Oprah effect brings microlending to Main Street

Mon Jan 7, 2008 9:15am EST
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By Jennifer Coogan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The credit crisis may be fouling up billion-dollar takeover deals, but if you're a poor African seamstress who needs a loan for a new sewing machine, you could not ask for a better borrowing market to expand your business.

Anyone with $25 to spare and an Internet connection can now become an international microfinancier through Kiva (www.kiva.org), an organization that matches individual lenders with impoverished entrepreneurs in the developing world.

Steve Thomas, 50, a property tax consultant in Chicago, got started by lending $50 to a man in Togo who makes a living refurbishing used sneakers for resale. The loan was repaid in full and Thomas has gone on to fund 83 other ventures ranging from a cyber cafe in Ecuador to a mushroom-growing enterprise in Moldova.

Microlending has been in use for decades. Muhammad Yunus shared the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize with Grameen Bank, the lender he founded in the early 1980s to help empower Bangladesh's rural poor. Several other institutions have developed since then, but Kiva is the first to open direct microlending opportunities to the general public with an online platform.

Kiva hit the publicity jackpot in September when Oprah Winfrey featured the organization on her daytime television program, attracting a tidal wave of interest from Middle America. Its 211,000 uses have lent out a total of $18.7 million.

Demand was so high the day the episode aired, every loan on the site was fulfilled. Since then, Kiva has limited lenders to a $25-portion of each loan, the average of which is about $600. Even with the $25 cap, Kiva's lenders manage to fully fund each loan in 0.97 days, on average.

The recent holiday season brought a fresh crop of lenders -- Kiva sold $2.2 million in gift certificates, which the givers were able to print out from their own computers.

Such ease of use and affordability is what Thomas credits with Kiva's popularity. He also sees long-term political and economic benefits for the United States.   Continued...

<p>Ayayi Kayi, 52, of Aneho, Togo, a married and caretaker for six people is seen in this undated handout photo. Her principle economic activity is the production of coconut oil which she then sells. REUTERS/kiva.org/Handout</p>