The “mine of gold” inside

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I met Aissatou Traore last year at the Dakar, Senegal headquarters of Forever Living, a direct selling company that produces aloe vera and other natural health products. Forever Living is based in Arizona, but markets its products through a worldwide network of millions of independent distributors, including Aissatou.

Aissatou is the sole breadwinner for her elderly mother and 14-year-old son, who she hopes will have the chance to go to university in Canada someday. She has a genius for marketing, and our conversation soon turned to the benefits of her products. She gave a riveting presentation, skillfully weaving international statistics, personal experience and client success stories into a mesmerizing narrative that left me thoroughly convinced that aloe vera toothpaste is a must-have staple of good oral health.

Aissatou starts her day at five o’clock on most days. After a quick breakfast, she spends the next two hours reading books on marketing and entrepreneurship. Aissatou is an encyclopedia of market networking strategies and management one-liners. Motivational business posters deck her living room. Her favorite book is Being the Best You Can Be in MLM: How to Train Your Way to the Top in Multi-Level / Network Marketing-America’s Fastest-Growing Industries by marketing guru John Kalench.

Aissatou usually begins meeting her clients at nine o’clock in the morning. As a saleswoman, Aissatou spends her time traveling in and out of Dakar to meet her customers at their homes or offices. When not assisting customers, Aissatou patrols the streets and public buses for new clients and potential partners. When she started as a saleswoman, most of her customers were friends and family. Today, they represent half.

Aissatou’s marketing approach is direct and fearless. Armed with a badge pronouncing “I feel great, ask me why!” hanging around her neck, she proudly walks up to potential clients (typically mothers and middle-aged adults) to tell them about her products. With two years of increasing sales, Aissatou has mastered the art of salesmanship. “Confidence is key. I use my products, so I know they work. I have no problem or fear telling others about them. In fact, I feel like I’m doing people a service,” she explains.

If a potential client shows interest, Aissatou gives them her business card and asks for their number. Aissatou then logs that number into her client book and schedules a rendezvous the following day. At these meetings, Aissatou brings a catalog of her products and lists her clients’ demands. Her best selling products are Vitamin C pills and organic juices. She then heads to her retailer, Forever Living Products, to buy the products at a discount rate and distribute them to her clients.

This process of finding clients, soliciting their orders, purchasing them at retail prices and then reselling them consumes long hours. Aissatou’s workday ends at ten o’clock at night. Despite the long hours, Aissatou shows no sign of tire. “I love my job. Being a saleswoman gives me the independence and flexibility to earn the money I deserve and better my family’s well-being.”

Last year Aissatou managed to purchase a large inventory of Forever Living products, which ought to have boosted her earnings substantially. Unfortunately, most of the inventory was lost to a thief who broke into her home and stole her stock before she had the chance to sell it.  Aissatou suspects a neighbor stole her products and has been soliciting police stations ever since, to no effect.

Completely out of money to buy new stock, but undeterred, Aissatou contacted her best clients one by one and offered a deal: She would give them a special discount if they would agree to pay in advance for the products, rather than upon delivery. She used the advances to restart selling, at a profit margin that was razor thin due to the discounts. She makes up for the narrow profits with volume: Her notebook contains the names of several hundred clients, many of whom are located in rural villages a day’s journey from Dakar city. On the days she “goes into the bush” to deliver her products to the villages, Aissatou wakes up at four o’clock in the morning to prepare the day’s meals for her fourteen-year-old son, and returns home as late as one o’clock the following night. This strategy enabled Aissatou to slowly reconstitute her working capital.  Her hard work paid off this year, when she was promoted to a managerial position at Forever Living.

I asked Aissatou if she has always been so resilient and relentless. “My Grandma raised me this way,” she replied. “As a child in the Casamance (the war-torn southern region of Senegal), we had to pick rice in the fields after school. It was tough. I still remember all that weight of rice we carried on our heads. But this hard upbringing and the example set by my grandmother taught me to never give up, even when it feels like the sky is falling,” she explained. “The real challenge in life is getting back up. Once you decide to want to get back up, you work your way out and God takes care of the rest.”

