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Micro-lender with a macro-heart

MORE than 300 million Chinese in rural areas live below the poverty line and a 27-year-old American is helping some of them help themselves by lending small sums to start businesses. George Bao reports.

Casey Wilson is a young American woman from California. Like many young Americans, she likes learning Chinese, however, she did not expect that six months at Tsinghua University in Beijing studying Chinese would change her whole life.

She did not return to California (Oakland) to find a high-paying job and enjoy life. Instead, she decided to do something for China, particularly for those living in the poor rural areas.

Wilson was shocked at the fast-growing cities like Beijing and Shanghai. She knew that more Chinese have become rich along with the opening of China to the rest of the world in the 1980s, and some Chinese are even wealthier than Americans. However, she also learned that there are over 300 million Chinese who still live below the poverty line in the rural areas.

The young American woman knows her own ability as an individual is limited, but she also knows if she starts to do something bit by bit, she can make a difference.

In 2006, Wilson met Courtney McColgan, another American from California, at a training project in Tsinghua University. McColgan studied Chinese community loans and planned to return to the US to start her own micro-loan foundation.

The two decided to start their own loan foundation to help micro-entrepreneurs in China start small businesses and lift themselves out of poverty.

Wilson raised around US$20,000 to register her own small, nonprofit loan foundation and built a website called Wokai (, which means "I Start" in Chinese, to provide rural entrepreneurs with capital in the spring of 2007. At the time, Wilson was 24 years old.

"I love China. I have lived there for four years and I speak the language. I think I can help them," Wilson told Xinhua in an interview in Los Angeles.

Wilson's Chinese name is Wei Kexin. In China, people called her Wei Kexin, and her Chinese is good. She even can understand some Sichuan dialect.

She said she has traveled most provinces in China, but now she frequently travels to Sichuan and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, because most of her micro-loans have been released in the two provinces where she thinks there are more farmers who need help.

"Our loan could be US$10 but no more than several hundred dollars," said Wilson. She said even US$100 can help a farmer start a microbusiness and start to make money to support his or her family.

Fu Yanjun is a 30-year-old woman in Sichuan. She has two children and lives in poverty. Wilson lent her US$400 to grow mushrooms at her home. Fu repaid the loan the next year with earnings from her mushroom business. Her life is getting better and she is now able to send her children to school.

Wokai has grown to 12 chapters across the US, Canada and China and has more than 200 interns and volunteers, 10 corporate sponsors, and two field partners in Inner Mongolia and rural Sichuan.

Since the website launch in 2008, Wokai has raised more than US$169,000 in loan capital and empowered more than 400 borrowers in China to start small businesses. Wokai has offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Seattle, Toronto, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Wilson said the next two years will be momentous as her team aims to raise over US$1 million in loan capital, connecting 50,000 contributors around the world to more than 5,000 borrowers in rural China by 2012.

Wilson's ambition does not stop here. She said ultimately, Wokai aims to become the primary online resource for a growing number of contributors to help China's rural poor lift themselves out of poverty.

The idea is to help people help themselves with business, not give them handouts. Wokai has cooperated with local foundations to manage the loans with some service fees, but Wilson herself is not paid with any donations; she ensures all funds go to those in need.

According to Wilson, she has received full support from local governments in China and had no conflicts. Also, 99 percent of the loans has been repaid so more people can benefit from more loans.

While frequently in poor rural areas in China, Wilson also makes a great effort in the US to raise money. So far, 90 percent of donations come from Americans who know China or have relatives and friends in China. Most donations are small, between US$10 to US$100 each. The largest amount donation so far has been a check for US$50,000 from a Chinese American.

What makes Wokai rare is that donation and borrowing are all transparent over the Internet. Contributors register on the website and select borrowers based on stories posted on the website.

Wilson updates each contributor and borrower once every three months. Each loan is tracked for three years. "So far we have found no abuse of the loans and more and more people want to support our work," said Wilson.


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