A new addition to the team

By Julia Kurnia, Director

Many of you know Hardik Bhadani as one of the team who accomplished our recent website upgrade. I’m incredibly pleased and honored to announce that Hardik will be joining our team full time.

Hardik lives in Gondol (Gujarat), India. We first met him in May of this year, when our web developer Jonas moved to India to collaborate with him and Bhargav on the website upgrade project. The website upgrade was a massive undertaking that involved completely rewriting every part of the website using the most recent advances and best practices in website programming.

Hardik had only recently graduated from university, but he rapidly became an expert in both the Laravel programming framework of our new website and related technologies, and the intricacies of the Zidisha microlending platform. Along with Jonas and Bhargav, Hardik spent many hours, weeks and months painstakingly rewriting every line of our website in the new framework from a simple apartment-based office in India.

When we launched the new website and Jonas returned to his home in Belgium, Hardik continued to work with us from India. We were so impressed with his code quality and productivity that we asked him to stay on as part of the team beyond the end of the website rewrite project – and we were thrilled when he agreed!

Starting in November, Hardik will take over much of the day-to-day programming at Zidisha, with Jonas continuing to advise and assist as needed. Our community owes both of them our heartfelt thanks for their hard work and contributions – and a warm welcome again to Hardik!

Zidisha turns five years old

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By Julia Kurnia, Director

Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, Web-enabled playing field… without regard to geography or distance.

– Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat

Today marks five years since Zidisha’s official founding.

In reality our story goes back a bit further, to 2006.  At the time I was living with a fisherman’s family in Senegal, West Africa, helping a small nonprofit organization there raise funds through the popular microfinancing platform Kiva.org.  The loan recipients, mostly older rural women who had never used a computer, needed the organization to interact with the Kiva lenders on their behalf.  But it was so expensive to hire staff for this purpose that we would have had to charge the women exorbitant interest to cover the administrative cost of the loans.  The high staff-to-loan amount ratio is the main reason why the world’s poorest people pay the world’s highest prices for loans: the global average microfinance interest rate is around 40%!

I was in my early twenties at the time, and my friends were the young adults of the fishing village.  Unlike previous generations, they had grown up with Facebook and used the internet comfortably.  Educated and ambitious, they chafed at the lack of local opportunity.  From time to time, one of my friends would disappear, only to turn up weeks later after being intercepted in an overloaded boat on the way to Spain.  Traditional microfinance organizations mostly ignored these young people, as they often lacked property that could be seized in the event of loan default, permanent homes where loan officers could find them, and interest in being herded into groups or made to attend donor-prescribed trainings in basic numeracy and hygiene.  Convinced that modern online marketplaces such as those that wealthy country residents take for granted could provide greater value at lower cost, I tried to help Senegalese entrepreneurs raise small business loans through Facebook and eBay (the listings were taken down).

I subsequently moved to Kenya, the developing world’s leader in mobile phone-based payments.  For months I tried unsuccessfully to convince Kenyan banks to allow Zidisha to transfer direct person-to-person loans through their accounts.  There was no precedent for such a lending model, and they were playing it safe.  Anyway, the banking experts agreed, the idea was unworkable.  People are fundamentally self-serving, they said.  Without local loan officers to police repayments and seize borrowers’ assets in the event of default, the borrowers would not repay the loans.  Meanwhile, two failed attempts to build the Zidisha website had depleted my savings.

By October 2009, I was back in the US, working at a day job while plowing forward with Zidisha.  One of the Kenyan banks had finally agreed to let us open an account, and an attorney who helped pioneer the legalization of peer-to-peer lending in the United States agreed to provide pro bono legal counsel.  On October 27, 2009, Zidisha was officially incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the state of Virginia.

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When the Zidisha website first launched, it featured just a handful of projects in Kenya and Senegal.  The idea that strangers on the other side of the world could be trusted to repay loans of their own accord was too far-fetched to appeal to the general public.  Our early loans were funded with the remainder of my savings, with help from family and friends who did not really expect to be repaid.  One of our very first entrepreneurs is featured in this early screenshot of our website:

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When our first cohort of borrowers proved the naysayers wrong and repaid their loans in full, others slowly began to take interest, and new lenders joined.  Even though our lending model was unconventional, Zidisha’s premise that people everywhere are fundamentally the same, and our determination to facilitate personal connections across hitherto impregnable barriers of distance and circumstance, resonated.  It was an idea whose time had come.  People from all walks of life joined us as volunteers, lenders and borrowers.

