Thursday, November 18, 2010


In the 1970s Dr Muhammad Yunus, who went on to win the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, pioneered in lending very small amounts of money to the very poor and near poor to Bangladeshi villagers enabling them to start small businesses. For example someone would borrow money for a cell phone and then rent out calling time to others. At first interest was modest and repayment was near 100%. Dr. Yunus learned early on that women were more reliable borrowers than men.

This kind of endeavor is known as "contract failure" in academic circles - translated it means nonprofit activity arises when the incentive for profit is either too risky, too scarce or otherwise inadequate to attract investment and return in a for-profit enterprise.

About a decade or so this idea - at least in micro-lending - was turned on its head when banks and other capital aggregators realized they could actually make money lending to the poor if they charged higher interest than a nonprofit investor. And so they did. In India, as today's New York Times and other publications reported, extortionate interest rates have forced poor borrowers to replicate - i.e., borrow from second and third companies to pay interest to the first: a Ponzi scheme in reverse.

All of which brings me to this: in the last half decade a new corporate hybrid has developed. It combines a for profit motive with a greater good (nonprofit) mission. In other words oil and water. I think it may have been Woody Allen who said "when the lion lays down with the lamb the lamb doesn't sleep much." Put otherwise greed trumps need.

In my view the challenge for the hybrid company is to be able to pull this off actually make money and do good. The competition private business has brought to nonprofit micro-lending has essentially compromised an idealistic motive. As today's (Toronto) Globe and Mail wrote on November 12th "A debate is raging between those like Dr. Yunus, who say the sector should remain non-profit with its focus fixed firmly on the very poorest of the poor (those living on less than $1 a day), and entrepreneurs who favour a faster-expanding, for-profit approach backed by investors who want to do good – and see returns."

A related Globe and Mail chart shows what big business this is:

154.8 million Total number of microloan clients around the world as of the end of 2007

13.5 million Microloan clients in 1997

106.6 million Microloan recipients living on less than $1 a day in 2007

533 million Number of people affected by microloans worldwide, when family members are included, as of 2007

1,893 Number of microfinance institutions worldwide last year

$65-billion (U.S.) Size of gross microloan portfolio globally last year

98.95% Repayment rate among borrowers at, the world's first personal microlending website

$381.32 Average loan size at Kiva.

26% Average interest rate for a microloan (though some in Mexico have hit 90 per cent)

(Sources: Microcredit Summit Campaign; Microfinance Information Exchange,, CGAP.)

KIVA by the way is an outstanding vehicle for micro-lending. No it can't compete with predatory lenders

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