With her last Zidisha loan, Aissatou was able to start construction on a house for her mother in Casamance. She showed us the floor plan for the house and is so excited to have broken ground. Her mother has been sick for the past two years and has been living with Aissatou in Dakar, but with the loan she will be able to build the house and make sure her mother is taken care of. Aissatou expects the construction will take four months, and after that she would like to take out another loan so that she can supply her two nephews with Forever Living inventory as well.

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She seemed completely unfazed by all of the obstacles in her path. By way of explanation, Aissatou cited the example of Bill Gates: He started on a small scale as well, and she is simply doing the same. She is a voracious reader. On the day we met, she was reading a French translation of The Leader in You by Dale Carnegie. Aissatou said she was inspired by Mr. Carnegie’s idea that there is a “mine of gold” inside each one of us, and that the best way to fully realize our potential is to develop our own business. She values her freedom, and says that nothing can stop her from reaching her ambitions.

This post combines the narratives of several Zidisha staff who have met with Aissatou Traore. You may read more at her Zidisha profile page.

Zidisha vs. Kiva Zip

By Julia Kurnia

Note: this article is authored by the founder of Zidisha. The information about Kiva Zip is taken from public sources, and does not necessarily express the views of Kiva or Kiva Zip.

Zidisha and Kiva Zip are both experimental web platforms that aim to use person-to-person lending approaches to reduce the cost of microloans in developing countries. How are they different?

In general, Zidisha has a more radically transparent, hands-off and libertarian orientation. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the sort of experience you are looking for. Zidisha is structured as a free marketplace, where lenders and borrowers interact directly without local partners. Lending through Zidisha is a do-it-yourself experience that involves exploration and direct human connection, like discovering remarkable artwork at Etsy.

In the case of loans outside the US, where Kiva Zip is most frequently compared with Zidisha, Kiva Zip feels more like a traditional managed charity. Kiva Zip loans are overseen by local partners called Trustees, and the Trustees have an especially active role in non-US loans. The result is a more polished and uniform experience, but one where the direct connection and unique voice of the overseas borrower are often lost.

I consider these to be the most important differences between our lending models:

Geographic scope. Zidisha offers loans in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Indonesia, Kenya, Niger, Senegal and Zambia, and we have no plans to enter the US market. Kiva Zip offers loans in the US and Kenya.

Interest rates. Zidisha allows borrowers to offer interest rates of their own choosing to lenders. Lenders may then choose to fund the loans at any rate they desire, from 0% up to the maximum offered by the borrower. The rate of interest chosen by Zidisha users varies widely, but the average is about 5%. Zidisha borrowers also pay a 5% service fee per year the loan is held to cover money transfer costs. Zidisha is not supported by any large donors, and borrower fees along with optional lender tips fully cover our operating costs.

Kiva Zip is interest-free. Its operating costs are subsidized by large outside donors, so that borrowers are not asked to pay any service fees to Kiva Zip.

Read the full article at the Huffington Post.

“Keep on touching lives”

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By Julia Kurnia

Many of you have been wondering about the story behind the photo in our new homepage.  It depicts one of our earliest members, Pherister Ndoge, who left a comfortable teaching job to bootstrap a school for disadvantaged kids in Kenya.  The photo was taken by our volunteer Client Relationship Manager in Kenya, Traci Yoshiyama, in March 2013.  Traci shared Pherister’s story in this blog post:

A humbling quality of many Kenyans I meet is their strong desire to help one another, whether it be assisting a lost pedestrian, or lending money to a struggling neighbor despite their own financial challenges, or even starting a school in hopes of providing quality education for all.  Although I have been to many schools since my arrival in Kenya, I never tire of seeing the infectious smiles of the students or the staff working tirelessly to succeed in this admirable endeavor.  I had the pleasure of visiting Vision King Academy for the second time, excited to see Pherister Ndoge once again, this time a new member of Zidisha.

