By Alison Carlman, KF8, Kenya

“ It’s this place, on the computer… like a bulletin board… where people post stories…”

Explaining Kiva isn’t easy.  It wasn’t easy for me to explain Kiva to my Mom, (no offense, Mom) – so imagine me trying to explain Kiva to a Kenyan farmer who’s never touched a computer and never even heard of “the internet.”

As lenders, some of us hope that Kiva borrowers daydream about us in the way that we daydream about them.  After all – we feel this connection with people half a world away because we’ve read their story and seen their photo – and we’ve shared a part of ourselves with them – a portion of our income, and perhaps a photo or a peak into our lending philosophy.

But as a Kiva Fellow it was my experience that many times borrowers know very little about their lenders.  There are several reasons for this.  The first – as I have alluded to – is the sheer difficulty of explaining Kiva to someone who has never heard of the internet, and cannot imagine how someone from Canada could know who they are.  There is a steep learning curve along the road to understanding Kiva. (Read Matt Flannery’s blog article about an encounter gone wrong in this regard).

Furthermore, many times loan officers have so many other important facts to cover (about loan terms, social agendas…) that a thorough explanation of Kiva can be a tremendous burden for the staff.  Borrowers already have a whole borrowing experience based around their MFI’s brand and procedures – it is a lot to learn about a whole other partner organization and its system.

"Explaing Kiva" Poster featuring lenders Jeb, Marikke, Kashul, Emma, and Sunjoo

"Explaing Kiva" Poster featuring lenders Jeb, Marikke, Kashul, Emma, and Sunjoo

Like you, I could easily come up with 10 reasons why it’s difficult to explain Kiva to borrowers. I understand why someone would say, “why should we burden these already over-burdened people with more information about the loan?  Won’t they be better off if it’s simplified for them?”

But I didn’t actually know– would the lenders be better off with a simpler explanation?  I decided that I’d like to ask the borrowers myself – “how important is it to you to know the story behind your loan?”

As part of my research for a larger Kiva case study, I conducted formal focus groups with Kiva borrowers in Kisumu directly related to this issue.  Another Kiva Fellow gave the participants a 20-minute demonstration explaining the Kiva system using charts, handouts and photos, and when he left, I lead a discussion inquiring into the borrowers’ reactions.

Here’s what I heard:

  • “I didn’t know it [the money] was meant to be taken back and given to other people. Now I feel encouraged after knowing this and I am going to work hard to pay back for other people to have it, and for me to have it another time.”
  • “I’m very grateful and actually feel that there is love outside there for people… to lend money to people they have never met and don’t know apart from just reading their profiles on the internet.  It makes me encouraged. Because I feel at least someone outside also thinks about me…”
  • “Through support, I think even me I want to work hard to be among the bottom people [lenders] who are lending also, because me I have been supported.”

Kiva has left it up to the MFIs to decide how they want to deal with explaining Kiva.  Kiva’s first policy on this is “do no harm” – they have implemented a client waiver so that Kiva borrowers at least know that their photo and story will be viewed by many people around the world.  But, as in many things, Kiva trusts the MFIs to come up with solutions to implement the Kiva  partnership as they know their clients and capabilities best.

There are MFIs who do explain the complete Kiva system, and the growing presence of Kiva Fellows in the field also helps to enhance the “borrower” side of the connection.  I’ve left my results and recommendations in the hands of my MFI to decide how they will respond to their clients’ feedback. In the meantime, you can expect that Kiva Fellows and MFIs are constantly working to come up with local, relevant, creative ways to connect us all through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.

As for me, I’m taking to heart the words of a borrower who does know about Kiva. She said that she wanted to tell lenders to “go on making support to other people.” She’s trusting that as she pays back her loan, the money will go to someone new who is in her shoes.

She wants to tell you, “thank you a thousand times” and she says,  “these people, may God bless them, and if I could just see them with my own eyes, the embracement I would give them, no one would be able to imagine. I’m unable to express my gratitude. I am very happy.”


Alison Carlman is finishing her 11th and final week as a Kiva Fellow in Kisumu, Kenya with K-MET.  She assures  you that her Mom is actually really smart.

Posted in Africa, Kenya, KF8 (Kiva Fellows 8th Class), Kisumu Medical & Education Trust (K-MET) Tagged: Alison Carlman, Explaining Kiva, ICT4D, Internet, K-MET, Kenya, Kisumu, Kisumu Medical and Education Trust, Kiva borrowers

About the author