01 August 2008

Microfinance for the armchair investor

I have been a big fan of Kiva since I stumbled across their website nearly two years ago (just before a NY Times article got them widely noticed). Late-night visitors to the Kennedy School of Government's computer lab found me perched on the edge of my stool, pondering the relative merits of investing in chickens in Kenya, a bookstore in Bulgaria and cassava-grinding in Colombia. It's strangely addictive, or would be if I could remember my PayPal password.

Lately, though, I've begun to wish there were more Kivas out there, for two reasons. One, Kiva doesn't pay interest. That's fine if you only have $100 invested, but put $1,000 in and you start to notice. Two, a lot of the businesses I lend to are very small, doing very similar things. I'm all in favour of food retailers, but there is a limit to the number of them a street or market can support. I have at least 5 vegetable sellers within a 5-minute walk of my house in Accra. (That's 5 times more than I did in Cambridge, unless you count WholeFoods). Any new one would probably compress the margins of the others.

So I was excited to discover MyC4 yesterday, Denmark's answer to Kiva (with loans in euros!). MyC4 is set up for bigger loans: they pay interest, usually around 10%. This cost is passed onto borrowers, but if the loans are bigger, the operating costs fall to compensate. Best of all, the interest rate is set by auction, so the borrower gets to borrow from whichever lender offers the lowest interest rate. It's a slightly different model - more wealth creation than poverty reduction perhaps - but a welcome one, in my opinion.

I bought €100 of credit and jumped straight in. So far, MyC4 only has partners in three countries, but one of them is Côte d'Ivoire, which is exciting because they don't get a lot of microfinance. Right now I am invested in 2 Ivoirien businesses and am waiting to hear if my bid to invest in one in Uganda has been accepted.

Even with the prospect of larger loan sizes, though, the most common business model on MyC4 is "X buys Y wholesale and sells it retail. The loan will enable her/him to buy more stock." Sure, but food and clothing retail is highly competitive in most developing world cities I know, so the potential for additional profit is small.

What am I looking for, then? Three things. One, rural lending. Microfinance seems to be as scarce in rural areas as it is common in the cities (how many Ugandan microfinanciers operate outside Kampala? maybe this Kiva fellow can tell me). Small loans for fertiliser and seeds would make a huge difference to many farmers. Two, product differentiation. Three, businesses that add value to commodity items. I can get delicious mangoes and pineapples all over Ghana, but no fresh mango juice. I'll bet if you wheeled a juicer around Accra you could make some good money and undercut Coca-Cola at the same time. Good for you, good for Ghana and great for my teeth.


Penelope said...

great post - i'm currently researching possibilities to connect potential rural borrowers to platforms such as kiva through mobile phone networks, and i found your general critique of the lack of diversity of investments really pertinent. it's so obvious, yet it seems that no one in this field is willing to address it - why??

jjb said...

Hi Rupert: Great post. I work for MicroPlace.com and not only are we are registered US security broker where you can make an investment in microfinance and get a financial return, you can search on our site for rural investments too.

We just launched 8 months ago and so are adding new functionality all the time - I would love to add a "fair trade" or "agricultural" investment as, you are right, there is great need there. But, what can I say, we are a small company and can't do everything on day number one.

And, another thing that you probably won't like: you have to be a US citizen residing in the US to invest - it's the way we are currently registered with the SEC that puts this limit on us. But one day, we hope to let the world invest!

If you have any questions about, feel free to drop on by and ask.