A company that really lets you make direct microloans, no lie

I used to be a big fan of the microlending nonprofit Kiva.org, thinking my $25 and $50 loans were really going via Kiva to that goat farmer in Kenya smiling on its Web site, and the single mother in Guatemala running a clothing shop to support her kids. Then I read how Kiva doesn't really make direct loans. The storytelling method it used to get people to pony up money masked the fact that Kiva wasn't being forthright about how the loans were distributed. Apparently, other similar nonprofits often fudge when that tell you "your $2 a day can feed and clothe little Maria in Cuzco." Sorry, Sally Struthers, even you are hard to trust now.

So is there any way you can lend directly to a hard-working person, other than handing cash to your neighbor down the street starting a business in his garage? Yes, says this National Geographic-sponsored company. Novica is a Los Angeles company that lets artisans worldwide sell their work on its Web site. It promises fair trade by not charging artisans any fees and letting them lower or raise prices of their artwork as they see fit. Recently, Novica announced it would help its artists expand their businesses by helping them get access to microloans.

Novica tried to connect its artists with everyone from local banks to big lenders but the interest rates charged, even by microlenders, were too high. So Novica decided to become the financial middleman, and it just launched a Web site for customers to buy artwork and lend money directly to the artists. Novica says it can guarantee no-interest loans to artists because its overseas offices that already work with them to fulfill customer orders can easily take on the loan-disbursement duties.

Like Kiva had done, Novica has photos and stories of artists, reasons why they're asking for loans, and a track on how much money they've raised so far. You can help Peruvian furniture-maker Moises Alvarez buy better drills, or let Juliana Akandas of Ghana get more raw materials to keep on carving her wood masks and sculptures. You can put your name and photo up on their page to show what a proud and supportive lender you are. Then after you get your money back, you can buy the artwork you helped them to make. Loans start at $25 and go up in increments of $25. Get the details in Novica's online FAQ.

I can vouch for the good craftsmanship and customer service of Novica's artists. I recently celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary, and wood is one of the traditional gifts to give. A wood "love sculpture" from Indonesia came to mind and after searching the Web, I came across Novica and this "Loving Embrace" sculpture by Balinese artist Wayan Rendah. I got to read his life story, how his wood sculptures were considered too avant-garde for the local crafts markets so he had to sell his household goods to support his family until joining up with Novica. Now he has 20 carvers working for him. He's not on Novica's microlending loan list, obviously.

But what customer service. My statue was supposed to ship within three to four weeks, but I got in two. It came beautifully wrapped, with a postcard of Bali artwork and a printed description of Balinese wood carving and what my statue means specifically to the artist. Instead of just buying a nameless piece of artwork, I felt like I was really helping to support an artist, his family, his business and keep a traditional craft going strong.

So Valentine's Day is coming up, and Novica has plenty of "Loving Embrace" type sculptures and other romantic gifts. Buy a piece of artwork or just make a loan. Either way, you'll be supporting your favorite artisan by helping to keep him or her in business.
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