As a 14-year-old boy, Michael Ansara participated in a boycott of a Wonder Bread factory in Roxbury, helping persuade the company to begin hiring black workers. Later, Ansara protested against the war in Vietnam and was active in the antiapartheid movement, calling for the divestment of American banks from South Africa.
Now 60 and the president of a customer service company, Ansara has three children and lives in Carlisle. And he’s still an activist.
In the spring of 2005, Ansara networked with parents on his son’s soccer team and acquaintances on town committees and formed a group of 20 Carlisle couples who wanted to lend money to black people in South Africa.
First there was a potluck dinner in the Ansara home. And last October, the group made its first contribution – a total of $29,000 in loan guarantees to help South Africans start their own businesses.
“It just seemed like such a simple, easy thing to do that could just help the poorest of the poor,” Ansara said. “South Africa has a particular emotional importance and resonance because of all those years of trying to support the struggle against apartheid.”
The money from Carlisle went to Shared Interest, a New York-based nonprofit that brings investment to poor communities in South Africa. Shared Interest and its South African partner, Thembani International Guarantee Fund, provide loan guarantees to encourage South African banks to lend money to the poor.
“Very often, South African community initiatives have been marginalized by large banks,” said Norman Buckham, Thembani’s chief executive officer. He said South African banks historically have been unwilling to lend to the rural poor and nonwhite people, considering the loans too risky.
Although Shared Interest has a large base of support in the Boston area, the Carlisle group is unique because it’s the first community group in Massachusetts whose members pooled their money, said Donna Katzin, executive director of Shared Interest.
“It’s a wonderful precedent,” she said, “because sometimes people think of themselves as not having enough money to make a difference.”
Thembani and Shared Interest promise to reimburse the bank if the South African borrower doesn’t repay the loan. In return they charge the bank a guarantee fee of 3 percent of the amount they guarantee. The money provided for guarantees can support loans of six to 10 times that amount, said Katzin.
Under this arrangement, the Carlisle residents will have their money repaid, and participants make individual agreements to receive interest ranging from 0 to 3 percent.
The loans have enabled South Africans to start small businesses growing crops, fish farming, and handicrafts. For example, a $200,000 loan allowed 160 people to establish a fish farming business near Cape Town a year ago. Today the business accounts for one-tenth of South African rainbow trout exports to Europe and Asia, and the fishermen pay about 12.5 percent interest per year on their loans.
Loans guaranteed by Shared Interest are spread among many projects in order to minimize risk. But Katzin cited two recently approved projects that will probably benefit from the Carlisle guarantees: a fruit-processing cooperative in the eastern part of the country and a fund to help people in the Western Cape borrow money to build their homes.
Altogether, 450,000 South Africans have benefited from microloans since Shared Interest began lending more than 10 years ago, and 65,000 units of low-cost housing have been built, according to Katzin.
Still, Shared Interest isn’t highly rated by Charity Navigator, a nonprofit organization that rates more than 5,000 charities based on Internal Revenue Service data. The group gives Shared Interest two out of four stars overall and one star for efficiency.
Sandra Minuitti, Charity Navigator’s spokeswoman, said the lower-than-average rating was given because Shared Interest “is spending a lot of its resources on fund-raising rather than investing in programming and services.” Charities spend an average of 10 percent of their budgets on fund-raising, Minuitti said, but Shared Interest is spending 20 percent.
Katzin said Charity Navigator’s rating isn’t accurate because it compares Shared Interest with organizations that don’t raise investment money. “They only track donations, not investment,” said Katzin. “We feel that our efficiency should reflect our efficiency to raise both donations and investment.”
Sharma Manohar, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington think tank, called the 20 percent fund-raising figure “very high.” But he said Shared Interest’s work is important because “they are probably one of the few ones doing this kind of work.” Access to microcredit is extremely important in South Africa, he said, because many poor people either have no access to credit or are charged interest of 30 percent or more.
Carlisle resident Jill d’Arbeloff, 44, did not make a loan directly to Shared Interest but spent $6,000 on a trip sponsored by the group in order to see projects that were started with microloans.
One woman she remembers particularly well is Buyelwa Virginia Mangi, who is in her third year of raising ostrich chicks. D’Arbeloff still has a photograph of the woman she calls Virginia, wearing an earth-tone skirt and apron, flip-on shoes, and a white kerchief.
In the distance behind Virginia’s small cement block house and dusty plot are lush green hills that appear to be well irrigated. “I think she had electricity,” d’Arbeloff said, but “whether she had running water or a toilet in the house I don’t know. I suspect not.”
Nevertheless, Virginia is better off than she used to be. After her first year in the ostrich business, she made a profit and opened her first bank account, d’Arbeloff said. She is now regarded as a community leader.
Ostriches are raised for their skin, used for handbags and shoes, and for their meat. The business is particularly empowering to black people because it was controlled by whites during apartheid.
“We asked her if she names the ostriches,” d’Arbeloff said. “And she said, `Of course not – you don’t name an animal you are going to kill.”‘
Art Milliken, 77, the retired president of a construction company, also went on the trip and was similarly amazed by the contrast between wealth and poverty in South Africa. The Acton resident had lunch with a minister of finance and got a personal tour of the South African Supreme Court but soon afterward saw rows of the kind of shacks made of plywood and tin roofing in which millions of South Africans live.
He believes microloans can help more South Africans “move up the spectrum.”
Though their money can earn up to 3 percent, which is better than most savings accounts, the people who lend to Shared Interest don’t see it as a money-making venture.
“You could do good for yourself,” said Milliken, “and do good for the world at the same time.”