07/11/2013 03:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Need is Not Comparable: Lending in the U.S. vs. Kenya

Just before moving from Washington, D.C. to Nairobi, Kenya for my second Kiva Zip fellowship, I asked some friends from home if they would lend to some of the borrowers I had on-boarded.

I showed them Paolla, who needs $5000 to start a beauty supply business, and Sara, who needs the same amount to expand her ESL classes for refugees and immigrants. They are perfect Kiva borrowers, I explained, but their loans were fundraising slowly.

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Left to right: Kiva Zip Entrepreneurs Paolla and Sara

To my surprise, none of them seemed interested.

"I don't know how I feel about lending to someone in the U.S.," one said. "Let me know when you have Kenyan borrowers. They need it more there."

I was shocked, even offended. How could this group of well-educated social activists whom I respect think American borrowers didn't deserve their support?

And yet, six months earlier, I too doubted the necessity of lending in the developed world.

I am unique as a Kiva fellow who has served in both the U.S. and Kenya, but in the beginning when I found out I was to be placed in DC and not abroad, I was disappointed. Like thousands of others who apply for Kiva fellowships, I wanted to make a "global impact." I was supposed to be "out there," in places like Kibera, Africa's largest slum, where hardship is rampant--not at home in the land of opportunity. Like my friends, I didn't think my neighbors needed me to volunteer my time and resources to get them interest-free loans.

But then I met Roberto, my first borrower, a middle-aged Nicaraguan man living in northern Virginia since 2003. Roberto was soft spoken, with limited English and a warm smile. He worked as a nighttime janitor at a local college and a landscaper on the weekends.

Yet Roberto had a remarkable past. Back home, he was a professor at a top Nicaraguan university. He held two post-graduate degrees in plant science and served as an environmental consultant for UNESCO.

Upon arrival in the U.S., though, he was demoted to cleaning classrooms on the graveyard shift.

Roberto came to America to build a life for himself and his loved ones, not to sweep floors. So he hoped a $4,000 Kiva Zip loan could help him expand his gardening company and finally return to his love of plants full-time.

In three hours of working together at his trustee's office, we wrote the loan application and it was soon posted online. Within a month, Roberto had the capital he needed to quit his janitor job and take on contracts with clients as prestigious as international embassies. Not only was he able to boost his own career, he also hired five new employees to widen the reach of Ladybug Landscape, Inc.

Roberto showed me that even in our affluent communities there are people whose lives could be transformed by just a few thousand dollars. Indeed, with nearly 80% of small businesses in the U.S. running off of credit cards, many American entrepreneurs--immigrants, native-born, whoever--might fail without alternative funding. These people may not live in extreme poverty, but they still struggle daily to keep afloat, deferring their dreams to pay down debt and feed their families.

Kiva Zip Entrepreneur Roberto

Such folks deserve Kiva Zip loans as much as anyone.

A single mom in Kibera might fit our perception of "neediness" more than a gardener in Virginia, but I've worked with both and the similarities outweigh the differences. Kiva has never been about helping the poor in the charity sense. It is a platform that encourages connections and empowerment of extraordinary people who can help themselves. We lend to give them the tools to do so.

A borrower like Charles who wants to build a shuttle service in Washington, D.C. is no less worthy of a leg up than Mary who operates public minibuses in Nairobi.

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Left to right: Kiva Zip Entrepreneurs Mary and Charles

After four months and 18 Kiva ZIp borrowers in D.C., I'm happy to finally be "out there" in Kenya. But my experience in stateside micro-lending has proven to me that even in the land of opportunity, small business owners can use a helping hand.

Post by Taylor Whitfield, Kenya Kiva Zip Fellow