When we invest our savings, very few of us really understand where our money goes and exactly how it delivers the returns we want it to. But Oikocredit investors take more interest than most in how their money is used.
Caroline Mortlock, investor
So when Caroline Mortlock, a British investor now living in Sweden, was invited to see Oikocredit’s work for herself, she didn’t hesitate to accept. Her trip to Senegal both confirmed and confounded some of her perceptions about how Oikocredit put her money to work.
Having been involved in development most of her life, Caroline felt she had a good understanding of how Oikocredit could help people through microfinance. “I worked in Romania after the fall of communism,” she explains, “helping rural villagers develop their businesses and one of the biggest problems was access to credit. The banks were only interested in big corporations, not ordinary people trying to make a living.”
Everything I hoped it would be
“So what I saw in Senegal was everything I hoped it would be. This was a country that was very open, without the bureaucracy or inertia of Romania at that time. The optimism and drive of people to take the opportunities in front of them was really impressive. They just got on with it!”
So while Caroline was happy to see microfinance freeing people up to earn a living for themselves, there were also some surprises in store, even for someone with experience in the field.
“I guess I still thought that microfinance was just about lending out small amounts of money to individuals or cooperative groups, probably in rural areas,” reflects Caroline. “But I realised how important it is to also invest larger amounts of money in more stable urban businesses to balance the overall loan portfolio. Although it’s really important to help people in the rural areas, it can be a risky business, with droughts or crop failure always a possibility.”
Caroline was also impressed by the way Oikocredit is making equity investments, particularly with a group of mango farmers in the southern Casamance region of Senegal.
The investment has helped the local farmers’ cooperative to build a processing and packaging factory that will help them export their produce to Holland. It should provide up to 5,000 men and women with a reliable and stable income for the first time, rather than seeing 75% of their crop rot on the ground before they can get it to market.
Visiting the factory as it nears completion was an overwhelming experience for Caroline and her group, welcomed as they were by hundreds of people from all across the region for an opening ceremony complete with funky band, groovy dancers and brightly coloured costumes.
“It was just phenomenal,” remembers Caroline, “that so many people came to see us; their sense of community; their willingness to work together. I was so impressed by the local leaders and how they strengthened the bonds between people. They just have a wisdom that perhaps we’ve lost with our cosseted existence.”
Filling in the gaps
“If we can just help them by filling in the gaps - setting up the access to markets, the value chains they need, then they are more than capable of developing things from there for themselves, and making a huge impact on the whole community.”
Overall, Caroline feels her trip has brought her closer to everyone involved in the Oikocredit community. “ I saw the whole chain, from the International office to the county office, to the field. I saw what an important role they play - setting a role model for good governance.”
How it all works from the inside
“I now understand how it all works from the inside, it’s more tangible for me than reading an annual report,” she explains.
“These people have a moral stance on how our money is invested. They are not nameless, faceless institutions hiding behind other people. And that gave me huge confidence as an investor. I felt as if I was part of something really important. I was one of the gang, even if you are just a small link in a strong chain.”