First published in “La Croix International” on March 8, 2021.
Pope Francis has offered us clear guidance on the choices facing us all during these unprecedented times.
We can emerge from the present crisis of this pandemic better or worse than we were before. We can choose to preserve the status quo, to build walls, to further entrench ourselves in our habits of greed and selfishness.
But, as Pope Benedict XVI taught us in Caritas in veritate, a crisis “obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones.”
In this way, it becomes “an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future.”
By God’s grace, we can discern and choose to assist in the creation of a better world, one that is invigorated by faith and renewed in our collective commitments to one another.
As we look toward life after the pandemic, we must consider how all the sicknesses that plague us — social, spiritual, physical — can only be healed by the love of Christ through faith.
The Scriptures show the burning desire of Jesus to bind up the wounded, and to heal the broken and sick.
Healing is in service of something even greater than physical or mental health. Often it points to a total renewal of the person and the community.
In doing so Jesus teaches us two things; first, that in a fundamental way we are all in need of healing. And second, in acknowledging our “lostness” and need for God, grace can restore each one of us to our proper place of dignity.
Jesus not only heals physical ailments. He heals, yes, but he also creates renewed communities, where no one is excluded. He seeks out the poor and the suffering, those left behind by society, and makes possible new ways of living.
The example of the disciples in the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates just how transformativeGod’s grace can be when we follow him to the peripheries, where everything is shared, and noone suffers alone.
Following his example, we too must go out and bring healing to the world; not only from thepandemic that affects us physically, but also from the grave injustices that have oftenworsened and deepened during the pandemic, even despite our efforts.
Faith gives us the awareness of our connection with one another, particularly the poor and the marginalized. Faith stirs us to overcome all that diminishes in any way the dignity endowed in all God’s creation.
It is not enough to be for the poor in theory. No, this does not respect the dignity of the other!
Today, there exist many social structures that perpetuate injustice in our communities.Empowered by the limitless mercy of God, we must actively work to overcome these and the habits of personal and structural indifference that continue to exclude so many.
Evangelizing all sectors
We must be converted from our individualism, letting the poor evangelize us. Their experience of suffering shows us the way to the wounds of Jesus and the depths of his love.
One of the many painful lessons of this pandemic is how clearly we can see the tragic limits of our current broken economy, and a form of global capitalism in urgent need of healing. We must not tolerate an economic model that allows this.
Further, economic and technological inequality has created a rift in society and denied our world the harmony that is necessary for peace in our communities. To work for peace is to work toward a more inclusive capitalism, one which is ordered to integral human development and in which economic growth prioritizes those most in need.
The faithful should not only teach this message of a more fully evangelized global economy, inspired by the principles of love and mercy which are illustrated in the Church’s Social Teaching.
Rather, all Church entities, parishes, dioceses, seminaries, universities, schools, social serviceinstitutions of the faithful should find ways to practice financial stewardship in a way thatliberates and not enslaves.
For it is important that our stewardship of created goods, including all forms of financial activity, especially asset management, are directed to reflect God’s own gift to the human family, by serving the common good, respecting fairness and ethical standards.
When this happens, when people’s stewardship of created goods is aligned with God’s purposes for God’s creation, the outcome is real good, real gain and real impact.
One new model: Missio Invest
Missio Invest is an example of this stewardship of created goods, which promotes new forms of economic cooperation by reminding us that the economy should serve all of creation, and not just in the long-term, but here and now.
An impact investment fund launched by the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, Missio Invest reorients the existing tools of investment and global finance in a way that prioritizes sustainability, employment and care for our common home.
In the context of an economic paradigm which continues to deny others their dignity, Missio Invest has shown the way toward an inclusive capitalism, one that restores those on the margins, and heals the wounds of exclusion and injustice that impact us all. It offers a corrective to the exaggerated belief in financial markets on the sacredness of financial return on investments.
Without measuring investment performance against the horizon of total social impact, we risk falling short of the total returns available to investors, and the people and places over which they have influence.
As Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato si’, it would be a mistake to act as if “helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs”.
Life that is pushed to the margins will always be a pressing need!
Aid to the needy remains a prerequisite of faithful discipleship. But so often even aid itself is used as a means to deny others their agency, to dominate and possess the poor which only further poisons our society.
Lest the cycle of economic injustice and aid are repeated, reform of the global financial system is a pressing need during this time of pandemic. And the Church’s institutional structure must not consider itself immune from the sickness of economic injustice nor exempt from the work of financial reform.
