The Mother of Invention

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By Taylor Hanna, Ghana Ambassador

I was fortunate to get to visit Gabriel Ashiagbor this past week at his home in Abeka.

Gabriel has been curious about electronics since he was very young, explaining, “When I see an electronic thing, I want to see the brain behind it.” And in this way, he “destroyed a lot of [his] father’s electronics.” But rather than being angry with his son’s affinity for taking things apart, Gabriel’s father was encouraging and supportive of his inquisitive nature.

When Gabriel was fourteen, his mother passed away.  Helping his father support his five brothers and sisters while completing high school wasn’t easy, but he tackled the challenge and ultimately was admitted to the Ghana Technology University College.

Now 23 years old and in his final year at Ghana Technology University College, Gabriel studies Telecom Engineering and works part time repairing computers to support himself.  “My dad retired from active service two years after I got admission so my finances haven’t been smooth. So I decided to join a friend who repairs computers [and] shifted to the evening session so that I can work in the day and join the evening class. It hasn’t been easy because I sometimes get to class tired,” he explained.

In their last year, students must complete a final project in addition to their classwork. Gabriel focused his project on a problem that he saw throughout his university career: under-equipped facilities in school.  University education is valued highly in Ghana, but Gabriel explains that the funding and facilities of education institutions often cannot match the demand. While students can become frustrated with overcrowded classrooms and competition for resources, the schools are equally challenged in tracking student participation.  Gabriel has seen many of his classmates skipping class altogether. So his project seeks to incorporate facial recognition and radio-frequency identification technologies to help schools track attendance in a cost-efficient way.

Zidisha loans have allowed him to fund his project on time without worrying about sacrificing valuable class time to work extra hours, as he would have had to do if he were required to come up with the required capital in advance. His first loan funded a research questionnaire, while the second allowed him to order electronic parts. They hadn’t arrived by the time of my visit, but I hope to go back again to get to see the project in action!

When he graduates, Gabriel hopes to be able to improve upon his final project and produce it at scale, offering it to schools across the country. In addition, he would like to start his own company installing fiberoptic cables.

Gabriel is very grateful for the opportunities afforded to him by Zidisha lenders and I’m very excited to see his final project and what he accomplishes after graduation!

Social entrepreneurship in Ghana

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By Taylor Hanna, Ghana Ambassador

I had the pleasure of meeting with Michael Kwarteng yesterday and after a lengthy misunderstanding with a trotro conductor, I eventually made it to take a look around NAKWES Group’s office in Legon, Accra, near the University of Accra campus.

Six months ago, Michael and four of his friends were all working separately for IT and ICT companies when they got together and decided to address two issues affecting Accra:

1. Ghana has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world – 25.6% in 2012 – compared to a global average of 12.6%.

2. There was no laptop and electronic repair service near the University of Ghana, requiring students to make a time-consuming and costly trip to the inner city to service their computers.

Michael is an entrepreneur at his core – as early as grade school he could recognize and capitalize on a market demand. So it’s no surprise that he found himself and his friends starting up their own company in response to the problems faced by their community.

And so, NAKWES (their name from the first letter of each founder’s surname) was born. NAKWES offers laptop and mobile phone repair as well as IT training and media classes that aim to help graduating secondary students pass their university admittance exams. They also recently started their NAKWES College branch, offering a three-month program of media and computer courses for adults. The College will be graduating its first class of 25 students this month.

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Michael’s use of Zidisha loans has been helpful in allowing for the purchase of laptop accessories and tools, but he is really excited to continue borrowing and increase his credit limit. NAKWES is looking into the business of importing laptops for resale in order to support their growing education initiatives and hopes Zidisha will be a key factor in making this happen.

I’m so grateful that Michael and the NAKWES team took time out of their busy work day to show me around. The business is promising, especially for one just six months old, and I’m very excited to see how the company grows. The team appreciates the support of you, Zidisha lenders, and looks forward to continuing this relationship!

The Ripple Effect

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By Julia Kurnia

Charles Owino grew up in a small village on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya.  Orphaned at a young age, Charles was forced to earn his own living.  By the time he was six, he was laboring on the fishing boats, cleaning fish and mending nets under the hot sun.

Charles’ life took a turn for the better when well-wishers in the local community gave him the chance to attend school.  Thanks to their help and his own perseverance, Charles acquired an education and later moved to Nairobi.

There he encountered many children who were missing out on education because their parents could not afford the nominal fees and required uniforms of the government primary schools.  Charles opened Fortune Learners Centre to teach these children, asking each family to pay only what they were able.

