Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for pioneering the idea of microcredit: loans to tiny businesses that are ordinarily shut out of the finance system. Now a newly booming website, kiva.org, has made microlending more accessible by collating small individual contributions into larger loans. Kiva connects people willing to invest small sums directly with entrepreneurial projects in the Third World.
Kiva users can choose an entrepreneur from the list of applicants profiled on the website-from a movie house in Uganda to a butcher shop in Azerbaijan, a motorbike for a Cambodian egg seller to cow purchases in Kenya. Lenders simply use PayPal, and if the amount requested for a particular project is more than an investor wants to give, his loan will be aggregated with others to make up the total. When the loan has been repaid, he can withdraw the money or reinvest it in another project.
The site's most popular entrepreneurs are African women. Loans made on Kiva have a historical repayment rate of 96 percent, with about $2 million in loans on the books in January.
Kiva doesn't charge interest -it's a nonprofit organization-but it allows regional partners to charge enough interest to support the infrastructure of lending and oversight. Its rates are always significantly better than those of local moneylenders, who often charge as much as 5 percent a day.