(CNN) -- Lovisa Asinde is a Ugandan widow who supports herself and her five children selling food. She started the small business eight years ago, and planned to open a larger restaurant in the center of her town.
But when one of her children fell ill she was unable to work, and she lacked the $500 needed to buy saucepans, plates and food staples.
So, strange as it may seem, Asinde went looking for international investors. She found several.
New Yorker Bill Gilroy invested $100 in her business along with eight other investors from as far away as the Netherlands.
Gilroy has never met Asinde. In fact, all he knows about her he found on Kiva.org -- a Web site that connects entrepreneurs in developing nations to investors in the United States and abroad.
This is microfinancing. It allows everyday people to invest as little as $25 to help people in developing countries climb out of poverty. The concept of microfinancing is nothing new. At its essence, it's making small loans to the working poor. The loans are used to establish or expand small businesses to help families earn more money.
The industry's assets total about $34 billion, according to Microfinance Information Exchange, and there are as many as 10,000 microfinancing institutions -- known as MFIs -- around the world, according to Microcredit Summit Campaign, a coalition of advocates, donor agencies and educational institutions. Some of the industry's contributors include Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, TIAA-CREF and J.P. Morgan.
Premal Shah founded Kiva three years ago. The Web site posts profiles of entrepreneurs from 80 countries looking to start a business. Visitors can click through the pictures and personal stories to choose the business they want to fund, whether it's a dairy farmer in Bolivia or a young woman in Peru who wants to open a grocery store.
The entrepreneur generally repays the loan within six months to a year, the company says. During repayment, investors can see individual progress reports as they are posted to the site.
The investor doesn't receive interest on the money, but Shah says Kiva lenders usually don't want to earn a rate of return.
With MicroPlace, on the other hand, people loan money to the working poor through the Internet and receive a small amount of interest.
Lenders for the eBay-owned MicroPlace purchase securities instead of funding individual cases. The money generated by these sales is invested in microfinance institutions around the world. These microfinance institutions, in turn, find the entrepreneurs, make loans and collect payments. Most loans are paid off, with interest, within one to four years, according to MicroPlace founder Tracey Turner.
Contrary to expectations, repayment rates for microfinancing are high: Kiva's repayment rate is about 97.2 percent, according to Shah, and Turner says the historic repayment rate on microfinance loans in general has averaged 97 percent.
That's because people respect their obligations, says Peter Hall, the director of the Microfinance Information Exchange.
"It's not a society where people are very mobile. It's very family-based, community based. People aren't flight risks. They are grounded in a certain time and place. They do everything they can to improve their place in society," he says.
That's not to say there aren't challenges to microfinancing.
"The reality is that 80 percent of poor don't have access to microfinance," says Shah. "It costs a lot of money to go out and serve the poor. Banks are risk-averse institutions," he says.
As a result, interest rates on microfinance loans can be anywhere from 18 to 60 percent.
Some people argue that poor borrowers are more conservative in their loans, avoiding risks such as investing in new technology or expanding the workforce. And it's exactly these risks that turn profits.
Microfinancing also presents cultural challenges.
For example, there is a great reluctance for Afghan women to pose in pictures, and in Iraq, photos are blurred for security reasons.
But some problems can lead to cultural lessons.
Shah relates the story of a Cambodian woman who wanted a loan so she could start a spinach farm. Once she got the money, she used it for her daughter's wedding. The loan officer noted this on the site. Of course, investors were enraged. But that was only until they were told that weddings are one of the most important events in that culture.
Neither Shah nor Turner view microfinancing as a cure-all for global poverty.
"It can only help the working poor who are self-employed, entrepreneurial and want to improve their lives. There are many people in the world who are poor but do not fit this definition," says Turner.
But in the meantime, sites like Kiva.org and MicroPlace.com are helping to connect people all over the world in a common goal.
"I'm always on the Internet," says Gilroy. "I have disposable cash and it's rewarding; to put 100 bucks out there with a commitment on the other end. It's not like you're throwing money over the wall. It comes back to you. There is a sense of every little bit you do, helps," he says.
And in fact, Gilroy got his money back from his loan, in full.
Asinde succeeded in her mission. She bought furniture, saucepans, plates and new ladles. The loan also afforded her chicken, fish and passion fruit, in addition to a kitchen renovation. According to a journal update, her children are attending school and the restaurant is becoming well-known in the community.
"For years I have been selling cooked food through thick and thin," Asinde writes on her Kiva profile. "I struggled to look after my family. I thank God for the loan money you gave me. The people are now served according to their preferences unlike before when I used to sell only posho and beans."
Microfinancing is on track to help 100 million people this year, according to the Microcredit Summit Campaign. But no matter how large the field becomes, Shah says there is one simple thing to keep in mind.
"It's people helping people," he says. "That's a powerful concept."