A church-backed microfinance institution has increased its field investments by one third, reaching out to poor people often excluded by the commercial banking sector. This comes at a time when financial markets have been battered by the global economic downturn.
Oikocredit was set up as the Ecumenical Development Cooperative Society in 1975 by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches to offer a socially-just means of investment. It is now described as one of the world's largest private financiers of the microfinance sector.
"In microfinance alone we invested 287 million euros (US$372 million) in small, medium and large microfinance institutions," Oikocredit noted, reporting on its 2008 performance. It said its total field investments had attained 365 million euros (US$473 million), an increase of 32 percent.
"Our partners continue to support entrepreneurs, enabling them to build a better life for themselves, their families and community. The social performance of our project partners is key to this success," Oikocredit noted.
The microfinance institution received a boost in February when the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country's biggest Protestant grouping, announced plans to increase cooperation, including an agreement to provide Oikocredit with a credit line of up to 5 million euros (US$6.4 million).
EKD finance officer Thomas Begrich described Oikocredit as a partner, "that provides grassroots and sustainable support for the economies of developing countries".
Oikocredit says Africa has a special place in its long-term development strategy. In 2008, the institution increased investments in Africa to 52 million euros (US$67 million), an increase of 5 million euros compared to 2007. It is exploring opportunities to expand financing activities in Africa, with a possible focus on Mozambique and Nigeria.
The agency says its capital comes from about 500 churches and church-related organisations, and about 30 000 individuals grouped in support associations. Investors receive an annual dividend of about 2 percent.
For information about how to invest now in Oikocredit in the UK, please contact Patrick Hynes at Oikocredit, PO Box 809 Garstang, Preston, PR3 1TU. Tel: 01995 602806 Email: phynesAToikocreditDOTorg Web: www.oikocredit.org.uk 
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]