Innovating for Tomorrow: Lessons from Kiva Labs’ Innovation Showcase

Innovating for Tomorrow: Lessons from Kiva Labs’ Innovation Showcase

The COVID-19 crisis threatens to curtail lending to the world’s working poor at the same time this population is experiencing severe disruptions to their families’ health and livelihoods. In challenging times, how can lending institutions and financial service providers serving smallholder farmers and rural communities be both nimble and resilient? How do we make sure we’re practically creating impact, while continually learning and innovating our work with diverse communities?

These were the questions that brought together Kiva and its partners for the recent Kiva Labs Innovation Showcase. Over the course of the showcase, Kiva’s partners from across sub-Saharan Africa shared lessons learned and continued critical conversations about their work to catalyze innovation at scale. 

“We can’t talk about innovation without talking about resilience and using innovation to build organizations that can weather the storm,” noted opening speaker Rachel Lewis, Kiva’s Investment Director for Africa. Several others chimed in to similarly describe how important flexibility and deep community engagement were necessary to make sure Kiva’s lending partners were able to make it through the toughest parts of the past year.

Kiva Labs focuses on product innovation, impact measurement, capacity building, and scaling financial solutions to expand opportunity and increase global financial access. In partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, Kiva Labs has spent the past 5 years testing, developing, and expanding high-impact loans serving the unique needs of smallholder farmers and rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa. The long-term partnership has allowed for targeted technical assistance and accelerated scaling of new models and products for borrowers, deepening Kiva Labs’ ability to serve financially-excluded, vulnerable populations.

During the Innovation Showcase, partners detailed real and practical examples of how they brought innovations into their organization around two key areas: incorporating client voice through product design and improving access for underserved populations through the use of technology. Let’s dive into their insights!

Leveraging Client Voice To Drive Innovation

Kiva Labs’ lending partners have steadily increased direct engagement with current and potential borrowers, and even more so during the pandemic. While some were already undertaking a multi-year approach, others embraced a lean data approach to rapidly meet the challenges of the pandemic. In the process, partners have been able to gather insights on barriers to accessing finance, accordingly alter or create new loan products to fit borrower needs, and more thoroughly understand their impact. This, in turn, allows them to earn buy-in from clients, better support strategic business growth, and achieve social impact outcomes.

For example, microfinance institution ECLOF Kenya gained critical insights into the needs of dairy farmers through multi-year surveys with their clients, leading to the introduction of an individual climate smart loan product, a significant departure for ECLOF from its standard lending model. Additionally, ECLOF was able to learn why farmers are hesitant about loan benefits, and consequently increase its communications and training efforts.

“Because of the support we received, we were able to look at how we can increase the maximum loan sizes to incorporate more customers,” Esther Moyi, ECLOF’s Head of Marketing & Business Development, explained to showcase participants. “That could only have come from the results of the study [which showed] that there’s a lot of interest.”

The showcase also highlighted the experience of another Kiva partner, Assilassimé Solidarité, which offers financial support, financial literacy, business training, and broader social support for vulnerable individuals living in the Togolese Republic in West Africa. When the pandemic hit, they quickly collected, analyzed, and responded to borrower survey data in order to adapt products and services to meet new and urgent needs. Beyond adapting their loan products to allow credit to be established without a guarantee, Assilassimé noted the importance of listening and tailoring their product to client needs, which built stronger relationships with their customers and created greater repayment rates.


  • Increasing client engagement and collecting data on client perspectives can allow organizations to more accurately capture borrower needs and loan impact.
  • These insights help organizations strengthen their business model and innovate their offerings to meet current and future needs, especially since client-centric designed products are more resilient and have better repayment performance.


Expanding Financial Access Through Innovative Products

Kiva Labs’ lending partners have developed, tested, and scaled up new loan products and services, coming up with innovative, high-quality solutions to meet challenges faced in the field.

In the process, they have found investment in their digital infrastructure to be essential for expanding financial access to underserved individuals and communities. 

Kiva partner African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC), currently the largest refugee lender in Sub-Saharan Africa, works to support entrepreneurs in Rwanda and Kenya to grow their businesses and create jobs. 

To expand their reach further, AEC explored the idea of digitizing their loan operations. Particularly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurs AEC worked with needed access to capital, but were unable to conduct in-person visits. A technical assistance grant from Kiva allowed AEC to create a digital loan application portal enabling borrowers to apply online, while also supporting the organization’s move toward digital training solutions.  

AEC also worked closely with a developer to incorporate both borrower and staff voices in the development and launch of a mobile app. Instead of trying to launch a perfect app, AEC COO Sara Leedom shared how finding the right developer allowed them to see that it was “super smart to start with something, see how people use it, and then add features from there.” Within a few months, AEC staff in six refugee camps were equipped with the digital support needed to accept lending applications via a mobile app, with due diligence conducted remotely by staff working in Kigali.


  • Especially in fragile contexts, digital infrastructure can critically expand who has access to financial services. 
  • When developing digital products, take time to find technical partners who can work alongside you to be flexible and incorporate client voice into the product.