It is funny how something as seemingly insignificant as picking up a magazine can have a bearing on your life. Everyone knows the saying ‘You are what you eat’, but I also like to think that you are what you ‘read, hear, watch and follow’. Sometimes, a story in a magazine or newspaper can leave an indelible imprint.
In June 2008, I picked up a copy of MiNDFOOD and read a short article about Kiva, a non-profit organisation that specialises in something I had never heard of: microfinance. I soon learned that it is a system of providing small loans, savings and insurance to poorer people around the world. It offers an opportunity for low-income earners, particularly those in developing countries, to gain access to much-needed capital.
Kiva works by providing a platform for individuals to make these kinds of loans via the internet. It’s quite different from a charity in that you are not giving a handout, but rather a loan to a borrower in a business of your choice. It is addictive, much more satisfying than donations and, as I would discover, very empowering for the recipients.
After reading the MiNDFOOD article, I went to the Kiva website (kiva.org) and decided to make my first loan – US$25, to Juliana in Peru. A widower and mother of three, Juliana is in the business of buying and selling sheep wool and alpaca yarn. For me, the attraction of the organisation is in the connection between the lender and the borrower. It’s exciting that someone from New Zealand can care about someone in Peru, or a crew based in San Francisco can provide a means to support businesses around the world. On the Kiva website, you can read not only about a person’s business but also about his or her family and history.
I quickly became passionate about microfinance and what it can accomplish – so much so that in February 2010, I embarked on a Kiva fellowship. Leaving behind life as I knew it, I headed to Kiva’s headquarters in San Francisco for an intensive one-week training course, before being thrown into the deep end of a developing-world microfinance institution (MFI). In each of the 54 countries in which Kiva operates, an MFI is the organisation’s on-the-ground local partner, known as a field partner. It disburses funds to local borrowers, posts entrepreneur stories, pictures and loan details on the Kiva website, and then receives funds from Kiva to replenish the loans it has made. The MFI then collects repayments from entrepreneurs, as well as any interest due, and Kiva repays the loans.
Being a Kiva fellow can mean many things. For me, it meant living and working in the small island of Bohol, in the Philippines, from February until May 2010. My field partner was Community Economic Ventures (CEVI), a Philippines-based microfinance institution run by a group of people who are as enthusiastic and passionate about microfinance as I am.
One of the things I loved about working with CEVI was its recognition of the importance of providing support, savings and guidance to its clients, as well as loans. It is hugely advantageous for Kiva to be partnered with these local MFIs, who really understand the community they are dealing with. I met tireless loan officers and watched as they returned, sometimes as late as 9pm, after a long day of delivering money to remote areas. I realised that not only was blood and sweat being poured into the cause at the San Francisco end, but also that local employees of CEVI were putting their heart and soul into this worthy operation.
Acting as a Kiva fellow in the Philippines, I have never felt so satisfied going to work every day – and I wasn’t even getting paid. As a fellow, you are the eyes and ears for Kiva on the ground, while helping the MFI in any way you can. I met people on small islands who are involved in fishing and seaweed businesses; and others in remote farming communities who grow rice and vegetables with the help of their loans. I had the opportunity to see how access to capital can really change a family situation and improve living conditions.
Not only does being a Kiva fellow allow you to work in a developing country, you get to feel its heartbeat. You meet local people, share laughs and stories and make lasting friends. Filipino people have huge hearts, and my experiences there will remain with me forever.
Kiva recently celebrated its fifth birthday, but the idea for the organisation began long before that when its co-founder, Jessica Jackley, attended a lecture by Muhammad Yunus, one of the pioneers of microfinance. She was so inspired that she and her partner, Matt Flannery, embarked on a trip to East Africa to work with Village Enterprise Fund, which provides grants and mentoring to businesses in impoverished regions. While on the trip, the philosophy behind Kiva started to take shape. In essence, Jackley heard, watched and followed, and her organisation was born.
Discovering the article on Kiva played a part in shaping my life and sending me down the path I am on today. Next time you are digesting information, make sure it is the good kind. Who knows, it may just leave a more lasting impression than you think.
Anna Cleal embarked on a second fellowship to Uganda for three months in November. Interested readers can experience the trip alongside her at her blog, fellowsblog.kiva.org
BECOME A KIVA FELLOW
Kiva offers unpaid volunteer fellowships throughout the year. Participants conduct research into countries they might like to work in and submit an application, which includes a budget estimating their expenses. The cost varies depending on the country and how conservative a fellow is in terms of travel and living. Fellowships require a stay of at least 12 weeks.
It is an intensive, full-time commitment and participants are required to interview businesses and create journal entries, photos or video journals; they are also expected to blog on the Kiva website twice a week. Kiva doesn’t require that fellows speak a language other than English, but it may prove more difficult to find a placement. It has a particular need for people who can speak French, Spanish and Russian. Apply at Kiva’s website, kiva.org.