Providing financial support to people in need overseas at a time when household budgets are stretched at home is a challenge for any organisation.
But as the ethical investment co-operative, Shared Interest, prepares for its 22nd annual Member’s Day and AGM, it can look back on a year when it was able to lend more than £33m to fair trade enterprises, many of whom are co-operatives, across the world.
It is an impressive statistic from the world’s only 100 per cent fair trade lender, but as always the stories that lie behind the statistics are even more inspiring.
In the Veracruz region of Mexico, Shared Interest is supporting Huatusco, a co-operative of 2,000 coffee farmers. Providing an export credit facility has allowed Huatusco to pay its farmers in advance and retain them within the co-operative, rather than them being tempted to sell their produce elsewhere.
This has strengthened the co-operative, enabling Huatusco to sponsor students to attend the local university provided they work for the co-operative for five years following graduation. Huatusco also provides scholarships to school children and part finances a local health programme.
In Peru, Shared Interest is facilitating the continuing development of Bananeros Organicos Solidarios (BOS) in the Chira Valley.
BOS was set up in 2003 and is owned by around 500 individual farmers. As bananas are harvested all year round, the only way to increase exports is through improved harvesting, packaging and transportation.
BOS is using its Shared Interest loan to invest in new infrastructure, particularly cableways to transport the bananas, speeding up production but also improving the health of the workers who no longer need to carry the bananas.
In Africa, Swaziland Indigenous Products was established in 2005 to help rural women earn an income from the natural products that grow around them.
SIP is owned by 33 groups representing 2,600 women who gather the fruit needed to create marula oil which is used in skin care products. Shared Interest has provided SIP with a stock facility loan to ease cash flow pressures during harvest season.
Those three examples give just a brief glimpse of the work Shared Interest now does all over the world.
The Shared Interest co-operative was established in 1990 at a time when interest in fair trade was starting to grow (though still a couple of years before the Fairtrade Foundation or the Fairtrade Mark were introduced).
The co-operative’s founders sensed that, despite the support for fair and ethical trading, farmers and handicraft producers in the developing world were struggling to access the finance they needed to get their goods to market.
Shared Interest set itself the task of providing fair and just access to finance that would enable producers to create a sustainable livelihood for themselves, their families and their communities.
More than 20 years later, Shared Interest remains committed to its founding principles. Managing Director Patricia Alexander says: “We see a world where justice is at the heart of trade finance. Shared Interest is very much about helping people to develop their own businesses, providing a hand up to fair trade communities.”
The co-operative currently has around 9,000 members who have invested anywhere between £100 and £20,000. These investments are pooled and used to make payments to producer groups as well as on behalf of buyer organisations.
Funds are recycled and reused to make sure that all invested funds are used to help those that need them the most. Last year Shared Interest increased its share capital from £27.5m to £28m.
Ms Alexander adds: “It is really encouraging in the current economic climate that our members are continuing to invest. Similarly we have seen an increase in the number of new accounts opened. We realise that some people want a return for their money and with us there is no guarantee that they will get it back, although we haven’t lost anyone money yet, it is wonderful that people still want to invest with us.”
Shared Interest, a member of Co-operatives UK, has an elected board of eight directors — two executives and six non executives. The Board sets the strategy and ensures it is delivered within an appropriate risk framework while a Council of nine members ensures that the Board’s strategy is in line with Shared Interest’s mission and that the strategy meets the expectations of members.
The co-operative’s head office in Newcastle upon Tyne employs more than 30 staff, some of whom come from the countries it is working in. It also has overseas offices in Kenya and Peru and this year plans to open a further office in Ghana.
• Shared Interest’s Member Day and AGM takes place on Friday, March 16th in Oxford. Further information on the day, the co-operative, and how to support it can be found at www.shared-interest.com.