Housewife’s Microfinance Powerhouse An ‘Inspiration’

Meet Cholilah Sabar, a 58-year-old housewife who lives in a modest home in Pluit Dalam, North Jakarta.

Her home is cramped among other buildings in the densely populated area and it seems an unlikely place to have been the office of a microfinance powerhouse that has a revolving fund of Rp 2.3 billion (approximately US$247,000). 

Sumber Rejeki members who benefit from the fund are not only residents of Cholilah's neighborhood. They also come from Muara Angke and Tangerang in Banten. Just like owning a credit card for wealthier people, the cooperative has helped its members get through their highs and lows, including lending money to pay for urgent medical bills or for family wedding ceremonies.

Pegging interest payable on its loans at 3 percent per month, Sumber Rejeki is a winning alternative for its members, who would otherwise have to borrow from loan sharks who charge up to 20 percent in interest per month.

Karni, who owns a nearby food stall, said she would never have fulfilled her dreams without the cooperation's help. Since her husband lost his job 10 years ago, Karni has found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

However, with the help of the cooperation, Karni has been able to keep her business running and send her children to university.

"In emergency situations I borrow money from the cooperation. And Bu Cholilah is there to assist us whenever we have problems," she told The Jakarta Post.

Cholilah and two friends started the microfinance cooperation with a few million rupiah donated by the Australian Embassy almost 15 years ago.

While Cholilah welcomes anyone who wants to borrow money, she is strict about the prompt payment of installments and is like an eagle catching its prey when members try to avoid making repayments.

From Tangerang, Banten, to as far away as Jatisrono in Central Java, Cholilah has hunted down debtors who have ran away without paying the cooperation back.

Her hard work and determination have paid off. Sumber Rejeki was recognized as the city's best microfinance institution in 2006, after which the administration awarded the cooperation legal status.

Having legal status allows the cooperation to obtain larger loans from commercial banks.
Economic empowerment activist Tri Endang Sulistyowati from the Center for Women's Resources Development (PPSW) said Cholilah's strong leadership had helped the cooperation become what it is today.

"Cholilah is a firm and respected leader of the community. Her qualities promote discipline among the community, which is important for such an institution," she said.

Tri said most of Jakarta's microfinance institutions failed in the early stages because board members misused money or could not push debtors to pay.

Cholilah said she doesn't consider herself a leader. The grandmother of five said every day she focuses on doing the two things she loves most – sewing and hanging out with her neighbors.

She moved to Jakarta from Semarang in Central Java 34 years ago when her husband was employed as a construction worker in the capital. Cholilah worked as a seamstress to help her husband make ends meet for the family.

The vibrant and energetic woman quickly got involved in neighborhood activities. She also has the capacity to charm anyone who knows her.

"I am the kind of person who cannot sit around doing nothing. People say I'm a rolling ball that refuses to stop," she said.

Last year, the cooperation finally purchased a building to become its new office to replace Cholilah's home.

The building, which is also located in the neighborhood, is big enough to continue housing the cooperation if it eventually expands.

Although Sumber Rejeki has successfully managed a large revolving fund, there are no plans for future expansion at this stage.

Tri said it would be hard for Sumber Rejeki to develop as a commercial business as its funds were continually reinvested back into the cooperation.

"This means microfinance institutions such as Sumber Rejeki cannot develop as fast the Grameen Bank for example," she said.

Grameen Bank in Bangladesh started off as a microfinance system and became so large that it has expanded into commercial businesses such as telecommunications and garment production.

Despite the fact business expansion is yet to be a priority, Sumber Rejeki and Cholilah are still heroes in the hearts of the cooperative's members.

Resident Puput Bayuti, a Sumber Rejeki member who has established a microfinance community of her own, said Cholilah was her inspiration.

"At first I was afraid of her, but the more I got to know her the more I wanted to be like her," she said.