Building platforms for the rising billion

Photo by Julie Pfeffer, Kiva fellow

According to the World Poverty Clock, there are more than 640 million people living in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90/day)[1].

Almost half of the world population lives in moderate poverty (living on less than $3.10/day) [1]. That is over 3 billion people. For context, the United States has a population of just over 300 million. That means that over 10x of the population in the United States is living in poverty around the world.

Percentage of population living under $1.25 per day. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0


There are, however, many reasons to remain hopeful, as authors Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler laid out in their book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. They painted a bright and hopeful future, with over 9 billion people having access to everything on par with first-world standards. They opined that technology was the key to solving many of the problems the world faced. As the New York Times summary of the book states, there are 4 main ways this will happen:

1“The first idea is that our technologies in computing, energy, medicine and a host of other areas are improving at such an exponential rate that they will soon enable breakthroughs we now barely think possible.”

2“Second, these technologies have empowered do-it-yourself innovators to achieve startling advances — in vehicle engineering, medical care and even synthetic biology — with scant resources and little manpower, so we can stop depending on big corporations or national laboratories.”

3“Third, technology has created a generation of techno-philanthropists (think Bill Gates) who are pouring their billions into solving seemingly intractable problems like hunger and disease.”

4“And finally, we have what Diamandis calls ‘the rising billion.’ These are the world’s poor, who are now (thanks again to technology) able to lessen their burdens in profound ways. ‘For the first time ever,’ Diamandis says, ‘the rising billion will have the remarkable power to identify, solve and implement their own abundance solutions.’”

Of the 4 points above, the final is the most relevant to Kiva and our impact. Kiva is the world’s first and largest crowdfunding platform for social good. On Kiva you can lend as little as $25 dollars to help a borrower start a business, go to school, or realize their full potential.

Gaining access to financial services allows borrowers to invest in their families’ futures and improve their lives. In other words, Kiva loans enable borrowers to rise.

It is now 2018. Kiva has reached over 2.9 million borrowers [2]. According to the thesis of Abundance, it looks like Kiva is just getting started. If technology holds the key to accelerate the rising billion, where does one start? Technology can be a moving target, oftentimes obsoleting itself very quickly. For example, if we know a breakthrough is coming, should we decide to wait? Can the new technology scale and deploy in low-income areas, or is it too costly? It’s a huge task to sift through the maze of technology decisions while not losing sight of the big picture goal of changing lives at a massive scale.

Rather than viewing this as a monumental task, I advocate this approach at Kiva: Let’s go small. Tiny, in fact.

By acting small, I do not mean setting small goals. The teams at Kiva strive to tackle the big problems by adopting an approach of continuous improvement through marginal gains. Over time, these small improvements compounded will yield remarkable results.

Marginal gains

As an illustration, a 1% gain over 365 days will achieve a 37.38 times improvement. What do I mean by that? Little improvements add up over time, just like compounding interest in a bank account.

How does a cycling team who had won only 1 gold medal in 76 years go on to win 7 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics? They did it one tiny improvement at a time. They won the Tour de France for the first time after a mere three years of training [See Harvard Business Review interviewed Dave Brailsford, head of British Cycling, for the way they employed this technique.]

Just how tiny were the improvements? Apparently Coach Brailsford brought in a surgeon to teach the team proper hand washing. It ultimately reduced illness and increased training time.

Photo by Simon Connellan on Unsplash

Breaking it down, the cycling team made the most of marginal gains by:

Understanding the difference between a target and a goal;

Seeking out areas of improvement beyond the obvious bicycle related ones; and

Continuous improvement.

I am a novice cyclist, and this system of incremental goals to improve performance really resonated with me. I see its application not just to peak performance for athletics, but everywhere, and especially in technology. [Want to read more about marginal gains? The BBC has a great article on other applications of marginal gains here.]

Three big technology goals

At Kiva, we look at applying the marginal gains principle to guide our execution. Kiva’s innovation does not come from the development of groundbreaking technology, but from the application of mainstream technology to provide services that mainstream organizations won’t. Like any organization solving big problems, Kiva is not unique in that resources are limited. As a technology organization, by applying marginal gains to these initiatives, we promote the rising of Kiva, and thus the rising of the billion. In order to accomplish this, we target 3 technology goals:

1 Deploy product offerings on mobile devices. The mobile ecosystems continues to expand. As an example, Africa has a mobile adoption rate of 80% [3]. By creating access to Kiva products on devices where our lenders, partners, and potential borrowers are already predominantly engaging, we can quickly improve the user experience and drive efficiencies.

2 Use data science to connect lenders to borrowers. Harnessing data and turning it into actionable insights is fundamental. Data science has been applied in fields like ecommerce for years. Refining the content (in Kiva’s case, loans) based on the lenders’ preferences or feedback is the core of marginal gains. The more we learn about the lenders and borrowers through their interactions on the Kiva marketplace, the better we can match them together. We also can help our Field Partners by determining the risk profiles of regions, borrowers, or loan types, just as another example.

3 Utilize cloud computing to ensure scalability and reliability. Perhaps the best result of marginal gains is quickly determining what not to do, since we have to prioritize everything we need to do. Companies such as Google and Amazon have already figured out how to scale computing resources. Kiva leverages both Amazon Web Services and Google Compute Cloud to scale our services worldwide. The tools and open architectures available on these computing platforms allow Kiva to increase velocity of product development on features that further our mission.

Photo by Brandon Smith

Kiva’s technology goals or initiatives are not novel. Like the British cycling team, Kiva’s dedication to focus on continuous incremental gains propels its success. By applying the same mindset to the challenges of global poverty and financial inclusion, we can take incremental improvements to the Kiva platform and turn them into gains at scale for developing-world populations.

The challenge ahead for Kiva is immense, however, by continuing to raise the Kiva platform, we can play a significant role in accelerating the rising billion.

Subscribe to ‘Tech for social impact’ or visit Kiva to learn more.




People using technology to address global challenges in innovative ways.

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Ken Leung

Ken Leung

VP Engineering | | Ken leads the technology teams at Kiva to help grow opportunity and financial inclusion around the world.

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