Never envisioning what it is today, Pherister began her career as the director of a daycare, wanting to help working mothers in her community.  With three children to start, the numbers quickly multiplied and eager parents persuaded her to embark on the creation of a school.  Although Pherister’s background was in accounting, she took the ambitious leap into education.  Finding a location was the first obstacle and due to the decrepit conditions of her newly rented space, many did not think she would succeed.  Sewage lined the entrance of the school, the rooms were in no shape for a classroom, and the building was also shared with live-in tenants.  Despite the onslaught of negative feedback, Pherister persevered.  She fixed up the room and cleaned up the entrance, covering the walkway with cement.  As improvements were made, more and more started to see Vision King Academy as a viable place for education.

Vision King Academy now has almost seventy students with classes ranging from baby class (children less than 2 years old) to third grade.  Renting only one room last year, Pherister is now able to rent five!  With palpable gratitude, she tells me how receiving the loan from her lenders has given her hope.  Due to the high demands of other institutions (i.e. interest rates, savings, meetings, groups), Pherister had no options, but when Duncan Chege (Volunteer Mentor of Zidisha) introduced her to Zidisha, she knew she found what she was looking for.  With the loan, Pherister was able to purchase wooden benches for her classroom, as the plastic chairs would easily break.  She also anticipates painting her walls because parents would often say the red and white walls of her classrooms resemble a butchery (all butcheries in Kenya are painted red and white).  With the help of Zidisha, Pherister hopes to show more families that Vision King Academy is a great learning environment for their children.

Pherister is currently taking Early Childhood Development courses on her holidays.  She would like to see Vision King Academy receive more students, which will enable her to rent the entire building, no longer having to share the space with tenants.  Intending to be a long-lasting Zidisha member, I know she will achieve this.  Knowing I was coming, Pherister planned a special morning for the students, treating them to biscuits and colorful balloon hats.  It was a sight to see and despite the pouring rain and chill in the air, our morning was filled with such warmth and heart.  Thank you Pherister for a wonderful morning!  I hope that attendance rises now that elections are over.  I can’t wait to see how Zidisha can assist you and Vision King even more!

ImagePherister Ndoge with some of her students

Here are some of the updates Pherister posted during the course of her first loan:

Zidisha has really changed the face of this school , It was like a dream to me to get sponsored, and i look forward to be faithful in every coin given to support this school hoping through Zidisha i will not end the year sharing the school with tenant for me to be able to serve this children and also they can have a play ground. Am thankful to my lenders who have made me to smile again.

Children can afford a smile, I smile the brightest. What used to be a dream, now its a reality.May Zidisha live long and keep on touching the lives of the needy.
I renovated the classrooms with the loan that I got and added more desks and chairs and the number of new pupils joining the school is growing day by day.

The environment is now conducive, with new painting on the wall which eliminated the red colour (the ones used in butcheries) and now somebody can recognize the school.
I believe God that with Zidisha help and my efforts, I will be able to add more classrooms since the ones I had will be full soon and I assure you lenders that I will play my part to make sure that I continue serving this children to demystify the private education system which earlier was perceived to be only for the wealthy and royal families.

The second term is going on well and I have received more pupils joining my school. I managed to add another classroom, desks and also employed another teacher to teach pupils.
This has touched the lives of parents, pupils and teachers who also earn an income from this project and its a win win situation for everybody.

She repaid the first loan in just five months, and posted this new request:

I humbly welcome all lenders to fund my loan so that I can be able to achieve the desire of serving this kids. Currently the classrooms are packed to capacity and I want to add more classrooms during the August Holiday when the school is closed.
I will also use the money to renovate the existing classrooms by cementing the floor which is already worn out. When I add more classrooms , I will also buy more textbooks for reading as well as other teaching materials so that I can prepare myself for the third and last term this year.
Once again lenders I thank you for your generous funding in my previous loan.

The new loan was funded in record time!  Here is Pherister’s response:

Wow, This is awesome, amazing, interesting and beautiful to my eyes. I just posted my loan two hours ago and now its 24% funded! I sincerely thank the lenders who have played their part to make me achieve this in a short period of time.
Sundstorms, Mzeenamama,Potkukekka and ZiataRoy receive my sincere thanks for your generous bidding. You are the source of inspiration and motivation towards delivering the required services of education to the kids in my community.

