NORTH EAST TIMES IMPACT AWARDS
Global Impact Award
Winner – Patricia Alexander, managing director of Shared Interest Society
Patricia Alexander leads an ethical investment organisation that lends capital to businesses and cooperatives, which adhere to the principals of fair trade. In 2019, the society made £69 million payments to 400,000 farmers and artisans – 70 per cent of which have no other access to finance.
The society’s investments span 63 countries across South America, Africa and Asia and reach people living in some of the world’s most remote and deprived areas.
“We’re very much about trade, not aid,” explains Patricia, who joined Shared Interest Society in 2006. “We’re helping people run their own businesses, which is what they want to do. They want the respect and the pride that comes with being able to provide for their families and their communities.”
Not only do the loans help enterprises provide year-round employment but they also promote wide-ranging societal benefits to local communities, such as improved health and wellbeing, education and working conditions.
Patricia highlights a loan to a Kenyan handicraft cooperative that paid for electricity to a Maasai village. It allowed the village to establish a health clinic – the only one in the community. Meanwhile, ATN, a mango and cashew producer in Burkina Faso, enrolled 45 vulnerable children into school, paid for their tuition, and provided them with the necessary learning materials, including books.
Despite increasing their financial support to some of the world’s poorest people by ten per cent in 2019, ongoing economic uncertainty created by Brexit has caused challenging times for Patricia and her team – 25 of whom are based at the society’s Newcastle headquarters, with 12 based overseas.
It has led Patricia to make some crucial changes in the society’s Strategic Plan in 2019. For the first time in 20 years, at the AGM in March, Shared Interest asked its members to vote on a series of financial and strategic changes that would help futureproof the society.
These included extending membership outside the UK (to the Republic of Ireland), allowing people under the age of 16 to invest, and enabling the society to accept investment in Euros and US dollars.
“Around 75 per cent of our lending is in US dollars and 15 per cent is in Euros – so we’re very prone to exchange rate fluctuations,” Patricia explains. “By allowing UK-based investors the opportunity to convert their investments into US dollars and Euros, it takes the conversion risk away from us.”
Meanwhile, the society decided to relax its strict rules that all benefiting co-operatives and businesses must be officially fair trade accredited – something that can prove too expensive for some farmers and artisans. Instead, each recipient must prove to the society directly that it adheres to the nine principals of fair trade.
“Our lending team spend time with the farmers and the artisans and make that assessment,” Patricia reveals. “They’re very experienced and can see how transparent the businesses are and how they’re treating people in the organisation.”
With these changes, it is hoped the society can grow and meet the current pipeline of finance applications – totalling more than £10 million – while continuing to help their existing businesses and cooperatives provide
a better future for them, their families and their communities.