Kiva Lending from a Kiva Fellow’s Point of View

Rebecca Corey, KF9 and KF10 Tanzania

I’ve now been in the field as a Kiva Fellow for almost four months! It’s hard to believe all that has happened in this short time. I’ve battled malaria, ridden the local daladalas ‘til I know their paths like a local, developed a healthy taste for “chipsi mayai” (an egg and french fry omelette–the most popular Tanzanian street food), learned every Kiswahili greeting around (and there seem to be hundreds!), and settled into life with my beautiful homestay family. I’ve also conducted a borrower verification of SELFINA (a Kiva partner in Dar), and spent hours interviewing, photographing, and writing for borrower profiles and journal updates  for Kiva clients at my host MFI, Tujijenge Tanzania, Ltd. I’ve collaborated with RockhopperTV and the BBC World News on a short documentary series that will feature Kiva as one of the world’s most innovative social businesses, and created templates and training materials for Tujijenge as well. Last but not least, I’ve enrolled in the Masters in Development Studies program at the University of Dar es Salaam, which has allowed me to explore the theoretical background and debates surrounding the development practices I’m witnessing on the ground. Most of my days are spent at in the field with clients, at local branch offices, and on Partner Administration (or PA2 as the Kiva Fellows call it), the website that allows Kiva’s partner microfinance institutions to post business descriptions, upload borrower profile pictures and journal updates, keep track of repayments and account details, and otherwise manage their interactions with Kiva headquarters.

So ironically, since I began my Kiva Fellowship I haven’t spent that much time on the actual website. I’ve been otherwise occupied. But today, on a relatively quiet Friday in the office, I felt the urge to look at the fundraising loans… Here is what I found: Togo, Peru, Ukraine, Lebanon, Ghana… Cosmetics sales, fish vendor, grocer, butcher, barber… Mother, widow, uncle, brother, child… a woman in a field with a large-brimmed pink hat, a man lounging against his bright blue taxi, another standing proudly in front of his house in the midst of construction, a lady with a grin on her round face and her head tilted back, a man who looks like he’s never had his picture taken before and considers it a very serious occasion…

I was born in Korea, raised in America, and here I am working in Tanzania. But as I read and browsed the fundraising loans on Kiva, I was traveling around the world, and meeting, as business partners, a host of brave, innovative, entrepreneurial, and absolutely fascinating people. I was connecting, through lending, for the sake of easing need and alleviating want, for making the world a more equitable and just place. And before I knew it I’d found five entrepreneurs that each spoke to me in a different way. I made five loans in about 15 minutes. The experience of loaning on Kiva is what you might call addictive. It’s fun. And endlessly interesting to read a little bit about what life is like for people all around the world.

I made my first Kiva loan in September of 2009 to a woman named Esther in Juliaca, Peru. It was first and foremost an emotional and personal response. My little sister is adopted from Peru, and Esther’s eyes reminded me of hers. She is shown framed by stacks of soaps, boxes and bottles in what appears to be a small shop, with a small child with ruddy cheeks bundled next to her. Interestingly enough, the profile was written entirely in Spanish, and no English translation was provided. With my rusty Spanish from several years of classes in high school, I managed to catch the gist. I noticed words like “familia” and “ella tiene viente siete anos,” but to be honest I only skimmed the profile. I would learn a few months later during my training as a Kiva Fellow that this was sort of an experiment for Kiva, to see if untranslated loans were funded less quickly than ones with translations, or left unfunded altogether. They told me they were surprised to find that business profiles posted in languages other than English (the language spoken by a very high percentage of Kiva borrowers) were funded just as quickly as those with profiles in English! It seemed I was not alone in choosing a borrower based on an emotional reaction from the photo.

Over the next few months, while preparing for my fellowship in Tanzania I asked friends and family members how they selected which loans to support on the website. The photo was usually on the top of most people’s list. Did the person’s image ‘speak’ to them? Was it something about the person’s smile or the landscape behind them or the signs of a lively business operating around them? But while the picture was often the first thing they commented on, it was usually some detail included in the profile that really sold them on investing in that particular entrepreneur. My friends were fascinated by a business in Tajikistan, or wanted to support a woman with five children, or a man who lived in Guatemala–which was a place she had visited or really wanted to go. The reasons for lending were just as fascinating to me as the reasons for borrowing. And above all, I was amazed at connections and exchange–financial, informational, and emotional– occurring between people, communities and cultures that spanned the entire globe. Kiva reminds and educates people of the diversity of cultures, while affirming the shared humanity between us… and the most basic truth of all: we’re united by so many common concerns– making a living, caring for our families, and building our lives around our hopes and dreams for the future.

