Last spring I invested $200 in Kiva and discovered microlending. Lending that money to people in the developing world to further their business plans felt like genuine, guilt-free altruism; like teaching someone to create fire instead of tossing a raft at the moat around a stranger’s unfathomable life. For the price of a dinner in the city, I could empower another human’s livelihood by helping feed his or her community’s demand for raw essential materials like animals, spices, seeds, produce, grains, clothing, sewing supplies and so on.
Facing our battered economy, microlending through Kiva (kiva.org) seems like enlightened venture capitalism. Partly because of the glaring lack offine print, but mostly because the $200 I used to start an account last year was the first meaningful investment I’ve ever been able to make. I lent $125 to a Tanzanian woman trying to expand her tailoring business by raising $1,050 for supplies and equipment. The rest went to five women from Uganda – a slice of the $1,375 they needed to start a piggery and buy inventory for a grocery, a used clothing store and a hair salon.
Like the tens of thousands of other profiles at kiva.org, these entrepreneurs’ stories were short and unvarnished, their goals modest. I searched faces from places in perpetual upheaval: Africa, South America, South Asia. I read about people struggling to control their lives by trying to resuscitate their communities: poor farmers and tradespeople; folks who could survive by mobilizing raw goods or essential services; people wanting to create healthy, affordable meals.
Later I recognized this as the brilliance of microfinance: it revalues disposable income (for those who have it) by putting a price tag on basic, necessary, attainable ideas. In Kiva’s excellent model, online lenders and fledgling entrepreneurs are allied via the nonprofit’s field partners, nearly 100 vetted microfinance institutions in 44 countries (and growing) with gaping poverty lines. Their common goal: to flush the world’s poorest pipe dreams with cold, hard cash; to catalyze credit flow for humble people who probably won’t use it to debauch their psyches; to turn dependants into providers using small fortunes.
In about three and a half years, Kiva has funded 145,000-plus impoverished entrepreneurs with more than $60 million. Lenders set a radical pace in 2008, making nearly two loans every minute.Amazingly lenders recoup their investments more than 97 percent of the time, typically within about a year. The two loans I made in early ’08 are mostly repaid, and I’ve recycled that money (plus another $50) to a group of Ugandan produce traders, a pair of Cambodian food retailers and some Pakistani and Filipino grocers.
This is where Kiva really gets interesting: less than 10 percent of lenders actually take back their money. They leave it overseas, let it change lives. You might chalk that up to microfinance’s easy, inexpensive gratification. But what’s happening here is a sea change in charity’s watermark, a reincarnation of the meaning of potential. Microfinance is becoming a beacon for people who are uncomfortable with their geographic advantage.
For example, take the logistics of turning isolated, sometimes destitute entrepreneurs’ loan requests into websites – some 500 translators and editors worldwide donate their time and skills to the effort. Kiva’s fellowship program, perhaps the best hands-on access to a microfinance education you can find, is growing, buoyed by a largely volunteer infrastructure. The San Francisco-based company’s proximity to Silicon Valley has been a perennial resource boon.
Meanwhile, the West’s suicidal economic tendencies have yanked the bulk of us from a black hole into a bloodbath. It makes me wonder: just as the Internet has usurped distribution powers from bloated entertainment labels, could microfinance avert the catastrophe of our free market banks?
The answer may come sooner than you’d think. Why? Because Kiva will soon start lending to Americans.
Eric Rumble is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and his work has appeared in Up! magazine, Saturday Night, THIS Magazine and the National Post.