Wokai Launches Microfinance Platform to Address China's Urban-Rural Divide

Feb 2009
Oakland, United States, February, 05 2009 - Started by 25-year-old Americans Casey Wilson and Courtney McColgan, Wokai enables enthusiasts worldwide to fund loans for entrepreneurs such as pig farmers and teahouse owners.

Wokai, a nonprofit organization that enables people in China to build small businesses and lift themselves from poverty, announced today the launch of a microfinance platform that allows individuals to support rural entrepreneurship initiatives –- primarily for women –- with donations as small as $10.

Wokai (www.wokai.org), whose name means “I start” in Chinese, partners with rural microfinance institutions to address China’s vast urban-rural divide. Donations fund microloans ranging from $300 to $900 that help borrowers in rural China build better lives for their families. Wokai updates contributors with news on their borrowers’ repayment status and business developments, and once each loan is fully repaid, the original contributor may reinvest these funds to support another borrower.

Currently, Wokai partners with two Chinese microfinance institutions, Chifeng Zhaowuda Women's Sustainable Development Association, and the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County, which lend to entrepreneurs in Inner Mongolia and Sichuan, respectively. Wokai has a rigorous evaluation process, requiring that these institutions be financially transparent and have an on-time repayment rate of 95% or higher. Wokai’s team also works closely with the local loan officers, to train them to report their impact in the field.

So far, Wokai has brought together 191 contributors from 15 countries to assist more than 40 entrepreneurs in building pig farms, tea houses and other ventures. Donors can help to fund projects at www.wokai.org.

Why China?

“The need for our organization stems from inequality -- inequality between the United States and China; and inequality within China, between urban and rural areas,” says Courtney McColgan, who founded Wokai with Casey Wilson in 2007. “We dreamed of a way to bridge that gap through technology, to allow people on one side to help those on the other –- seamlessly, informally and individually.”

The two Americans met while studying advanced Chinese in Beijing in 2006. Casey had come to build a career in economic development. At Tsinghua University, she met Courtney, who had been researching microfinance in China for three years. The two students traveled together to the Ningxia Center for Environment and Poverty Alleviation, a microfinance institution west of Beijing. Here Casey realized how microfinance works on the ground in rural China: “We saw three people working in a run-down office and a group of loan officers riding their motorbikes through the desert to collect repayments from lamb farmers.”

When visiting borrowers, they learned about the personal impact of these loans. “Microfinance allowed us to go from existing to living,” explained Shu Liangang, a farmer. “Existing is merely finding enough food to eat, but living is truly feeling the substance of life, our hearts, and minds.”

Soon after this trip, Courtney McColgan returned to the United States to begin her finance career. She now works as an analyst at Draper Fisher Jurvetson in Menlo Park, California, and has remained actively involved with Wokai.

From an Idea to a Platform

Casey Wilson stayed in Beijing for her first job out of college: Co-Founder and CEO.

Wokai has since grown from an idea into a dynamic nonprofit organization. Today, Wokai has offices in Oakland, California, and Beijing, and active chapters in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. These chapters, which raise awareness about China philanthropy in their local communities, include more than 75 volunteers.

Larry Sun, who volunteers as Product and Technology Director, explains: “I was born in China and now work as a Software Engineer in Test at Google. I love being able to apply my professional skills to manage Wokai's product roadmap. This gives me a great way to give back and stay connected to my homeland.”

In the future, the founders plan to expand the scope of Wokai’s platform to build personal connections to a broader spectrum of philanthropic projects in China.

Quick Facts about China and Microfinance

- According to a recent report published by China's Agriculture Ministry, city dwellers earned 3.36 times more in 2008 than their rural counterparts, and this divide was wider than it had been in 2007.

- In 2007, China passed Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy, but approximately 200 million people in China live on less than $1.25 a day.

- Muhammad Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for inventing and popularizing microfinance. An economics professor at Chittagong University in Bangladesh, he initially lent $27 of his own money to a group of local women suffering from the 1976 famine. Since then, microfinance has been used in many developing countries.

- Microfinance in China has been quite successful in providing livelihoods for individual families, but government regulations limiting local investment have hindered its nationwide expansion. In the mid-1990s, the United Nations Development Programme invested heavily in building 300 microfinance institutions in China, and about 100 of those still operate today.

About Wokai

Wokai is a person-to-person giving platform for China. A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Wokai connects contributors worldwide with people in need in rural China, to help them start small businesses. Wokai relies on events, grants, corporate sponsorships and individual donors for funding, and will eventually cover costs through the optional 10% donation that contributors can add when funding a project. To learn more, visit http://www.wokai.org.

Source : Wokai

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