Microfinance nonprofit Kiva launches in D.C.

In the first two years of operating his Fairfax, Va.-based remodeling business, Enrique Cantua has struggled to secure a loan from big banks.

Cantua’s business, Cimarron Contracting LLC, was unable to meet the credit score and collateral requirements at banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, he said.

“If you’re just starting out, it’s not going to work,” Cantua said.

So he decided to pursue a less traditional method, which he feels is better suited for his company: microlending.

Cantua plans to be among the first few local entrepreneurs to request small loans — as little as $25 — from a network of more than 870,000 lenders online through Kiva, a San Francisco- based nonprofit. Kiva launched its Washington, D.C.-focused initiative on Tuesday.

Loans on Kiva are paid back to the lender. Kiva partners with organizations all over the world—called “field partners”—to identify and screen entrepreneurs. Field partners determine the interest rate on the loan, and keep the interest for their own operational costs.

Kiva is well known for connecting entrepreneurs in impoverished and developing nations worldwide to small lenders online — it started in Uganda — but in the past year has launched several initiatives in the United States, targeting American entrepreneurs and lenders. The nonprofit’s campaign in a handful of American cities — called “Kiva City” — is already active in Detroit, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, which each have unique Web sites listing the city’s entrepreneurs requesting loans.

Kiva is partnering with Capital One Bank and the Latino Economic Development Center in D.C. to encourage local entrepreneurs to request loans, and for area residents to provide them, using Kiva’s platform. The LEDC, which will act as a field partner, has been tasked with identifying and screening interested entrepreneurs, who may apply for loans online.

Cantua plans to request a total of $10,000 from Kiva lenders starting Tuesday, which he wants to use as a source of cash and also to buy construction equipment like hard hats , safety vests, and boots for his 10 employees.

Kiva co-founder and chief executive Matt Flannery said he hopes the launch will make a dent in unemployment in D.C., he said.

Kiva’s service in New Orleans attracted hundreds of thousands of lenders and about 50 entrepreneurs, creating 29 jobs.

“If you had to boil it down to a single metric, it’s really about job creation,” he noted.

Kiva City also encourages residents of a community to lend to local entrepreneurs through the service. “I don’t know if the average person in the community feels empowered to create” a business, Flannery said, but thinks that for many lenders, lending local is more compelling than lending to entrepreneurs outside their community.

“You get an investment that is more patient, that doesn’t really want a profit back, and wants to be participatory,” he said, explaining that local lenders often are more interested in supporting economic development in their community than making a personal financial decision.

“When they get paid back, [most lenders] use the money to lend to somebody else,” Flannery said.

The Kiva D.C. initiative is supported by a $150,000 loan matching program from Capital One — the bank will match every loan D.C. entrepreneurs receive (up to a total $150,000) — and a $100,000 grant to be used for Kiva’s operating costs in the district.

For Capital One, the Kiva partnership represents an expansion of the bank’s digital strategy, President of Retail and Direct Bank Jon Witter said.

“We recognize [traditional banking] programs don’t work for everyone,” Witter said.

“It’s very clear social media will have a transformative effect on how banking is done.”

He added that partnering with Kiva “gives [Capital One] a great way to really engage in and develop some digital models.”

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Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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