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AIRED ON PBS OCTOBER 31, 2006 | CHECK LISTINGS arrow

The Lenders' Stories

We asked a group of lenders who use the Kiva Web site to tell us how they came across the site and to describe the motivations behind their individual lending experiences. We also asked them what reservations they had about using Kiva's microfinance model.

Interviews by Clark Boyd. Compiled and edited by Jackie Bennion.

THE LENDERS

Olga and Antonio Olga Espira is a business analyst at Intel Corporation. Antonio Romero is a technical writer and Web and software developer at Oracle Corporation. They live in Menlo Park, California.

“Where Kiva is really successful is putting a human face on the money transaction.”

Carol Carol James is a library cataloguer for a biotech company. She lives in San Francisco.

“I do look on the site to lend to women and particularly women raising children, because women and children do bear a disproportionate load of extreme poverty.”

Bill Bill Wetherall is a software developer. He lives in San Francisco.

“My thoughts were, 'If it works out, fantastic. If not, it's a donation.'”

Donna Donna Slote is a user interface designer. She lives in Burlingame, California.

“What I like is that one-to-one relationship: You're loaning to a particular business, and you're getting reports about that business.”

Nathan Nathan Folkert is a software engineer at a Bay Area startup company. He lives in San Francisco.

“It's hard to know who to give to and what impact the money will have. I guess it's more interesting to see, on a business level, how people are improving their own lives.”

THE MOTIVATION

Antonio Antonio: I first heard about Kiva on PRI [Public Radio International], one of our local public radio stations. I came home and told Olga about it. We looked it up on the Web and discovered they were local to the Bay Area, and they were having a fund-raiser soon. We spent some time looking at businesses in Kenya because Olga is from Kenya. She told me a fair amount about different parts of the country and where the need was likely most urgent.

Olga Olga: A big motivation for me is that, with Kiva, the money goes directly to the people. There’s no middleman. I’ve lived there [in Kenya]; I know the country. I don’t go back as often as I should, but I still can tell Antonio: “You know, this definitely makes sense,” or “I can see why people from this region are asking for loans.”

Antonio Antonio: There is a shift of mindset that goes with being the recipient of aid as opposed to being the recipient of a loan, where there are practical results that have to be met and a repayment schedule that has to be maintained. As for the lender, you become more engaged with the area. You’re not just writing a check, where the money disappears, and your commitment disappears with it until the next time you get an envelope in the mail from an organization that sounds familiar. “Gee, did I write these guys a check once?”

Olga Olga: One of the big problems in Africa is that a lot of the aid never reaches the people who truly need it. Obviously, some reaches the right people at the right time, but one of the bigger things Kenya -- maybe Africa as a whole -- is facing generally is that people need to take responsibility for their own countries. We should not just rely on help. Easy money does not solve our problems. Rather than just providing a handout, it’s a good idea to make people responsible for their loans, empowering them, giving them some dignity, and saying, “We support you; you are a responsible individual.” Corruption is there in all sorts of forms. Overall, this is why Kiva is really interesting to me. It goes directly to the people, and there’s a transparency.

Bill Bill: I stumbled upon the site. Someone had forwarded me an email that led to someone’s blog -- a designer who was talking about the great use of technology on Kiva’s site. I checked it out, and I was instantly interested. It was near my birthday, and I had $100 I was going to spend on something else. I had heard about microloans from a friend, and so I decided to donate right then and there. There’s something about the tangibility of this compared to a straight donation. I’m helping to buy a bicycle or a chicken farm or a taxi, and I’m helping to expand something that already exists. That to me felt like -- if I don’t get my money back, great, it’s a donation. But if I do, I can reloan the money to someone else. And I can actually feel like a little Bill Gates Foundation or Rockefeller Foundation in my own way.

Carol Carol: I was interested in microloans probably before Kiva was even conceived of. I was coming home from London, and I shared a cab with an African minister who had been speaking in England and was returning home. He was providing every possible form of social service in his village: He was running women’s health clinics and schools; he was digging wells. I asked him what program he had experience with that had the greatest impact on people’s lives. Without hesitation, he said microloans … education for women and microloans. So I have contributed to organizations that do microloans that are not lender-to-borrower. You’re paying into a fund, and the fund decides. That’s great, and I would do that again. But the instant I heard about Kiva on the radio at work, I was on the site before the story ended.

Donna Donna: I worked with Matt Flannery [Kiva founder]. So, as the idea for the company was developing, he and I would talk about it. After I met Matt, I looked into it more and went on a trip with the Village Enterprise Fund [VEP] to Africa. We visited very small villages to see the infrastructure in place and to see businesses working. In Kenya, we would go out to these villages, and they literally had nothing. My son was playing soccer with these kids, and they didn’t even have a soccer ball -- their soccer ball was made of plastic bags bound with string. And the kids, if they’re lucky, have one outfit that they wear continuously.