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The teachers of Fortune Learners Centre are volunteers.  To help fund the school’s administrative costs, Charles started a side business of retailing school uniforms in the neighborhood.  His first Zidisha loan enabled him to acquire a wholesale inventory of uniforms – just in time for the start of the new school term in January.

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Though space in Fortune Learners Centre is limited and there is no shortage of demand from parents in the community, Charles goes out of his way to admit children everyone else has overlooked.  “I have a lot of love for them because I also grew up as an orphan so I understand what they go through,” he wrote.

Today, there are twenty orphans and other vulnerable children studying at Fortune Learners Centre.  Their lives have taken a turn for the better, because someone made the choice to see them and invest in their potential.

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Top ten highlights of 2014

By Julia Kurnia, Director

2014 was a transformative year for Zidisha.  Though there’s no way to fit all the milestones we passed into a single post, here are ten noteworthy highlights:

1. Growth

Our lender and borrower numbers more than doubled in 2014, to almost 20,000 members in 147 countries by the end of the year.

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You may view more statistics here.

 

2.  Repayment performance

On-time repayment rates were better than ever, as we continuously improved our lending processes.

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You may view the raw data for this graph here.

 

3.  A global team

Over 200 bright and passionate people from around the world volunteered with Zidisha in 2014 – generously giving of their time to mentor new borrowers, process loan payments, prepare financial reports, and share inspiring loan stories in our blog.

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4.  World-class advisers

We were immensely fortunate to participate in Y Combinator, the technology start-up incubator program that launched Dropbox and Airbnb, early in the year.  Y Combinator gave us the chance to work closely with some of the world’s most brilliant experts in growing technology companies, many of whom continue to advise our strategy today.

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5. Our new website

We rewrote our codebase to accommodate greater transaction volumes, and adopted a modern, mobile-friendly design.

Zidisha.org, 2011

Zidisha.org, 2011

Zidisha.org, 2014

Zidisha.org, 2014

 

6.  Fundraising

In 2014, we received over $300,000 in donations from prominent technology entrepreneurs and angel investors, such as Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail.

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7.  Press

In 2014, Zidisha was featured in the Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, Venture Beat, Huffington Post, Handelsblatt, the Collective magazine, and many other online and print publications.

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8.  New features for lenders

Much of our day-to-day work involves talking to our members, and improving our website based on their feedback.  Here are just a few of the new features we launched in 2014:
  • The ability to “follow” favorite entrepreneurs
  • Free lending invite credits for new lenders
  • One-click payments with Stripe
  • No-fee monthly lending credit subscriptions
  • Highly customizable email notification preferences
  • More user-friendly (and beautiful!) gift cards
  • Easily navigable source data for repayment statistics

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9.  New features for borrowers
We spend roughly equal amounts of time improving the lender and borrower sides of Zidisha.  Here are some of the features we launched for borrowers this year:
  • Website displays location-specific information, using the appropriate language and currency, when accessed from borrower countries
  • Web design optimized for speed in low-bandwidth locations
  • New mobile-friendly website is easy to use with a smart phone
  • Streamlined new member application form
  • Bonus credits for invited borrowers and volunteer mentors
  • Profile photo cropping
  • Helpful tips for creating a compelling loan application, choosing quality profile photos and posting informative comments displayed alongside website forms

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10.  Data science

In 2014 we teamed up with Bayes Impact, another Y Combinator nonprofit that connects top data scientists with high-impact social causes, to apply advanced machine learning techniques to our credit risk screening process.

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What didn’t change

Zidisha is pioneering something that has never before been attempted: a direct person-to-person lending community that spans the international wealth divide – with absolutely no local offices, gatekeepers or other intermediaries between the lender and the borrower.

Since what we are doing is so unprecedented, there is no road map of established practices to follow.  That means that, unlike a more traditional organization, Zidisha needs to adapt continuously as experience makes clear what works best in practice.  Zidisha today is very different from Zidisha a year ago, and I’m sure we will change and improve a great deal more in 2015.

What has not changed since day one is our core conviction that geographic location should never be a barrier for motivated people to achieve their dreams – and that ordinary people in the world’s most disadvantaged places can participate responsibly in an online community without local overseers.

Our vision was memorably articulated in a recent post by Zidisha entrepreneur Edmond Barasa in Kenya:

Previously life was complicated as far as wealth and development are concerned. To those who were born from poor families, they had the highest chances of remaining poor… With the introduction of these means of funding like Zidisha, life has dramatically changed. Some of the people from poor backgrounds like us with big minds can now easily access money and exploit their capabilities turning them into reality.

I am sure that in 2015, ever more people “with big minds” will join us, and old stereotypes will fall away as our members continue to prove themselves and realize their potential.

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Edmond Barasa, Kenya