By Leah Gage, Kiva Fellow in Togo

Less than a year ago, Kiva was taken to task by critics for not being as person-to-person (P2P) as it was claiming to be. But I think Kiva’s continued relevance in the field of grassroots development rests precisely on its continued ability to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty. There are lots of examples of this; here are three.

In its efforts to present the realities of microfinance on the ground, Kiva allows lenders to learn not just the personal story of their particular borrower, but also the stories of the field organizations with whom Kiva partners. Kiva wants you to know that its work would not be possible without the work of an MFI like WAGES in Togo that provided the loan in the first place and uploaded the borrower’s profile that you chose to fund. And, Kiva wants you to actively engage with that field partner by providing the partner’s contact information.

So it was so cool last week when I went to visit a WAGES field office in Lomé, Togo and saw this email from a Kiva lender named Mark, tacked to the agency’s official bulletin board for all its clients, staff, and stakeholders to see. In his message, Mark thanked WAGES for all the organization did to help borrowers in Togo and further praised WAGES for providing business training programs to its clients. “I’m a stranger to you,” he writes, ”but I’m proud of you and I thank you for your service.”

The email Kiva Lender Mark sent to WAGES in April 2009

Stranger or not, one lender’s praise and thanks served as motivation enough to display this individual email on the official WAGES bulletin board for over a year!

The recipients of Kiva loans are often also personally touched by Kiva’s ability to make connections. I’ve met dozens and dozens of Kiva borrowers, the real people that exist behind those profiles and take the loans Kiva lenders fund. Each time I meet a borrower, I explain to them that thirty individuals around the world saw their photo, read their story, and chose to fund their loan. Usually what touches the borrower most is that someone in another country chose him. That choice was real and it was personal – both to the lender and to the borrower. And, after the fact, their choice to lend caused change in that borrower’s life that was personal too.

Take Vladimir Alekyan in Ukraine who, upon learning about the Kiva lenders who funded his loan, took me inside of his newly built greenhouse and exclaimed “This is your help!” (See the video below)

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At the time it really moved me the way Vladimir expressed it, equating the greenhouse with the support of Kiva lenders. Of course, it was after a week of hard construction work that the lenders’ financing materialized into the greenhouse, but at the time thats not how Vladimir was thinking of it. The connection was personal, his greenhouse existed because of Kiva lenders, and for that he was grateful.

During a loan officer training I held for HOPE Ukraine a few months ago, I explained to 14 doubtful loan officers that Kiva lenders really don’t make money off their loans; in lieu of monetary profit, lenders profit from stories.

Kiva lenders get this information in primarily from journals – written accounts of a borrower’s progress during or after their repayment of the loan. Recently, Kiva made this personal exchange even more personal by introducing a tool by which Kiva Fellows can email lenders before visiting a borrower to ask if they have any questions for the client. I recently tried this out for the first time and within a day received responses from four Kiva lenders.

For example, Paula from Spokane, Washington in the US asked Félicité Ayawavi Hounsou from Lomé, Togo, “What is your hardest challenge as a working mother?” When I asked Félicité, she told me that her hardest challenge is being the sole provider for her daughter, ten years old, and her younger sister, both of whom live with her. This exchange is really remarkable because it’s a relevant question to a woman like Félicité from Lomé and a woman like Paula from Spokane. This new tool by which lenders can ask their borrowers questions levels the playing field and highlights the fact that on both ends of the Kiva lending process are real people who are probably not so different from one another as they might think.

Kiva is special and relevant precisely because it makes poverty alleviation personal. As people like Paula and Mark are personally touched by what they’ve learned, they’re going to continue to make small contributions that amount to large life changes for the thousands upon thousands of borrowers who have themselves been touched by Kiva. In turn, people like Félicité and Vladmir not only receive financial support from Kiva lenders, they are also personally empowered by the realization that someone is cheering them on! If thats not person to person, then what is?

Kiva lenders, what questions would you ask your borrowers? Hopefully as the tool becomes used more widely by Kiva Fellows, you’ll have the chance to ask. Be on the lookout for emails from Fellows! And special thanks to former Kiva Fellow Jeff Zira for developing the lender questions tool.


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