So we all have our unique histories and ideas that draw us to certain borrowers on the Kiva website. Luckily, there are so many generous and committed Kiva lenders that very few loans that are posted ever go unfunded. Yet Kiva is a marketplace, and there may come a day when the supply of loans posted exceeds the demand to fill them. Another interesting fact I picked up at Kiva Fellows training in San Francisco is that despite the multitudes of individuals and preferences, certain trends arise when one studies the rate of funding of Kiva loans. Women in Africa who are involved in agriculture are the most “popular” loans to fund. Their loans are funded the fastest. Kiva lenders, on average, also seem to prefer to fund individual rather than group loans. Loans for men from Eastern European countries who drive taxis are funded the most slowly. It seems that ideas of need and poverty are accompanied by certain faces or profiles, stereotypes we’ve adopted based on popular perceptions or media portrayals of what it means to be poor. I hope no one will take this the wrong way. I’m in no way criticizing the Kiva lending community. On the contrary, I think the Kiva data on loan funding is indicative of just how compassionate Kiva lenders are: they want passionately to help people help themselves out of poverty, and so those who are perceived as being the most disadvantaged or underprivileged are funded the fastest. But it’s worth noting that microfinance reaches individuals in need of access to capital and anyone on Kiva’s website has been screened by a partner MFI that has found them worthy of and in need of a loan. So that Armenian taxi driver with pale skin and a leather jacket may need your loan just as much as a Kenyan coffee farmer.

Like I said before, group loans also sometimes take a long time to fund on Here in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at my host MFI, Tujijenge Tanzania, Ltd., all of the loans we post to Kiva are group loans. The group loan method provides a social guarantee of repayment that takes the place of formal credit histories. It allows MFIs to loan to clients who most desperately need these microloans by helping them keep interest rates reasonable and reducing operating and loan administration costs. The group members elect leaders and name their group, encourage and support each other, and guarantee each other’s repayments. It was, in fact, this group loan methodology that Muhammed Yunus promoted with the Grameen Bank and fueled the microfinance revolution. Yunus has said “My experience working in the Grameen Bank has given me faith; an unshakable faith in the creativity of human beings. It leads me to believe that humans are not born to suffer the misery of hunger and poverty. They suffer now as they did in the past because we turn our heads away from this issue..”

Oftentimes, we photograph the clients at the branch office where they come to collect their loans, so Kiva lenders don’t get the opportunity to see them photographed in their places of work. Sometimes the photo quality isn’t great, and the faces look small because so many people have had to fit in the frame. The pace of loan disbursement at the branch office can sometimes crawl–the office has a committed and hard-working staff, but microfinance is such a necessity for so many small business owners in Tanzania that the workload is often overwhelming. Sometimes, a group will wait for two hours under the hot equatorial sun before they can receive their loans. So in the picture, the borrowers may look tired and eager to leave. They tend to consider having their photo taken a very serious occasion, and they do not smile when the flash goes off. But they crowd around me to see the result and laugh, patting each other on the back, usually pleased at the result, or sometimes requesting another take. I am humbled and honored to work with these patient, kind, and ambitious entrepreneurs. I am grateful for the time they take to tell me their stories, so that I can then share them with you.

It has been a truly inspiring experience to work as a Kiva Fellow at Tujijenge these past few months. And today, it was really fun to take all I have learned as a Kiva Fellow and return to the Kiva website as a lender. I have to admit, I went a little crazy, making five loans in the span of just twenty minutes! I just couldn’t help myself. I was so moved by the compelling profiles of Phun Kheoun in Cambodia, Remelyn Calenada in the Philippines, Fatou Diouf from Senegal, Saimuhammad Tugaev in Tajikistan, and Silvio Antonio Rivas Masis from Nicaragua. Remelyn sat aside a blue motorbike and I could tell she was a woman after my own heart. Saimuhammad looked so charming in his black cap in front of his stylish black shoes. Silvio was building a new house for his growing family. From my third floor office in Dar es Salaam, I traveled all over the world, visiting these borrowers. I felt proud to contribute to their loans, and excited to think how their lives will change. So all of this is to say: thank you, Kiva lenders, for doing what you do. I have witnessed first hand the ability of microfinance to empower entrepreneurs, bring people together, and make such an incredible difference in the lives of Tanzanian families. I won’t be a Kiva Fellow for much longer, but I will always be a Kiva lender–a guarantee for good company.

Rebecca Corey has returned from the field where she served as a Kiva Fellow in Dar es Salaam with Tujijenge Tanzania, Ltd. See Tujijenge’s currently fundraising loans here, and join the Tujijenge lending team! To watch the BBC/Rockhopper documentary on Kiva filmed at Tujijenge, follow this link.

About the author

Rebecca Corey