unprintable words to come out. They brought a band with them who sang and danced in front of my house, calling me ‘Onigbese, (debtor); Ole (thief); Asewo (prostitute); O gbowo o lowo salo (She ran away with our money; Iyawo Olosa (Wife of an armed robber), among several derogatory abuses.
“That day, it was as if the earth should open up and swallow me up. The humiliation continued for several months until my embarrassed mother-in-law who lives on the same street as I am, came to bail me out by paying up the debt.
“Never in my life will I ever approach LAPO or any thrift agency for loan for that matter again in my life”, she said.
She added that she was even lucky as habitual defaulters get worse treatment like being locked up in a filthy latrine or even beaten up or arrested and put behind bars.
A debt collector working for LAPO who did not want his identity disclosed, said that they prefer humiliating their debtors than arresting them. He revealed putting them behind bars would be it counterproductive as they won’t be able to trade to repay their debt.
“Though we sometimes go to our debtors’ shops or residences with security men, particularly policemen, we found that public humiliation is more effective in recovering loans.
“The shame strategy works better than arresting them, because they experience it in the full view of their friends, children and family.
However, despite the challenges faced by some of its customers in the course of paying back their loans, LAPO has lifted many people out of poverty. Majority of the firm’s customers, who spoke with BH, said they had sweet experiences doing business with LAPO.