Rachel Cook was working as a futures trader when she had a revelation: Making money is great, but helping others do so is better. After reading an article on how microloans can benefit businesswomen in the developing world, she set out to direct and produce The Microlending Film Project, a documentary that took her to four continents.
With the film showing at dozens of U.S. college campuses this year, Cook is now knee-deep in her next project: Seeds, a free mobile game that lets players build a virtual civilization while microfinancing women entrepreneurs in Kenya.
Marketed as "FarmVille meets Kiva," Seeds makes money by selling virtual goods and currency and by incentivizing players with in-game rewards to make microloans to businesses of their choosing. The money is disbursed to entrepreneurs who were vetted by Cook and her team last year on the ground in Kenya.
After more than a year of development, a full-featured version of Seeds made its iTunes debut in December. Cook, who raised nearly $25,000 on the crowdfunding site Fundable late last year, is currently meeting with angel investors. The master plan: Raise enough capital to bring game-based microlending to other developing nations, as well as to underserved communities in the U.S.
We spoke with Cook about her social-gaming project.
How does the Seeds game work?
Through the game we're actively soliciting loans, which the users fund in tiny increments: $1 or $2. We've also built in traditional monetization techniques. So we're selling virtual goods and decorators within the game.
We're monetizing impatience. Seeds is populated by plantlike creatures called Seedlings, and the player is building a world for them to live in. So, if you build a floor in some kind of building, you can wait three hours in real time for it to be completed, or you can pay five Seeds dollars to have it completed instantly (which would cost one actual dollar). We're going to pool all this money, and we'll be reinvesting it in microfinance.
How do players allocate their loans?
We're not setting up a peer-to-peer system, because it's extremely work-intensive. You don't see a picture of a woman in Kenya and then decide whether you want to lend to her. Instead, we have a marketplace set up where you can choose to make a microloan to a certain type of business. That money is pooled, and we disburse it to individuals who own those types of businesses.
What are the loan amounts?
So far the average loan size for individual borrowers in Kenya has been $120. In the States, we would be looking at loans between $1,000 and $4,000.
What are the requirements for borrowers?
We ask that they put together a business plan that's pretty comprehensive. We look for entrepreneurs who already have businesses up and running and who already know the ins and outs of what it takes to successfully run those businesses. So it's finding people who just need a little influx of capital to scale or to buy a machine that would increase their business.
What are the repayment terms?
In Kenya, we disburse loans at half the market rate, at around 13 percent. We're making a pretty narrow profit margin at that level, but we're able to do it because we're circumventing brick-and-mortar banks. Because it's just cell phone to cell phone, it really cuts down on a lot of overhead.
Tell us about your expansion plans.
We want to expand to other East African countries and then Chicago and potentially Detroit. We're looking to do that [this year]. We're also cultivating partnerships with other indie games and gaming companies to get the Seeds API [application programming interface] in as many games as possible, so people playing other games can make microloans through them that we can send to entrepreneurs. That's the big dream.