I visited Pherister myself while in Kenya last year, and have a profound admiration for what she has built and the many lives she has transformed with what she has built.  What is so remarkable is that this was made possible by many people joining forces to make Vision King Academy grow and flourish.  Thanks to this coming together, lenders like Potkukekka in Finland and Susansfund in Colorado are making their own legacy better education for tiny children in this forgotten corner of the world.

Our new homepage design

Our homepage has a new look: large images, streamlined menu options and scrolling infographics that help visitors take in what our community is all about.  The new design uses the latest responsive website design framework to facilitate viewing on a variety of browsers and devices.

Before:

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After:

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We have so many inspiring entrepreneur stories that it was incredibly difficult to choose a cover image for our new homepage.  We finally settled on this photo of Pherister Ndoge, one of our earliest members, who left a comfortable teaching job to bootstrap a school for disadvantaged kids in Kenya.  She used a small Zidisha loan to add more classrooms, resulting in access to education for many more children.  (You may check out her full story here.)

We thought this photo of Ms. Ndoge’s school and students is a fitting representation of what we have achieved, where we are headed – and of the many lives that can be transformed by connecting people across previously insurmountable geographic barriers in an online community.

Thanks to Kevin Hale, a Y Combinator partner and cofounder of Wufoo renowned for his web design expertise, for helping us transition to the new homepage design.

Introducing our new customizable gift cards

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This week we have a new way to make a special someone’s day – while spreading opportunity around the world.

Create a customized gift card design in three easy steps:

  • Choose your favorite entrepreneur image.
  • Choose instant email delivery or self-print.
  • Enter a gift message.

Your special someone can use the card to make a loan to an entrepreneur of his or her choice – and receive news and updates as that person uses the loan to develop a small business.  As the loan is repaid, the funds can be lent out again and again, allowing your special someone to spread opportunity while dialoguing directly with some of the world’s most remarkable entrepreneurs.

Create your own gift card here.

 

Zidisha applies online karma system to international P2P lending

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By Julia Kurnia

At Zidisha, we have invested a great deal in the development of reputation measures – feedback ratings, and on-time repayment scores – for borrowing members. Most of our website development resources have gone toward risk management and in developing tools to allow lenders to better differentiate loan applicants on the basis of previous performance and trust networks. These investments are paying off in the form of the first exclusively online microlending community to connect lenders and borrowers directly across international borders on the basis of online reputation alone.

As a first step toward a greater emphasis on the contributions of lenders to our community, we introduced today a karma display for lenders. This is shown in parentheses next to lender usernames in the borrower profile pages, and is analogous to borrower on-time repayment and feedback scores in that it is intended to say something about the impact of the member’s contributions to the Zidisha community over time.

Currently, karma is calculated on the basis of five factors:

  • The total amount lent by the lenders the member has invited to join Zidisha via the “Send Invite” page
  • The total amount lent by lenders to whom the member has given gift cards
  • The total amount lent by the member
  • The total number of comments posted by the member

The karma score is a work in progress, and we expect to adjust and improve it with time and experience. Thus far, the largest karma scores appear to be held by members who have been the most active in inviting others to join, via email invites and gift cards, and who have posted many comments.

I look forward to questions and comments regarding lender karma, and would especially welcome your feedback regarding the factors that ought to carry the most weight in calculating karma.

Lend this week, double your impact

Our first matching loan campaign is entering its final week.  Made possible by a generous contribution from Yun-Fang Juan, the creator of Facebook Ads, this fund matches, dollar for dollar, the amounts lent manually by individual Zidisha members.

This means that if you lend before the matching loan campaign ends this week, the impact of your loans will be doubled: for every dollar you lend, your chosen entrepreneurs will receive two dollars in funding to grow their businesses and achieve a better life.

Why lend through Zidisha?  No intermediaries between you and the borrower = lower cost for the borrower + direct connection with the entrepreneur you are helping.