2014 / Saturday

Microcredit: Small but Perfectly Formed

Leslie Goldmann

A micro loan of $650 helped Dilbar Usmonova, of Uzbekistan, buy two sewing machines to start an embroidery business. Image courtesy UN Development Program

A micro loan of $650 helped Dilbar Usmonova, of Uzbekistan, buy two sewing machines to start an embroidery business. Image courtesy UN Development Program

“I felt a desire to help, but I also felt afraid and a little overwhelmed, and a little unsure of whether I could do something that would make a meaningful difference,” said Jessica Jackley, co-founder of pioneering microcredit website Kiva, of herself as a child growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

But Kiva became an astonishing success story and has lent over $US500 million to the poverty stricken in developing countries and earned Jessica Jackley a place in Fast Company’s 2012 league of extraordinary women.

Helping the poor to help themselves is the philosophy behind the microcredit revolution. Microcredit organisations have become the new ‘World Bank’ for the rural poor in developing countries. They provide loans directly to the poor, people who have never before had access to traditional banking services. By accessing these small loans, micro-entrepreneurs (often women), can start productive business enterprises to improve their lives.

Ms Jackley recalled wanting to serve the community from an early age.

“Sunday school was a really formative thing for me and I remember, when I was five or six, that I first heard about poverty. I was given a little mission in those messages, I wanted to step up and I wanted to help.”

But she also grew up feeling a sense of negativity about how less well-off people are regarded. “Most of the things I heard about the poor were these sad stories, based on all the bad stuff, sadness, suffering, frustration, hopelessness and heartbreaking statistics,” she said.

Later, she also felt disillusionment with the overly simple message charities rely on to open the public wallet and drive donations, because it outsources the problem – perhaps a little too conveniently.

“I think the quick easy message of ‘It’s bad, we need help right now and don’t worry we will take care of it, all we really need from you is the financial contribution,’ it makes us want to distance ourselves from the problem, which is a person suffering.”

The turning point came in 2003, when Ms Jackley was inspired by a lecture at Stanford University given by Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing the Grameen Bank, a pioneer in providing credit to the rural poor in Bangladesh.

“He talked about poor people for an hour and I felt excited about it. He spoke about their stories in a way that highlighted their strengths and all the challenges they had overcome. And I thought I can do that, microfinance sounds like it really works,” she said.

She quit her job and moved to East Africa to work for a small not-for-profit organisation that provided micro grants to entrepreneurs and was immediately struck by what a huge difference the grants had made to the lives of the recipients.

“After my first trip to East Africa when I returned home I started to ask ‘Why was this not happening in the world already? Why wasn’t anyone allowing everyday people like me, and my friends, to lend money to other everyday people, on the other side of the planet?’ ”

And so the pioneering microcredit website Kiva was born, and has grown from operating in one country in 2003 to operating in 75 countries across the world. Kiva has connected, for the first time, wealthy individual lenders with low income individual borrowers using peer-to-peer technology.

Not content with successfully cofounding a solution to help end world poverty, Ms Jackley went on to build Profounder, a crowd-funding website that enabled budding entrepreneurs to upload a business pitch and share a percentage of their proposed business’s future revenues in exchange for investment.

Ms Jackley, as investor and advisor to the Collaborative Fund, sees the ‘shared economy’ as a critical part of the economic system of the future.

“I have two kids and I do not want to buy two toys all the time, they are going to share. One toy is better for so many reasons, it teaches them to share,” she said.

Sharing resources is not a new idea; public libraries are an ‘old school’ example of how sharing resources can be extremely effective. In an imagined future, individuals and organisations connected by technology could seamlessly share assets and resources across the economy. The Collaborative Fund invests in start-up businesses that are championing this shared economy of the future.

Ms Jackley said “If we can build technology, like Kiva, that builds closer relationships with people that would not otherwise be connected and we can build more empathy, that is the most important thing.”

“I love the idea that people are connected, to bring people together that is the thing that I care about the most,” she said.