Facebook-style microcredit website helps struggling farmers find loans

By Allison Jacks, AFP

BEIJING — Dairy farmer Deligeerma needs US$642 to buy fodder for her cows during the harsh winter months in northern China. So far, she has received US$149 in pledges from four people around the world. The 37-year-old is one of hundreds of rural dwellers in impoverished areas of China using a Facebook-style social networking site to borrow money from individuals in China and overseas to fund their businesses. Wokai — “I start” in Chinese — launched the microfinance platform in 2008 and has so far distributed 5.5 million yuan (US$870,000) to more than 900 people in Inner Mongolia in the north and Sichuan province in the southwest. The U.S. organization works with two microcredit institutions in China, where hundreds of such groups help farmers unable to get bank funding because the size of the loan is too small and they have no assets to offer as collateral. “It’s really providing them an opportunity to get themselves out of poverty, enabling them to create a sustainable living for themselves,” Wokai co-founder Casey Wilson told AFP. Wokai’s person-to-person microfinancing platform is unique in China where most microloans are funded by the government and institutions such as the United Nations Development Program. Its website features profiles of hundreds of borrowers who have been carefully screened by local loan officers. They are mostly farmers needing money to buy animal fodder and shopkeepers seeking help to restock shelves.

Individuals around the world can browse the profiles and select who they want to support. Donors then receive regular updates on the borrowers via Wokai’s website. After the loan is repaid the money is redistributed to another borrower selected by the donor. Over the next 10 years, Wokai aims to lift 100,000 people out of poverty and expand its model across the central and western regions of China where millions of poor people live. “With 200 million people still living on less than US$1.25 a day there’s a huge amount of development that still needs to be done,” said Wilson.