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Internet Opens World to Microloan Investors

The Internet is linking entrepreneurs in the developing world with investors in industrial nations through sites that broker small “people-to-people” loans. These so-called microloans go to family-owned businesses in Africa, Asia and other areas.

A $2 loan lets a woman in Burundi start a business brewing banana beer, and a $65 loan helped a woman in Pakistan start an embroidery business that now supports 30 local families.

These small entrepreneurs are featured in a multimedia exhibit called Half the Sky at the Skirball Cultural Center. Photographs, art and videos explain the plight of poor women in developing countries and how microloans are helping them.

Corporate donations to the center provide each visitor to the exhibit with $1 to get them started as investors. With help from a volunteer, this man has just invested in a small business in Africa.

The Internet microloan site Kiva is one of several partners in the project. Kiva's own website at lets people invest small amounts of money in entrepreneurial projects from their homes, or any place with an Internet connection. The organization works through local micro-finance institutions in developing countries, and notes proudly that its clients’ repayment rate is over 98 percent.

Writer Bob Harris has invested in nearly 4,000 small businesses, and has visited many of them while researching a book about Kiva. “It's everything from clinics to schools to farmers, crafts people, urban transportation people - taxi drivers - pretty much anything you can come up with,” Harris said.

Some investors, like Armenian-American computer consultant Peter Tashjian, focus on a single region. He lends to Armenians so that those in cities can expand their businesses, and those in the countryside can buy an extra cow or sheep.

“And they actually are able to feed their families and make extra cheese and milk to sell in the markets,” Tashjian said.

Bob Harris got involved in microlending after exploring the world as a travel writer and seeing poverty in the shadow of exclusive resorts.

He has inspired a loose-knit group on the Kiva website called Friends of Bob Harris, whose members have invested more than $1.6 million.

“And everybody who does it for any length of time and reinvests the money, it’s really kind of cool … Let’s see, the bicycle delivery guy in Nicaragua paid me back. I think I’ll invest in this student in the Philippines,” Harris said.

These people say the Internet has forged new links, both social and commercial, that help others around the world pull themselves out of poverty.