Not long ago, I was in Kigali, Rwanda, watching a small boy in an Annie T-shirt playing with a marble. The child was surrounded by sweet potatoes, fruit, sugar, cooking oil, and dozens of sundries—gum, candy, pens, razors—much as you might find in any small convenience store.
This was his mother Yvonne’s place of business.* It was also the front room of the family’s modest two-room home. And it was a sign of great hope.
Yvonne was a client of Urwego Opportunity Bank, a local microfinance institution. The bank’s loans are partly financed through Kiva, a nonprofit organization that enables people like you and me to invest as little as $25 in mom-and-pop businesses in more than 65 countries.
Through Kiva, I’d sent $25 chunks of my own cash toward hundreds of clients like Yvonne all over the world. Curious to see the results, I was now traveling through five continents—from Peru to Bosnia to Kenya to Lebanon to Nepal to Cambodia and beyond—to hear the stories of as many clients as I could. (The ensuing book, The International Bank of Bob, was just published by Bloomsbury.)
Yvonne spent most of her days tending to her kids in this front room convenience store; the back was where they all slept. It was a humble but stable arrangement, the store providing a small but steady income.
A year and a half earlier, however, Yvonne and her kids didn’t have a giant stack of produce to sell and a home with a solid roof. They were sleeping on a mat in an unpowered shack that she rented for the equivalent of five U.S. dollars per month. Yvonne’s husband had been in and out of jail, met another woman, and then fled to Uganda, leaving Yvonne as a single mom in a country still recovering from the 1994 genocide and war, with no advanced skills beyond sheer persistence.
But persistent she was. She learned from friends how to buy sweet potatoes, sorghum, and other staples in bulk, transport them home, and sell portions at a profit. (Think of the 7-Eleven business model.) Yvonne’s first loan to buy bulk goods was for 70,000 Rwandan francs—the equivalent of about $140.
Prior to the arrival of microfinance, Rwandan banks required five times as much just to open an account. Yvonne’s loan would have been inconceivable. Her kids might still be sleeping in the unpowered shack, instead of curling up in a real bed under a good roof.Yvonne’s face brightened most when she told me that her children would soon begin school. With stability in their lives, the boy in the Annie shirt could learn to read the word Annie. Since literacy breeds knowledge, communication, and greater opportunity, these kids may very well have a wholly better life, simply because their mom had access to a tiny amount of capital.
If I put $25 into the best savings account where I bank, in a year, I’d have $25 and a few pennies. If I put that same $25 into a Kiva loan, which pays back about 99 percent of the time, next year I’ll have a small pile of pennies less.
Yvonne’s $140 is less than six $25 Kiva loans. Six small piles of pennies, then—that’s the ultimate cost to help a kid in an Annie shirt possibly have an entirely different and better life.
This is why I Kiva.
*Yvonne is a pseudonym. Independent journalism scarcely exists in Rwanda, and the language barrier was formidable. On the small chance that the purpose of our interview was not utterly clear, I will err toward her privacy.
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• Bob Harris has had a diverse career as an author, TV writer, and AP award-winning radio humorist. Often known for his 13 "Jeopardy!" appearances, Bob has also contributed numerous travel pieces to ForbesTraveler.com. He holds an honors degree in electrical engineering and applied physics from Case Western Reserve University. As a Kiva lender, Bob has made more than 5,200 loans. Bob Harris Online | @bobharrisdotcom