Fast-forward five years, and our community has grown to over 15,000 members in 141 countries.  Together, we’ve facilitated over 8,000 life-improving loans.  Perhaps more importantly, we’ve proven that technology can be used to overcome geographic barriers and that ordinary people in the world’s poorest places can participate successfully in modern online marketplaces without local gatekeepers.

To illustrate what all this means in human terms, I’d like to return to the story of Ndeye Bineta Sarr, whose first loan application in October 2009 is pictured above.  At the time Bineta’s gorgeous hand-crafted dresses were in high demand, but her antiquated manually powered sewing machine limited her production to one or two per week.  Things began to change when she raised a first loan for an electric sewing machine (pictured below).  Subsequent loans were used to purchase an embroidery machine, open a studio, and hire an employee. These investments roughly tripled Bineta’s production capacity, and her dressmaking business now provides a comfortable living for two people.  The profits have put quality education in reach for Bineta’s children, nieces and nephews, and the oldest is now attending university.

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This kind of impact, multiplied thousands of times across the world, is what our community has built.  Advances in technology made Zidisha possible, but what made it a reality is high faith, generosity, and incredibly hard work by our entrepreneurs, lenders, volunteer staff, interns, volunteer mentors, web developers, and countless others.  Zidisha is a collective achievement, a broad movement, capable of overcoming hardened prejudices and spanning vast barriers of distance and circumstance.

We’ve spent the last five years tearing down the wall that has separated people on either side of the international wealth divide for too much of history.  We’ve shown that the fundamental human right to grow and connect and build a better life need no longer be circumscribed by one’s geographic location.  And we’re just getting started.

Zidisha team spotlight: Michaela Ladstaetter, Accountant

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By Julia Kurnia, Director

Michaela joined us a little over a year ago, and it’s already hard to imagine life at Zidisha without her.

Affectionately dubbed “the Sheriff” by our volunteers, Michaela has the incredibly important job of ensuring that every dollar that passes through our organization is correctly accounted for.  With thousands of loans, multiple currencies and financial accounts in ten countries, that is quite a challenge!

In keeping with our vision of overcoming geographic barriers, we don’t use brick-and-mortar offices, and our globally dispersed team collaborates from our own locations around the world.  Michaela is based in South Tyrol, a beautiful region of the Italian Alps, where she is a Certified Public Accountant.

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Michaela’s “back yard”

It is no exaggeration that without the thorough accounting that Michaela provides, Zidisha’s work would not be possible.  But Michaela is also a wonderful person in her own right.  Her sense of humor and contagious cheerfulness make our monthly accounting reconciliations, which would otherwise be a chore, something to look forward to.

I couldn’t resist sharing a couple of my favorite quotes from Michaela:

Bookkeeping was invented in Italy, in Florence, in the 15th century (at least this is what we are taught) and so Italian accountants are very proud of it ☺☺

You know I’m a professional auditor… So it’s like an occupational disease to make the numbers fit perfectly

And this great excerpt from Michaela’s forum bio:

I used to be a quite successful certified public accountant and auditor. Now I am in a transitional period, as I saw that those jobs filled my wallet, but not my heart. I don’t pretend to save the world, but I’ll try to give my little contributions to make small enhancements ☺

I finally managed to catch up with the busy Michaela this month, and she generously agreed to take part in this interview.

How did you hear about Zidisha?  

I was thinking about taking part of my money to use in a social project. As I am convinced that microloans are a great way to alleviate poverty, I was seeking for an organisation to give the money to. I found Zidisha by browsing the internet, and was fascinated by the idea of a microlending organisation without intermediary. I became a Zidisha lender, and after a while, looking at the forum, I saw that there was offered a volunteer position as accountant. I was so convinced of the Zidisha idea, that I spontaneously offered myself for that job – and fortunately Julia accepted.

What sort of activities have you done since you started volunteering with us?

I’ve started out with accounting and are still doing this. First of all I had to understand how the intern processes at Zidisha work, to get started with the bookkeeping program and to learn how to find the information I need on the website.
Now every month I get the bank statements from the country volunteers, and I compare them with the website records. Every payment is registered by the country volunteer, so I do only check if one has not been registered yet or registered with the wrong amount or things like that. One of the volunteers named me the Zidisha Sheriff, as I ensure that everything has been registered in the right way. When bank statements and website records do fit, I record the bank statement summary.
I also check the US bank statements, where lenders loads up their funds and our expenses are paid from and register the transactions. Finally I upload the latest QuickBooks file and send the monthly report to the Director.

