San Francisco – Over one hundred guests gathered at the San Francisco Ferry Building on Sunday, June 28th, for the official launch of Wokai.org in the Bay Area. Many were energetically discussing the potential of MFI (Microfinance Institutions) to help alleviate rural poverty, while others were there to mingle and learn more. All guests had one thing in common: to support and raise awareness for the nonprofit organization that is reaching out to those who are both literally and figuratively living on the margins.
With the backdrop of the Bay Bridge against a brilliant blue sky on an unusually warm afternoon, guests were transported thousands of miles away to rural villages in the Mongolian and Sichuan provinces, where a short film, “How the Other Half Lives,” captured how Wokai’s micro loans are changing the lives of over a hundred rural Chinese peasants.
It becomes immediately clear the potential impact such changes can have on a society where over 200 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, and where the wealth disparity has only deepened despite economic triumphs.
“Wokai,” the organization’s name and concept, means, “I start” in Chinese, a fitting phrase that reflects its core mission: to alleviate poverty in a sustainable way through supporting small-scale businesses and entrepreneurship. It is an investment not just in Sichaun or Mongolia’s entrepreneurs and their livelihood, but an investment in a possible future, an investment in sustainable change.
Event volunteers showed guests how they could make direct investments instantly on computers stationed just beyond the reception. Users took on quickly: the interface is easy to use and totally foolproof.
“It’s cool to see something like this in action – people helping people thousands of miles away, all with a mouse-click,” said Chris Wong, a guest at the event.
John Do, another guest at the event, was more impressed by the turnout and the panelist discussion. “I came to support a friend. I didn’t know much about microfinance like some others here, but I feel more educated after hearing the speakers,” he says, referring to Kiva.org president Premal Shah, Wokai’s Courtney McColgan, and Maya Chorengel, a managing director at Elevar Equity.
Wokai.org connects lenders and borrowers in three phases: loans are made directly, the results tracked, and accurate feedback readily transparent (the way an eBay seller might have their feedback tracked and displayed).
Casey Wilson, co-founder and CEO of Wokai, put it simply in the short film, “It’s like Facebook for farmers,” which is an apt and relevant comparison.
Contributors can browse through pictures and profiles of entrepreneurs and track the progress of borrowers, their loan repayments and venture progress. The entrepreneurs are not just nameless faces. Each borrower has their own profile and most importantly, a story. Take Na Rentuya, whose name means “Radiance.” She supports her mother and daughter through a modest business of raising cattle in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. She hopes her loans will help her continue the business by funding for hay. Her story, like many others, gives a glimpse of a life otherwise overlooked, and is the bridge that brings the human element back to a philanthropic process that is often nameless, faceless, and sometimes even opaque.
What is unique and promising about organizations like Wokai is its marriage of altruism and business savvy. MFI’s provide sustainable and appropriate financial services (often “micro loans”) to segments of a population that are usually rejected or ignored by traditional banks. Microfinance is not “aid for a day,” but assistance towards self-empowerment. It increases access and levels out the usual “top-down” approach in favor of community-based peer-to-peer lending. In effect, self-starters can make their own opportunities.
As the event drew to a close and raffle hopefuls were anticipating the goodies (two-way flights to Hong Kong, baseball tickets, and wine tasting, to name a few), optimism lingered in the air. The event was a hit and the message was clear: something practical and effective can be achieved, and we can all help to make it happen.
Visit www.wokai.org to learn more about the organization’s mission and how you can invest in sustainable change.
Photos courtesy of Wokai Volunteer, Bijal Shah (www.mousambi.com)