Missio Invest makes an important contribution to this reform by practicing a form of capitalism that is founded on the dignity of the human person-in-creation, where solidarity is the guiding principle, and the benefits are returned to the many and not just the few.
Let us be competitive for the higher gifts, as St. Paul inspires us.
The Holy See has sought to light the way, raising awareness around impact investing and gathering leaders in business and finance.
As Pope Francis said to one such group, we need to bring about a world where “profit and solidarity are united in the virtuous existing circle between profit and gift”.
Peter Turkson, 72, is a biblical scholar and prefect of the Dicastery for Integral HumanDevelopment. He earlier served from 1993-2009 as Archbishop of Cape Coast in his nativeGhana. He was created cardinal by John Paul II in 2003.
Development projects generally require the investor to map out the terms, based on experience and lessons draw from similar initiatives in the past. Experience and global best practices are necessary, of course, in determining the type of financing, the duration of your commitment, the risk management strategy, and the exit plan.
Inevitably, however, a challenge occurs that is very local in nature. When this happens the local project leaders are likely to be the most knowledgeable about what to do. This could be a challenge from weather disruption, local cultural influences — or, as happened most recently, a pandemic that, though global, has had unique repercussions in every corner of the world.
Missio Invest offered special grants to all of its investees to help in the COVID crisis, but investees decided on how to put the funds to use. The SCJ Farms committee discussed how they might mitigate the losses they faced from having to continue feeding their live chickens while losing income from the sales to schools. The plan they came up with was to use the funds to invest in more refrigerators which would allow them to get chickens to market at a slower pace. It turned out that they were able to sell the chickens at a better price than they had been getting when they sold them live.
This is an emergency plan that requires the kind of first-hand knowledge that only a local partner can provide. An investor who is seeking to provide transformative change — rather than just transactional capital — can’t expect to effect such changes from behind a desk in a faraway urban financial center. It’s the day-to-day decision making by those on the ground that ultimately determines the impact and the success of the project.
The Marist Brothers Farm (MBF) in Dedza, Malawi, faced another issue when the pandemic struck: they were about to bring in a harvest, but workers were not showing up due to fear of the virus. For some, there was a stigma attached to farm work, due to local rumors that cattle, pigs, poultry and other farm animals were carriers of the coronavirus. To bring in the workers they needed, the MBF needed to educate the community about how the disease is spread, increase wages as an incentive, and introduce dual shifts.
We recognize at Missio Invest that we can’t afford to write off our investments to local disruptions or a global health crisis. Nor does a strategy that works in one place necessarily work everywhere else. So we have to rely on our local partners to help determine how to solve problems head-on. At the same time, working with local partners this way is critical to maximizing the impact and bringing on transformative change. As we see it, when we combine our capital and technical training with the investees’ knowledge of what their communities most need, our investees gain the skills and resources they need to be resilient over the long term.
While the COVID crisis has affected all businesses, the high impact “nuntrepreneurs” in Missio Invest’s portfolio seem to have found a window of hope. The Missio Invest Social Impact Fund (MISIF) currently has 36 agribusinesses in the portfolio, 13 of which are owned by Sisters, and none of these small enterprises have considered shuttering operations. For many, in fact, business is booming. Half of all current borrowers have experienced minimal disruption and elected to maintain their original loan repayment schedules. Among the nuntrepreneurs, less than a third have taken Missio Invest’s offer for a COVID-19 payment moratorium, and a quarter have even made pre-payments on their loans.
Missio Invest has found that this long-term give-and-take with community stakeholders is essential to the resilience of Church-run businesses. Investees operate various social programs in their locality — healthcare, education, women’s counseling, and youth development, for example — and as such are an integral part of the communities they serve. Although each case is unique, five particular characteristics help insulate investees from unanticipated adverse events:
Across the globe, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on global supply chains, disrupted access to markets, and severely threatened–or shuttered–many small businesses. The effects have been particularly devastating in emerging markets, where government assistance is less readily available and nationwide lockdowns are more restrictive due fragile health systems. In May, in a survey of small and growing businesses in emerging markets, the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) found that 47% of businesses surveyed had already temporarily shut down operations and another 25% anticipated doing so. Women-owned businesses were among the hardest hit.
One such women-owned success story is the Sisters of Saint Louis Bautain Farm (SSLBF) in Ewulu, Delta State, Nigeria. Missio Invest issued the Sisters of St. Louis a $70,000 loan in December 2019 to fund expansion of their existing poultry, pork and cassava processing enterprises. In the ensuing months, the Sisters have proven their ability to weather a global crisis.
