Sowing seeds of prosperity

It’s an image that continues to haunt Andrew Carpenter.

Central Alberta businessman James Carpenter with one of Empowered Global’s microcredit clients in Bangladesh.

It’s an image that continues to haunt Andrew Carpenter.

The Penhold businessman was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when he came across a young boy sleeping on the curb of a busy street. He was relieved to see a policeman approaching — until the officer stepped past the youngster and continued on his way.

“My biggest regret is that I didn’t pick that boy up and take him with me,” said the father of five, who wonders what became of the child.

Carpenter is trying to make a difference now, by supporting Empowered Global Inc.

The Canadian organization helps provide seed capital to aspiring business people in Bangladesh.

Called microcredit, the loans are usually $75 to $100 and repayable within a year. For many, that’s all the help they need to set up a fruit and vegetable stand, obtain supplies to cook and sell food, get into commercial fishing or find a sewing machine with which to perform tailoring services.

“All we’re doing is providing small sums of capital to enable them to climb out of poverty,” said Kurt Frers, president of Empowered Global.

The former head of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Canadian mergers and acquisitions group described how he felt “a very strong urge to serve the poor” before taking early retirement in 2004. Then 59, he had worked in more than 50 countries and seen his share of poverty.

The concept of microcredit lending appealed to him, and he decided to partner with a Bangladesh-based organization that was already providing loans to aspiring business people. He helped improve its management and systems, and through Empowered Global provided it with more capital — about $1 million to date.

Frers said he has a core group of about 50 investors, approximately 70 per cent of whom are Albertans. He explained that he has strong personal connections in this province, despite living in Toronto, and has found that microcredit lending appeals to donors here.

“It’s self-sustaining over a long period of time,” he said. “That’s the beauty of this.”

Borrowers are required to save a percentage of their revenues and make weekly payments in person. They are also placed into small groups of loan recipients who cross-guarantee each other — helping ensure a repayment rate of more than 95 per cent.

The interest paid on microcredit loans mirrors the bank rate, so borrowers can “migrate” to more traditional financing as their businesses grow. Frers said they also receive three months of training as part of the process, which includes subjects like health care, family dynamics and social injustice.

Empowered Global’s goal is to improve lives in non-economic as well as economic ways, he explained, with loan success measured by such yardsticks as health, eduction and reduction of destructive cultural practices.

“It might be a social return, and not necessarily a financial return,” said Frers, adding that Empowered Global provides its investors with extensive reports on the social outcomes of its loans.

It also organizes regular trips to Bangladesh for prospective supporters. Carpenter was among a dozen Albertans, half of whom were from Central Alberta, who made such a trip in November.

The president of local land restoration company Reclaimit Ltd. said he was struck by the “overwhelming” need for help and the effectiveness of microcredit lending in addressing that need.

“Lives are being changed,” said Carpenter.

“I saw people who can’t afford education, receiving education; I saw people who can’t afford health care, receiving health care; I saw people who don’t have a place to live, getting a place to live.”

Michael Seewalt, who works as a general contractor in Red Deer, participated in the same trip. He agreed that microcredit lending is helping lift people out of poverty.

“There was hope in a land that shouldn’t have hope,” he said.

Carpenter and Seewalt were introduced to Empowered Global by Carpenter’s brother James — a partner in the Innisfail Boston Pizza who also operates the CIR Realty offices in Didsbury and Airdrie, and has his hand in a couple other businesses.

Not only is James Carpenter a booster of and investor in Empowered Global, he sits on its board. He said the positive impact that the organization is having now inspires him more than his own business successes.

“We look now at our business ventures as just tools to leverage us to be able to help more.”

Carpenter met Frers a year ago while working on another charitable cause in India. He travelled to Bangladesh to learn more about Empowered Global and immediately became a proponent of microcredit.

“I thought, ‘What an opportunity to leverage my giving.’”

He has returned to Bangladesh three times since, bringing prospective investors with him. Some become financial contributors to Empowered Global, others public advocates of its work.

“You don’t have to have money to become involved,” said Andrew Carpenter. “I talk to people about it; I’m raising funds for it; I’m giving presentations for it.”

Work is nearing completion on a six-storey building in Dhaka that will serve as Empowered Global’s microcredit headquarters there. In addition to consolidating operations, it will serve as a place to train microcredit officers, as well as health care workers, school teachers and others who can improve the quality of life in Bangladesh.

Frers said proceeds from Empowered Global’s microcredit lending will be used to promote health care, education and access to drinking water.

“There will be a lot of spin-offs beyond microcredit once we get that profitable,” he said. “That’s really the engine of growth.”

He added that the goal is to expand Empowered Global’s operations to other places, like India and Africa.

Additional information about Empowered Global can be found online at www.empowermcp.org.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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