Oikocredit - 'bank' with a conscience

A new  kind of investment bank was launched in London last week at St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square.  The ecumenically-based Oikocredit pays out a modest, (but so far, safe) two per cent dividend a year to investors, while giving out small loans to parters that fund poor people  around the world to enable them to build up their businesses and work their way out of poverty.

Founded 35 years ago in the Netherlands, Oikocredit has invested in projects in more than 70 developing countries and  has many investors from across Europe and North America.

At the launch, representatives from two projects supported by the bank spoke about the impact investment has had on the lives of their communities. Mariam Dao Gabala, from Ivory Coast in West Africa,  gave a presentation on the CocoVico Market. Six years ago, around 5,000 street vendors were scraping a living selling vegetables from a plot of land on which they were squatting. Thanks to micro loans from Oikocredit, they got together, formed a co-op and are selling their products in a newly-built market complex - complete with washing, cooking and toilet facilities. They are now setting up an on-site nursery for the children, a clinic  and literacy classes.

Patrick Hynes, Oikocredit’s UK representative, said women accounted for 85 per cent of the 17 million people the cooperative is currently enabling. “Women can be empowered by access to financial services and in turn help to enrich the lives of their families and also communities in which they live,” he said.

Another company that Oikocredit invests in, is Divine Chocolate, a fair-trade chocolate company owned by farmers in Ghana.

Divine Chocolate Managing Director Sophi Tranchell,  said the cooperative was giving support to people in innovative ways. The bank now has 45,000 members in 12,000 villages - with no electricity and no clean water. All business is conducted face-t0-face.  One of the first things they did was to introduce scales into villages so that quantities of cocoa beans could be accurately measured. "Everyone loves chocolate but the farmers who produce it are anonymous" she said. "If we met them we would be embarrassed" Most of them have never tasted chocolate.

Until Oikocredit came along, the farmers were getting a very poor deal, Sophi said. Kraft Cadbury and Mars Nestle still own over 80 per cent of the chocolate market, but Divine Chocolate, which promises a fair deal to farmers who produce it, and a superior product that has won the praise of chocolate experts, is expanding year by year.

"We believe this is the way to do banking, and the best way to support projects in the developing world" Patrick said. People invest in Oikocredit rather than "give".  Clients take out loans with us which they repay, rather than receiving aid. The minimum investment is just £150 and there is no maximum. An average individual invests £4,000.

For more information, see: www.oikocredit.org.uk; tel 01995 602806 (UK) or e-mail: uk@oikocredit.org

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