Nathan Nathan: I do occasionally give to the Red Cross, World Food Program, UNHCR [U.N. Refugee Agency] when there is some kind of catastrophe, like the invasion of Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11. It's hard to know who to give to and what impact the money is having on a development project. I guess it’s more interesting to see, on a business level, how people are improving their own lives. I’m not really familiar with how charitable organizations give money for business growth.

THE LENDING EXPERIENCE

Antonio Antonio: We lent to a woman, Jane Wanjeeku Ngiroge, in Muranga, Kenya, for a general store. She runs the Wajo retail shop and asked for money to buy inventory such as sugar, wheat flour and other household commodities. Her business was doing well, but the withdrawals she had to make to pay for her daughter’s school fees were high, and it pushed her to the wall. Besides loaning to people in East Africa, we loan to a man in Bulgaria named Tonchen Petrov Pavlov. He runs an electronics shop, selling spare parts and repairing electrical devices. He wanted the money to expand his shop to include a separate showroom for retail sales and to stock some inventory because more cheap Chinese consumer goods are coming into Bulgaria. He reports in his update that, as a small, independent business, he’s having some difficulties competing with a large chain. But he has already repaid $400 toward the balance of $1,875 that he originally borrowed, and that’s pretty impressive progress to me.

Olga Olga: I’m half Russian. I have ties to many places in the world, and I was surprised to see that people in Bulgaria need help. I don’t consider Bulgaria to be as poor as Africa. But, to me, if someone is running his own business, the good the money can do spreads around. If he’s doing well, then his children are doing well, and probably his aunts are doing well. The other influence for me is that quite a few of the people in Eastern Europe seeking loans are Gypsies. That’s why we chose to give there. Gypsies have been shoved to the back. Even in the Soviet days -- I lived in the Ukraine for seven years -- they were always treated as [Antonio: as second- or third-class citizens], if that. There’s always a story behind everything, and that’s why we keep an eye on many parts of the world. It’s encouraging that Kiva is looking at other countries where people need help, not just at Africa.

Bill Bill: I picked Grace Ayaa because I was very impressed with all the work she does in her community. She is a member of all these organizations and has a business she’s trying to expand. I tried to pick people that had a business going on or were looking to expand something beyond just themselves. Sai Ta Prom was another. He is in Cambodia, I believe, and he wanted to purchase a passenger taxi cart -- a Tuk Tuk, which I thought was a great name. On the Kiva site, you learn about his family: His wife sells items in the marketplace; his daughter works at a local factory; and his three sons go to school. He wants to buy another taxi so that his son-in-law can join the business.

Carol Carol: Annah Okuni was the first person that I lent money to. She’s running a secretarial business, doing documents for folks and selling school supplies. I don’t know exactly why I chose her, except that I thought it was aspirational to be running a secretarial bureau. She had the faith that her community needed to communicate to do business and that she could do that. And, she could make a livelihood for herself and her family, which consists of six children and four other dependents. I wondered who those other dependents were. Does she have older parents she’s helping? Is she helping out with other people’s children? You learn just enough from the profiles to be intrigued about what else is going on in their lives.

Donna Donna: At the very beginning, there weren’t that many businesses. I funded a produce stand. My original loan was repaid, and then I gave a portion of that as a grant to Kiva, and we reloaned another portion of it. That’s when my son became involved. I would give him an allowance that he could loan to a business. And the business he chose was a motorcycle shop, because my husband rebuilds motorcycles as a hobby.

Since then, I have introduced a few other people to Kiva, including my sister. I told her about it, so she looked on the Web site and was attracted to a bakery that wanted to get a loan so that they could start using real butter in their products. As a baker herself, she was like, “Of course I need to fund their bakery business.”

Nathan Nathan: Probably what attracted me to Grace’s business profile was that she was a peanut butter manufacturer, which is a pretty interesting business. I like peanut butter. I like chunky peanut butter. A lot of people are in clothing, shoes -- everybody is worthwhile to loan to -- but there’s something to be said for the headline. I looked at her page, and it was kind of cool. Grace was among the first batch of borrowers from East Africa. I started out as an African studies minor, and I thought that area of the world was a good place to watch.

THE RESERVATIONS

Olga Olga: My biggest concern is that, as Kiva gets larger, will they be able to do the vetting as efficiently as they’ve been doing so far? Because there’s a lot of need. Right now, I think they’re working with quite a few women’s groups, but, again, there are so many groups, so many areas. How are they going to manage that outside Kenya, Uganda and a few other places? I think right now they’re small, they’re very dedicated, and the founders are very much involved. There’s that energy and passion behind it. Sometimes, when those key people move on, what is next? Will they sustain that energy and passion with a change in leadership or a change in direction?

