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.
"They're risky, but marginal improvements can make the big bang," Thomas said. "This is also the most effective homeland security. Prosperity is the best antidote for chaos and mayhem. It's much cheaper to be the world's businessman than the world's cop."
Aiesha Turman, 33, was Web surfing when she stumbled upon Kiva. Intrigued by the organization's name, which comes from the Swahili word for "agreement" or "unity,"" the Brooklyn-based museum educator browsed through lender profiles. She identified with a Tanzanian shopkeeper who shared the same first name and, like Turman, was mother to one child.
The shopkeeper paid Turman back in full, consistent with Kiva's 99.82 percent of all loans. Instead of reclaiming her $25, she went on to fund new loans, zeroing in on women of color with children.
"It's particularly harder for women in general to move up the ladder, but especially in a developing nation," Turman said, adding that by lending to mothers, "you're not just helping an individual, you're helping a community."
Both Turman and Thomas say they don't mind not earning any interest on the loans they make. The interest charged to the borrowers goes mostly toward the administration of the loan, which can be expensive and time-consuming in areas where infrastructure is barely developed.
The average interest rates charged by Kiva's field partners is 22 percent, though the rates range from as low as 4 percent to as high as 50 percent. Rates are determined by the region and by the size of the local organization and the services they offer to borrowers. In some parts of Latin America, a loan at 50 percent is still less expensive than borrowing from a local money lender, whose rates can top 100 percent.
Despite earning only an emotional return, lenders are snapping up the loans almost as fast as Kiva's partners can add new borrowers. Especially popular are African, female entrepreneurs involved in food production, like a peanut-butter producer featured by Oprah Winfrey. Afghan and Iraqi loans also "just fly off the site," said Kiva spokeswoman Fiona Ramsey.
Kiva does have plans to begin offering lenders interest-paying loans in 2008 from some of the larger partners whose administrative overhead is less costly.
To be sure, Kiva's success doesn't mean that the needs of the world's impoverished self-employed are being wholly met. The bottleneck rests in the local loan partners who are responsible for vetting each borrower and collecting repayments. Kiva is reluctant to press the organizations to increase their client base to match the growing number of lenders who want to participate.
"If you have an organization visiting all their clients every day on bicycle, it's going to be hard for them to scale," Ramsey said.
Instead, Kiva is trying to increase the number of partner organizations it works with, but the process of adding a new partner requires months of financial reviews and reference checks. Scrimping on due diligence runs the risk of endangering the transparency and low default rate that makes the program so popular.
Loans from southern Sudan will soon be coming online as Kiva adds a new partner from the war-torn region. If the popularity of the Iraqi and Afghan entrepreneurs is any guide, lenders will have to act fast to get a piece.
Reporting by Jennifer Coogan; Editing by Eddie Evans