By Tom Walsh
If there's something unsettling about having Detroit pioneer a U.S. variant of micro-lending programs best known for helping to foment entrepreneurship in Bangladesh and other third-world countries, so be it.
We should applaud and embrace just about any effort that brings investment dollars and people together to energize Detroiters to start new ventures and ultimately create jobs.
Kiva Detroit, a new initiative to bring more than $500,000 in microloans to small businesses in the city, will be rolled out Thursday with an event at Eastern Market and the launch of a new Web page, http://www.kiva.org/detroit . Lenders can pledge sums as small as $25 to help new businesses in the city.
A coalition of four groups is behind this effort:
• Michigan Corps, a network of current and former Michigan residents seeking to foster entrepreneurship and education projects in the state.
• The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which supports projects in cities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, such as the Detroit Free Press. The foundation will provide $250,000 to match small loans made by individuals.
• ACCION USA will act as risk manager and underwriter for the loans.
• And Kiva.org., an Internet site founded in 2005, which has helped connect lenders to borrowers on $219 million worth of transactions in 60 countries.
Delphia Simmons, a project manager at Coalition on Temporary Shelter in Detroit, intends to use her initial $1,000 loan from Kiva Detroit to publish 5,000 copies of the first edition of the Thrive Detroit street newspaper. It will be sold by homeless people in the city.
"We hope to publish monthly," Simmons said. "After the first edition, our vendors will pay 25 cents per paper and then sell them for $1 apiece."
Other recipients of early loans will include Crystal Lecoy, a Midtown resident who plans to open Detroit's first vegan food truck, and Nick Tobier, an artist who has worked with students at Detroit Community Schools in Brightmoor to create a prototype of a bicycle trailer that the teenage students will hand build in different sizes to haul various cargo behind bikes. His team already has 10 orders.
Rishi Jaitly, program director for the Knight Foundation in Detroit and a cofounder of Michigan Corps, said the coalition behind Kiva Detroit provides both "a scale that's exciting with $500,000 in microloans, plus the credibility of the organizations involved." Kiva will target low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs, who would be considered too risky for more conventional loans.
The best-known modern incarnation of the microloan concept had its roots in Bangladesh, notably with the Grameen Bank, founded in 1976 by Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel Peace Prize 30 years later for his work in providing micro credit to the poor.
Micro-lending has become widespread in developing countries, especially to female entrepreneurs, who have received 81% of the loans made through Kiva worldwide.
The average loan amount worldwide has been $383; the maximum loan for Kiva is $10,000.
Will microloans be the savior of Detroit's struggling economy, or even a major driver of revival? Not likely, but there's no single magic bullet for a city that has lost more than half its population, causing real estate values and tax base to plummet.
Detroit's future depends on revival of private-sector job creation by a host of new companies, not on bailouts, big companies or big labor unions.
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