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Lending a shared interest to South Africa

South African women pictured on Shared Interest website

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Kai Ryssdal: We mentioned the Federal Reserve's statement on interest rates on the program yesterday. How they're keeping an eye on the credit squeeze. Even as they acknowledge it's harder for nearly everyone — from households to big business — to get loans now.

Which makes one group of lenders in Carlisle, Mass. all the more unusual, as Gretchen Wilson explains.


Gretchen Wilson: More than a dozen lenders are gathering around cantaloupe and cookies. No power suits here — we're talking khaki shorts and sandals.

[Sound of investors speaking]

This is actually a business meeting. These investors are neighbors who know each other. They attend each other's potluck parties and kids' soccer games.

Median household income here is $130,000. And they want to invest in what many would consider a credit risk — namely, the poor in South Africa.

Here's how it works: You loan, say, $3,000 to Shared Interest, a New York-based nonprofit firm. They take your $3,000 and pool it with similar loans. Right now, they have $11 million that they use as a loan guarantee for start-up businesses in South Africa.

Donna Katzin: It's like co-signing a loan.

That's Donna Katzin, executive director of Shared Interest.

Donna Katzin: We share the risk with the bank. With the money that we have invested with us, we can provide the collateral that low-income communities in South Africa lack.

Apartheid was officially dismantled 13 years ago under international pressure. The country is still suffering from those sanctions.

That's why Michael Ansara started this investor group in Carlisle. He protested against apartheid for decades, urging corporations to pull their investments out of South Africa. When it became a democracy, he and his wife wanted to pour money back in.

Michael Ansara: It seems to me there is a real hunger — at least among people that I know, like myself — to have an ability in the midst of our comfort and our tranquil existence to really have an impact.

So far, this group has invested $41,000. Down the road, each investor will get his or her money back, plus about 1 percent interest.

Not a high yield, but Ansara says that's not what matters most to these investors.

Ansara: One of the challenges of our lifetime is to deal with this incredible disparity where unless you're poor in the United States, you're living in relative comfort compared to several billion people around the globe.

Eight thousand miles away in Gerbouw, South Africa, Patric Muller pushes his raft into the middle of a lake. Below the surface, 6,000 rainbow trout swim in underwater cages.

Patric Muller: You see, we put in our food in here, and we throw it out, like this.

Last year, he got a commercial loan of $24,000 to start a side business raising trout. That's traditionally a white-owned industry here.

Muller: I take the chance, do my best with it. Maybe next year, I will get another one. So I will manage two cages.

If Muller and his two partners default on their loan at the end of the year, the banks can call on Shared Interest's U.S. capital. But in 12 years, that's never happened. In fact, last year, Muller's team netted $2,500. Each got the equivalent of 400 bucks to take home.

Muller: Yeah, things have changed because I can take that 3,000 rand and I can buy my wife a washing machine. Because she always want a nice washing machine.

Muller hopes his two young daughters will someday go to college. And that's the kind of impact investors like Ansara are looking for.

In Gerbouw, South Africa, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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