Chocolatier Ella Livingston, owner of Cocoa Asante, poses for a portrait with some of her chocolates at Douglas Heights Bakery on Friday, May 3, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Livingston was the recipient of a Kiva loan of $5,000, which helped her begin her business.

Ella Livingston is a school teacher by day and chocolatier by night.

It would be easy to say the 26-year-old's love of chocolate came from her roots as a native of Ghana — a country that is one of the largest producers of cocoa beans in the world — but it didn't really begin until she studied abroad in Japan and tasted Royce Nama Chocolate for the first time, she said.

"That was six years ago, and I still remember how good it was and the experience of it," she says. "Once I had that chocolate, I told everyone they needed to try it."

Last year, Livingston began working on a recipe, tweaking it little by little until she was content with the taste. She wants people to have the same experience with her chocolate, called "Cocoa Asante," that she had in Japan.

But as a school teacher, funding a new venture can be difficult. By fall of 2018, she had gone as far as she could with her own money and needed funding to fully launch her chocolate business. Thankfully, she said, Chattanooga's Kiva program launched in October and provided her the opportunity to crowdsource an interest-free loan of $5,000.

"I didn't have equity and interest was too high," Livingston says. "The fact that it was zero percent interest was really appealing."

There has been a rise of non-traditional lending and fundraising platforms online, like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, but Kiva asks people to invest a minimum of $25 in an idea or business with the knowledge that the entrepreneur will repay them over time. It's investing and not donating, said Katie Hendrix, the Kiva program manager at the Company Lab (CO.LAB).

Kiva is a San Francisco-based international nonprofit and online lending platform that started in 2005 and connects entrepreneurs with lenders around the world. Backed by the city of Chattanooga and four local foundations — Lyndhurst, Footprint, Benwood and the Community Foundation — the CO.LAB opened a local office of the program in Chattanooga in 2018 to increase access to capital for small business owners in the region.

Loans from $1,000-$10,000 can be granted and are completely interest-free. In Chattanooga, seven businesses have received loans through the Kiva program since its launch last October, including Cocoa Asante, TeqTouch, Hashtagmall, Jinan's Kitchen, Squeaky Clean, GMST Transportation and Bitter Bottle. They have been loaned a combined $43,000.

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Cocoa Asante chocolates are seen at Douglas Heights Bakery on Friday, May 3, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Businesses that have earned loans through the Kiva program since October 2018

There are other businesses that received funding from Kiva before the program was officially established in Chattanooga. Hendrix said a majority of those who have received loans through Chattanooga's Kiva program are minorities.

While the rise of these non-traditional platforms might seem like competitors to local banks and financial institutions, Hendrix said Kiva provides support to entrepreneurs who might not be able to go through a more traditional lending process.

"That's one thing we really try to highlight just because most financial institutions aren't going to give out loans to small businesses, and if they can, it won't have zero percent interest tied into it," she says.

Some people might be nervous about going into banks or their credit is not quite high enough. And most banks won't approve loans as small as $1,000. Kiva's goal is to eradicate financial exclusion, Hendrix explained.

The idea with Kiva is that if the community is funding it, then the business will be more likely to succeed down the road. Ideally, a lender could recycle the same $25 among different entrepreneurs on the platform.

While Kiva's website says that more than 96 percent of borrowers repay their loans, if a borrower does stop making payments, then after about nine months Kiva puts their loan into default, which will be noted on the borrower's credit report, Hendrix said.

Livingston said she was nervous at first about the crowdfunding aspect of Kiva, but 145 lenders later, Livingston said she is glad she had the opportunity. The money helped her purchase the royal blue boxes that were custom made to hold her truffles and for photos that she could use on her marketing materials. It was also used toward her rent at a kitchen in a former bakery on M.L. King Boulevard.

"I was happy and pleasantly surprised with the support I got from people in Chattanooga and around the world," she says. "One of my first inquiries was from a vegan restaurant in California who wanted to be a distributor."

While the loan money is helpful, both Livingston and Kaleena Goldsworthy, owner of The Bitter Bottle, said Kiva also gave them visibility they wouldn't have had otherwise.

Goldsworthy received $6,000 from 123 lenders to help her buy equipment for her bitters business located in the Hamilton County Business INCubator. While most people associate bitters with cocktails, Goldsworthy wants to grow and educate people on the importance of herbalism, using authentic ingredients in cocktails.

The Bitter Bottle aims to be the first legal small batch bitters available in the state of Tennessee. Currently, the former bartender is working with regulatory systems to get her business off the ground and hopes to launch it later this year.

Goldsworthy went through CO.STARTERS, a program by the CO.LAB, and heard about Kiva right after it launched last fall. She got her loan funded in 15 days, and she said several strangers emailed and messaged her offering advice and encouragement.

"I think the Kiva loan was the first thing that made me really feel like I couldn't turn back now," she says. "It made me feel like for the first time that I'm doing something people are interested in."

For more information about Kiva and to sign up for a time to speak with Hendrix, visit