By Julia Kurnia, director
Nine years ago we disbursed our first loan in the Masai Mara region of Kenya, to a cattle herder living in a settlement too remote to be served cost-effectively by local microfinance organizations. His village was not connected to electricity and the nearest bank branch was almost a day’s journey away by dirt road. But using the new mobile phone payment technology that was emerging in Africa, we were able to transfer funds from the US directly to his cell phone.
When Zidisha was founded in 2009, the idea of connecting individual lenders directly to borrowers in developing countries without any intermediaries seemed far-fetched. Though the internet was beginning to make possible direct communication with individuals living in the world’s most impoverished places, it was not generally believed that loans could be entrusted to people in low-income communities without the physical presence of a loan officer. Since the cost of sending loan officers to visit communities is high relative to the small size of microloans, the world’s poorest entrepreneurs were paying the world’s highest cost for business loans. This made it hard for them to access the capital they needed to create value and employment in their communities.
Zidisha was founded on a radical premise: that disadvantaged entrepreneurs in developing countries can participate responsibly in a direct online person-to-person lending community. Unlike other microlending programs, we do not maintain a network of branch offices and loan officers. And unlike other charitable microlending websites, we do not outsource relationships with borrowers to local banks. Instead, we offer a technology platform that allows our lenders and borrowers to interact directly. This allows us to reduce the administrative cost of the loans dramatically, so that profits from Zidisha loans can be reinvested in the entrepreneurs’ communities instead of paying for organizational overhead.
Our entrepreneurs have proven time and again that our trust in them is well-founded, not only repaying their loans but also giving back to the community by serving as Volunteer Mentors to coach fellow borrowers in their countries. One heroic Volunteer Mentor, Sammy Kanja, sold the dairy cow and donkey carts that were his family’s source of livelihood in order to obtain life-saving medical care for one of his Zidisha mentees. Such inspiring stories are not uncommon in our community.
We remain a volunteer-driven organization, with most of our day-to-day operations performed by generous individuals all over the world who contribute their time and energy to help borrowers interact with our platform, process loan payments and produce financial reports. Our Burkina Faso lending program became large and successful thanks to the work of Mien de Graeve, who left a comfortable job in Belgium to spend a year trekking through desert villages, showing local entrepreneurs how to raise business loans via our website. Many of our volunteers have worked with us for years, helping connect thousands of people all over the world to the resources needed to improve their lives.
None of this would have been possible without the boldness and generosity of our lenders, who every day reach out across immense barriers of geography, socioeconomic status and culture to connect directly with our entrepreneurs and join them on their journeys to achieve their goals. Our lenders come from all over the world and all walks of life. They all share the Zidisha community’s belief that all people, regardless of geographic location, deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
We are so incredibly honored and humbled to serve this amazing community. We are a technology organization, and we strive to support our community by providing the best technology platform possible and improving it constantly.
In recent years, lenders and borrowers have begun to tell us that the Zidisha website was beginning to look dated. We knew that a more modern, professional design was important in making joining our community easy and inviting. So six months ago, we embarked on an ambitious project to improve the visual design of our website. We are excited to present the new design to you now.
The photo in the lenders’ homepage is of Ndeye Bineta Sarr, one of our members in Senegal whom I had the pleasure of visiting several years ago. Bineta used Zidisha loans to acquire the sewing machines and materials she needed to turn her part-time dressmaking activity into a tailoring studio that provides employment to others and enough income to send the children in her family to university. Her story has always been inspiring to us and illustrates the impact that we are always striving to make possible.
The photo in the borrower homepage represents people coming together and supporting each other to achieve their goals. We chose an image that was not specific to any particular nationality, gender, race or culture, in order to reinforce the message that at Zidisha, all responsible, high-achieving entrepreneurs are equally welcome.
The new design features a brigher, more varied color palette, reflecting the beauty and diversity of our community. It showcases more photos of our entrepreneurs, and makes more use of modern web design features that facilitate access from smaller devices. This is intended to make our website easier to use for both lenders and borrowers, who increasingly access Zidisha with tablets or smartphones.
Zidisha has changed a lot since our founding nine years ago. Innovation is at the heart of our culture, and we will continue to improve our technology platform as we learn and grow. But our commitment to bridging barriers and connecting people has remained constant from day one. Our new design is intended to embody ever more faithfully our vision of a world where people everywhere reach out and connect with each other, and where geography is no longer an insurmountable barrier to achieving one’s dreams.