In late March 2020, the Nigerian government imposed COVID-19 lockdown measures restricting interstate movement of goods and limiting food importation. These regulations disrupted supply chains for foods such as fish, which could no longer be transported from seaports to inland states. To make the situation worse, Delta State was one of a number of state governments that imposed restrictions on local fishing activities and reduced hours for local markets. The result was a drop in supply so that fish, a staple food for many Nigerians, became prohibitively expensive for the large low-income population.
Sister Catherine Adelegan, director of Louis Bautain Farm, had an idea for a solution. Louis-Bautain Farm is a multi-enterprise agribusiness, operating a poultry unit with over 1,000 chickens, a five-acre cassava plantation and processing unit, and a piggery with over 500 pigs. Having sourced a sufficient supply of pig and chicken meal locally before the pandemic, Sister Catherine slaughtered and sold her pigs ahead of schedule, saving the most vulnerable members of her community from hunger. The result was a win-win-win: community members had access to affordable protein, Louis Bautain Farm had income to support the congregation’s five health facilities, and Sister Catherine had enough surplus income to pay interest on her Missio Invest loan ahead of schedule. Wisely anticipating the potential for future currency fluctuations, she even chose to pay more than the amount due, resulting in a pre-payment of principal.
The Sisters have developed close ties with the surrounding community. Recently, when they visited the local Obi (ruler) of Ewulu Land and his Council to tell them they had food staples to distribute to the neediest, the Obi expressed his gratitude for the Sisters’ long history of assisting his people and vowed that he would continue to support them and to ensure their safety.
- Integration with local communities, which serve as customer bases and sources of labor in any economic cycle.
- Presence of resilient markets for produce through the global network of Church-operated schools, health facilities, and other social institutions.
- Diversification across several revenue-generating enterprises, which creates a cushion in the event of market disruptions to any one sector.
- Hyper-local solutions, which ensure that Missio Invest’s borrowers are not dependent on export markets and supply chains.
- Experience in managing business operations with limited resources during times of crisis. Many congregations were formed in poverty-stricken rural areas with the explicit purpose of finding ways to provide healthcare and education services where none existed, and they have retained their expertise in operating through difficult circumstances.
These factors have enabled many of Missio Invest’s portfolio agribusinesses to weather the COVID-1 9 storm. Investees like Sister Catherine and her farm in Nigeria provide living proof that, even in times of crisis, it is possible to do a lot of good with very little.
Missio Invest currently has a loan portfolio including 28 Catholic Church owned and operated agriculture small and medium enterprises (SMEs) across 5 countries (Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia). As the COVID-19 outbreak incrementally spread through Africa in March 2020, it became clear that a proactive, and rapid, approach to reducing the impact of COVID-19 on essential business activities, and related social services (schools, health facilities, elderly care centers, etc.) of existing loan recipients was critical to support. We, therefore, conducted rapid assessments amongst loan recipients and Catholic Church counterparts in each country and quickly implemented the following actions with the intention of supplying a rapid lifeline to these local businesses.
1. Our immediate response
Moratorium on loan payments As of April 1st, each loan recipient has been given access to an option of a moratorium on all principal and interest payments through January 2021.
2. Quick injection of emergency COVID-19 grants to SMEs
Via its fund sponsor, Missio.org, and the broader Catholic community, Missio Invest raised a small COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. Each loan recipient has access to up to $15,000 for a business support and social services grant to help each SME maintain essential operations (job retention, harvesting, food storage upgrades, etc.) and also provide health and nutrition support in neighboring communities (protective gear, washing stations, food for at-risk groups, health clinic upgrades, etc.) as we weather this pandemic together.
3. Continuing to make investments
Instead of postponing our investment cycle to wait and see what will happen with COVID-19 in Africa, we feel these are precisely the moments in which we must continue to support local business activity and make investments for the long-term. Investment evaluation continues and we plan to make at least another 8-10 investments before the end of Q2 while adding investments in two new countries, Tanzania and Ghana, as well.
Leveraging the existing delivery system of the Catholic Church
What we have learned during the initial weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak is that a quick response is critical. This initial period when government lockdowns come into effect and market activity diminishes is when African SMEs have an intense resource gap and must make decisions on maintaining business activity that supports livelihoods and sustains local economic activity. This is where the Catholic Church network is strong and has provided an ideal delivery system given its unparalleled presence across its 550 Dioceses in Africa. Bank accounts are already accessible and lifeline support to essential businesses and their related social services can be executed within only a few business days in many cases.