Solar Lamps, Cookstoves and a 'Bouncy Castle of Excrement'

Kiva Brings Light to the Poor
Kiva Microfunds takes small donations from vast numbers of donors and uses the money raised to help fund poverty alleviation projects in developing countries, including pollution-free light. Source: Kiva Microfunds via Bloomberg

By Justin Doom

Kiva Microfunds, which raises about $1.5 million a week to fund small projects in poor countries, wants to help farmers turn piles of manure into fuel and fertilizer.

The main technology is called a biodigester, which is a treatment system that uses bacteria to break down livestock waste. "It's like a bouncy castle of excrement," said Michelle Kreger, Kiva's senior director of strategic initiatives, in a phone interview. "You have to mix up the sludge. Kids running around on it usually takes care of it."

The biodigesters are part of a growing push by San Francisco-based Kiva to fund small-scale clean-energy projects, such as solar-powered lamps and modern cookstoves that don't produce hazardous soot. Over the last 14 months, Kiva helped raise more than $600,000 for clean-energy loans.

Since 2005, hundreds of thousands of lenders have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars through Kiva so that farmers can buy tractors, designers can buy fabric and students can buy school supplies. The upfront cost of clean-energy projects is out of reach for many populations that lack access to traditional banking services.

"People are worried about the planet, and as we move from 7 billion to 10 billion [people], we need to figure out a way that everyone can have a better quality of life,” said Premal Shah, president of Kiva. “This is a simple way anyone can get involved, anywhere."

Kiva loans typically originate in wealthier countries, from a network of lenders that often give just $25 a person. The average loan is about $400. That model is expanding. Between May 15 and May 25, 1,034 lenders pitched in almost $50,000 for a single loan to be used on Barefoot Power solar lamps in Tanzania, where five out of six people have no access to electricity and are forced to burn kerosene for heat and light.

Most people in Tanzania spend between $1 and $2 a week on kerosene and candles, whereas a solar lamp that provides four or five hours of illumination a night costs about $20 and typically lasts two or three years, according to Joyce DeMucci, a spokeswoman for Barefoot Power. The devices save money over time and are healthier and safer to run than kerosene. The loans are typically paid off in three to six months, and money saved on kerosene can go toward school fees, medical expenses and healthy food.

"People have this perception of Kiva as just small loans, but we're looking to change that," Shah said. More loans ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 will soon be used to fund similar projects, he said. "When we think about these larger loans, we think about a larger explanation -- not just of that person and that loan, but of the issue we're trying to solve. In this case: abolishing kerosene."

Click here for a video map of more than 600,000 Kiva loans.

Doom covers renewable energy for Bloomberg News.

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-0- Jun/12/2012 17:49 GMT
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