Turner’s vision of Microplace began taking shape in 2005, after she lived for a time with a Kenyan family, comprising a single mother caring for three children.
The Kenyan woman bought a sewing machine with $100 she borrowed and started an in-home business making school uniforms for local children.
The woman paid the debt and managed to send one of her sons to college in the United States.
“When you are out in the field talking to these women whose lives are transformed because of $30 or $10, then you are part of the movement forever,” Turner said.
Website visitors can browse investors by country, seeing pictures of people seeking loans and reading about their business goals.
Microplace connects investors with micro-finance organisations in the various countries, having vetted the organisations to check their legitimacy.
“Our job is to vet,” Turner said. “We do a lot of research.”
Turner said rates of return are modest but that investors at the website see value in addressing global poverty. Lenders shoulder the risk that loans will not be repaid.
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“The eye-opening thing for everyone is that repayment rates by the working poor remain unbelievably high, north of 98 per cent,” Turner said.
Thousands of people visit the website daily and hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans have already been issued, according to Microplace. In keeping with the holidays, some have made gifts of loans by issuing in others’ names.
“What gets me out of bed in the morning is the idea that when you invest in a person it really honours them and enhances their dignity as a human being,” Turner said. “Which is different than a hand out.”
Microplace gets fees from microfinance organisations that receive money through the website. Money is moved through online financial-transaction firm PayPal, which Ebay owns.
“I think it is important everyone from the investor to the person making baskets in a village makes a profit,” Turner said. “The beauty and magic of micro-finance is that it is scalable. That is the only way it will scale.”
Any profits made by Microplace, Ebay said, will be invested in other initiatives for social good, according to Turner.
Pierre Omidyar, Ebay’s founder, and his wife have channelled hundreds of millions of dollars into micro-loans through their own foundation and are investors in online microlending website, Kiva.
In 2008, Kiva plans to begin offering modest interest rates on loans, which at present are interest-free.
“The industry is growing like crazy right now,” Turner said. “It is a new kind of asset class. It is a wise investment.”
But not everybody sees microfinance as the solution.
The UN’s humanitarian news agency, IRIN, showed that according to research by the a microfinance consortium in 2003, evidence of the effectiveness of microfinance as a tool for development remains slim, partly because of the difficulty in monitoring and measuring impact.
Questions have arisen about whether microfinance can ever be as important a tool for poverty alleviation as its proponents and practitioners suggest.
In the IRIN article, Thomas Dichter of the Cato Institute, a Washington DC-based think-tank, called the potential of microfinance “grossly overestimated”.
Dichter also criticised the influx of microfinance institutions, claiming that agencies are “jumping into this field” under the assumption they can alleviate poverty without actually looking at the different causes of poverty in different regions.
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