Antonio Antonio: I have some of the same concerns as Olga does about what will happen to the reliability of Kiva partners when the organization scales as the lending scales. I think there are two aspects to that. One is simply that this will work out rather like eBay, where you have partners who have a history of transactions that go well and partners who have a history of transactions that don’t. Those with a history of bad transactions will progressively wither and won’t get many repeat lenders if someone can pull up the profile. Secondly, even if the money is being repaid, was the need actually legitimate? That will be the harder problem for Kiva to manage over time. Even people who are repaying … are they simply using this as something that’s easier than a bank, where they could have gotten more conventional credit?

Olga Olga: I would ask, if the money was not used for its intended purposes, what was it used for instead? And if this use makes sense, given the situation, I would not have a problem with that. I think you have to leave a little bit of room for people on the ground. Things are not always as straightforward or predictable as they are here, where I can get my weather forecast and traffic and know exactly what I am doing for the next five days. Life in Africa is still a fight for survival. One person can be supporting 30 people. Sometimes something as simple as a death in the family bankrupts everybody.

Bill Bill: In the very beginning, there was a glimmer of doubt. How could I possibly know if these people are for real? But I also felt that these organizations and the site itself are working with people who know what these borrowers are all about. My thoughts were, “If it works out, fantastic. If not, it’s a donation.” I read that 99 percent of the loans are paid back.

Carol Carol: I’ve seen a story on the Kiva site about a loan being used for something else. The woman ended up throwing a huge wedding for her daughter instead of starting up a grocer’s shop. Somebody came out from Kiva, a teacher who was doing this for her summer project, and there was no sign of the food shop. But there was this big photo album of the lavish Western-style wedding. Of course, the lenders got a chance to comment on the woman’s Kiva page: “I wasn’t loaning for bleeping Jordan almonds and orange blossom wreaths. What the hell!” OK, she made a foolish choice, and she isn’t the first person, and those lenders are understandably annoyed. However, this woman will have to pay the loan back; she will not be able to get a grocery store; and she will probably not ever get help from this organization again. Kiva hasn’t hidden this. You can go on the Web site and read the entries. So that gives me confidence that there is transparency.

Donna Donna: I come from a very entrepreneurial family, and my sister’s bakery failed. So, no, I don’t worry that I might not get the money back. I think that’s part of the risk of having your own business or supporting any business.

Nathan Nathan: Once the money is in there, and as long as Kiva is operational and I’m happy with everything they’re doing, I’ll probably just leave it in.

THE WEB FACTOR

Olga Olga: Where Kiva is really successful is putting a human face on the money transaction. It’s direct contact. You almost feel like you’re building a relationship with that person. You get a bigger sense of involvement. And so the updates really sound quite a bit more personal. You can see this person’s picture. You get a sense of who they are.

Antonio Antonio: I think the critical differences between a program like Kiva and the charitable sponsorship of a child is that you’re actually having a relationship with an adult, and it’s not a relationship through grants. It’s essentially a business relationship, and there’s much more mutual respect.

Bill Bill: What I liked about Kiva’s system is that I wasn’t giving the whole loan amount needed by a borrower. I was contributing. I often give donations in small sizes, and I always feel a little bit guilty because they’re so small. Here, I felt like I was part of something larger than just me. I felt like I was partnering with a lot of other people on this site to help this guy, and that felt pretty good.

Carol Carol: The obvious question is “How do we know if these people are legit?” I don’t think active scamming is going to be so much of a problem as people getting overexcited about the whole concept. The partners on the ground have the experience to keep guiding the loan recipients along through the whole process of becoming a good businessperson. And when there are unavoidable setbacks and things don’t quite work out, those partners on the ground can also make reasonable accommodations. I think that’s an absolutely integral part of the equation. It’s not just a technical thing.

Donna Donna: What I like is that one-to-one relationship: You’re loaning to a particular business, and you’re getting reports about that business. And it’s very encouraging in the sense that -- even if the business isn’t successful, like the motorcycle shop, and even though they’re trying to pay the money back -- you really kind of share in their effort to succeed.

Carol Carol: There’s a certain dating-service aspect to Kiva. You have your little list of things that you’re thinking you want to support, and then you’re going, “Oh, but that person’s got such a beautiful smile,” or “What was she thinking when she wore that hat that day?” I do look on the site to lend to women and particularly women raising children, because women and children do bear a disproportionate load of extreme poverty.

Nathan Nathan: I think the Web site is well designed and really easy to use, which is part of the reason I keep coming back. Having those stories there is kind of a hook to pull you back in each month to learn how the entrepreneurs are doing, what kind of environment they live in. That would be hard to do by traveling to these places. There are 13 countries or more involved now, so it would take a year just to visit the places, much less get a sense of how the people live.