The World Economic Forum has just announced Shanghai-based Qifang as one of its prestigious Technology Pioneers of 2009. Joining the ranks of past winners (Google, Wikipedia, Mozilla), Qifang is the first Chinese company to receive the honor.Qifang, which takes its name from the poem “????????? (Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend)”, is a Web service that operates under a simple, yet excellent, principle: “Everyone should be able to get an education, no matter their financial means.”Using P2P lending, the company helps financially limited students find funding for higher education. Qifang connects university students to lenders with both charitable and financial goals. If anyone is familiar with Prosper.com, they work in a similar fashion.
A few weeks back, I met Qifang CEO Calvin Chin during a startup presentation lunch at the offices of Tudou.com. Though our group saw several impressive presentations that day, Qifang definitely took the cake and wow’d us all.
The site is currently in beta but has grand ambitions. With only one in nearly five Chinese High School grads being admitted to university, and about 1/3 the percentage of 18- to 22-year-olds enrolled in higher education when compared to the US or Japan, there’s certainly much potential for growth.
From Qifang’s site:
Currently, Qifang focuses on students at Chinese 3 or 4-year universities or colleges and post-graduate training programs and their tuition needs. Any Chinese undergraduate who has received an admission letter or valid student ID can post their needs at Qifang. Lenders are banks, companies, non-government organization, non-profit organizations, philanthropists and individuals seeking investment returns. In the future, and in strict adherence to relevant national laws and regulations, Qifang will support other education types and other education related expenses with funding from a broad array of sources.
China’s credit reporting industry isn’t as developed as Western models, so the site will be depending on other methods of assuring repayment–including a scan of their ID card (which all Chinese must have), and record of their parents’ names, parents’ ID cards, hometown, major, grades, and school. Not only will this allow Qifang to keep track of the borrowers, it also intricately weaves the Chinese concept of “losing face” into the system as a powerful deterrent to defaulting.
The company also works closely with borrowers to teach them about the benefits of a good credit history, and the power that positive credit can wield.
I’m a strong believer in the principle that it is through self-empowerment, not charity, that real and lasting change is made in the world. That Qifang is helping to usher in this change, by providing higher education to students who would otherwise be unable to afford it, is quite commendable. It’s easy to see why the World Economic Forum identified the company as a Technology Pioneer.