A banking empire is born

Banking, like everything else, is losing its bricks and mortar.

Thanks to online banking and ATMs, the glory days — when a sweet-but-officious bank teller named Cricket or Chip could make us feel deliciously wicked for withdrawing our own money — are gone. Fortunately, when technology closes a door, she leaves open a window (in this case one that crashes, forcing you to reboot, but still).

Despite my hate/hate relationship with technology, I’m not one to cut off my sleeves to spite my Snuggie. And as someone who thinks pay-at-the-pump is the height of human achievement, I adore ATMs. Any device that spits out twenties like an inebriated grandma on graduation day is OK by me, no matter how many swine-flu cooties inhabit its touch screen.

And now the Interweb, which has made even Libertarians coo over collectivism, offers a peer-to-peer solution for just about everything, including commerce (Craigslist, eBay), entertainment (YouTube), knowledge (Wikis) and the opposite of knowledge (Facebook, blogs). And now, websites like Kiva, MicroPlace and Babyloan offer peer-to-peer micro-lending. These sites bring borrowers and lenders together with the aim of reducing poverty and promoting community development, while also offering a chance to test an age-old adage: Any douche can be a banker — why not me? And, with my retirement money disappearing faster than credible journalism, why not invest it with a struggling woman in Ghana instead of a white-collar criminal in Manhattan or Hong Kong?

So in January, I put my money (a small amount) where my mouth (demonstrably larger) is and opened an account at Kiva.org. Like an intoxicating combination of banking, social networking and reality TV, Kiva matches lenders and borrowers (certified by local agencies) from across the globe, along with their stories and photos. Because Kiva pools lenders’ money to fund loans, you can get involved with a tiny amount of cash. For just $125 I helped fund three small loans. Now I can follow the borrowers’ progress as they repay. My initial investment helped fund loans to Ama in Ghana, Jihad in Lebanon and Mean in Cambodia.

Ama buys bedspreads from wholesalers in Kumasi and sells them in her community. She used her loan to buy textiles in large bales and to travel to other towns to sell her wares. According to her profile, “It is her dream to help her husband, a carpenter, sponsor their children to the university level of education.”

Jihad sells vegetables and fruit and drives a school bus in Saida. Jihad’s $1,200 loan allowed him to purchase merchandise and repair his bus. His sponsor reports that “Jihad is special in his work because he sells good vegetables and fruit. His clients are his friends, neighbors and tourists.”

In Cambodia, Mean and her husband catch fish and sell them at the market, earning about $8 per day. Mean used her $500 micro-loan to open a grocery store.

The Kiva site shows photos of all three entrepreneurs, and lets lenders upload their own photos and communicate with the borrowers. (Like its borrowers, Kiva’s lenders come from all over the world. Fellow lenders on my loans include investors from Paris, New Zealand, and even exotic locations like Texas.)

So, how are my borrowers doing? Jihad and Mean have made all of their payments on schedule. Ama, however, is currently delinquent, having missed her June payment, presumably because the worldwide recession has impacted the bedspread market in Ghana, and maybe because the low tonight in Kumasi is 80 degrees and probably a light sheet would be plenty. But I believe in you, Ama! You can do it!

By June 1 my borrowers had repaid $29. So I parlayed that balance into a loan to Maria in Nicaragua. She’s a 73-year-old grocer who’s supporting five children. She wants to buy basic grains, snacks and natural drinks for her store, which sorta sounds like something she could someday sell to Whole Foods for serious bank. With my contribution, her $950 loan is currently only 13 percent funded, so it’s not too late for you to go in with me. I defy you to log onto Kiva, gaze into Maria’s eyes and not fork over your credit card numbers.

True, there is a downside to all of this. Now that I’m a big-shot banker, I’ll probably have to start wearing wingtips. And I guess I’ll have to take up golf and maybe even learn some math en route to the typical destination for most of us wheeler-dealers: prison. But until then, see you on Kiva.