Do you have a favorite Zidisha entrepreneur story?

No, there are so many stories I like that I wouldn’t take one out. I’m happy about an agriculture entrepreneur who reported that she has improved her business with my loan, about a motorbike taxi driver who was able to buy a second motorbike and has now an employee, about a computer shop owner who has bought new equipment for her shop.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I live in a beautiful area in the Alps. I like to go out in the nature, either for hiking, having a walk or just enjoying the landscape.

The new Zidisha

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By Julia Kurnia, Director

We’re incredibly excited to announce the launch of a new and improved Zidisha.org.  I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the history of the redesign project, and an overview of the new site.

Why redesign Zidisha?

The original Zidisha.org was developed on a shoestring budget.  At the time I was in my early twenties, and we were all volunteers without enough funding to hire a web developer.  In order to get Zidisha off the ground, I managed to save a couple thousand dollars from my day job to have a small contracting company in India build the first working version of our website.

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The Zidisha homepage, 2011

The original Zidisha.org was adequate for a small nonprofit with limited transaction volumes, but was not designed to support as large a community as we have become.  With over 15,000 members and $2 million worth of loans, we were overdue for an upgrade.   Zidisha’s acceptance into the Y Combinator technology startup incubator program last winter gave us access to the expertise and funding we needed to make that upgrade happen.

The redesign project

Our new website project began four months ago, when our new web developer, Jonas, relocated to India to collaborate in person with two other programmers, Hardik and Bhargav.  Hardik, Jonas and Bhargav rewrote the “back end,” or processing core of the website that handles the loan transactions and other functionality.  At the same time, I studied web design and learned “front end” programming so that I could upgrade the website’s aesthetic appearance.

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The website rewrite project team (from left to right): Hardik, Jonas and Bhargav

Our new website code follows the most recent programming best practices, including a Laravel framework that is designed to handle high-volume activity, and incorporates automated tests and other tools to improve accuracy and flexibility.

The new site incorporates some new functionality, and retires some older features that no longer add the value they once did.  Here is an overview of what has changed:

New features

  • The new website is “responsive,” and automatically adapts to facilitate use on mobile phones and tablet devices.
  • Lenders can now change their display names, and incorporate multiple words in their display names to enable use of real names if desired.
  • Lenders can now sign in with Google and Facebook, instead of creating separate accounts.
  • The borrower version of Zidisha.org that displays in the countries where we offer loans now uses localized information and currencies, and is designed to load rapidly with low-bandwidth connections.

Features pending incorporation

  • Purchasing gift cards
  • Sorting tables in the “Your Loans” page of lender accounts
  • Ranking of lending groups by impact

Retired features

  • The new site does not display lender karma scores, pending development of a more accurate way of honoring lender contributions to the community.
  • We no longer support editing loan bids, because the feature has not been used frequently and requires substantial programming resources to support.
  • The “Lend” page no longer displays tabs to view all active and expired loans, because their number has grown too large for easy browsing, and because we would like to keep the loan sorting interface as simple as possible for prospective lenders.
  • To better protect our members’ privacy, we are no longer displaying borrower Facebook accounts or amounts bid by lenders in the public loan profile pages.

A word about the design

Our new website uses a minimalist design and color scheme, in order to keep the focus on the entrepreneurs, lenders and their stories.  The original Zidisha blue is preserved in the buttons and links, while the color-free logo reflects our simple vision of a geography-neutral world, where deserving people can access the opportunities they need to achieve their goals regardless of their nationality and location.

A special thanks to Esther Wanjiru, who graciously allowed us to use her profile image in our new homepage.  A self-described “teacher with a knack for business,” Esther operates a small grocery shop in in Mombasa, Kenya.  Her store employs two assistants, and the revenues are supporting the education of Esther’s two children.  Upon repaying her first, loan, Esther wrote:

I have found the Zidisha loan to be very affordable and I believe I have finally found a good place to get the much needed credit for my fledging business. I used the loan to purchase some empty gas cylinders [to sell environmentally friendly cooking fuel] and the results were amazing. I was able to satisfy my clients’ needs and my profitability improved drastically… I am so much inspired by the loan and it is already changing the outlook of my business. Thanks a lot, Zidisha community.

Thanks to our new website, we are better equipped than ever to connect lenders to many more entrepreneurs like Esther.  The returns – in life trajectories transformed, improved well-being and better opportunities for the next generation – are immeasurable.