African Development Center in Willmar, Minn., working on business, housing issues

WILLMAR -- In its first two months, the African Development Center office in Willmar has focused on housing issues as much as it has on business development.

Mahboub of the African Development Center
Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub works in his office at the African Development Center in downtown Willmar. The Minneapolis-based center opened a Willmar office in September. (Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf)

WILLMAR -- In its first two months, the African Development Center office in Willmar has focused on housing issues as much as it has on business development.

That wasn't necessarily his initial plan, said Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub, who directs the Willmar office. He is the African Development Center's emerging markets manager for Greater Minnesota. The Willmar office also works with African communities in Marshall and St. Cloud.

The African Development Center is based in Minneapolis and is a large small-business lender in the Twin Cities area. It offers culturally appropriate services for African immigrants, but its financial services are open to anyone who meets its application criteria.

According to a fact sheet, the organization has a current portfolio of 139 clients and $4.4 million in loans. In the past five years, it has served more than 3,000 people, made 292 loans and funded 168 projects.

The African Development Center is mainly a business development organization and does not normally focus on social services, said Mahboub.


However, the magnitude of the housing needs in Willmar surprised him, he said, and it had to be addressed.

The African Development Center has been working with Habitat for Humanity to develop housing for large families, and he has talked with other local agencies about collaborating to work on the problem.

At the same time, he has been working with East African businesses and with the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce to foster communication.

Recently, a family of nine was evicted from their three-bedroom apartment, he said. The landlord said the family could not have seven children and two adults living there.

It's not necessarily a code violation to have that many people, he said, but it is undesirable for landlords. The number of people increases utility usage, and "things break down quicker."

A traditional family can be quite large, and "the apartments here are not built for big families," he said.

The area has houses for sale but many of the East Africans here are newcomers and don't have a credit history.

Mahboub said the African Development Center's membership in the chamber has opened many doors for him in the community.


He praised chamber president Ken Warner for his interest in working with the center and others to promote downtown Willmar. They have also discussed networking and mentoring opportunities for small businesses.

They have talked about developing educational opportunities so that East Africans can move into more professional and skilled labor jobs in the area. That could make the population more stable and increase diversity in the community, he said.

Mahboub has surveyed East African businesses in the area to get a sense of the types of training or assistance they might find useful. The results will guide his plans for training classes this winter.

The center offers training in financial literacy and home ownership. It provides advice and training for people who want to open their own businesses.

In addition to the survey, he has met with African elders and with young people to get to know the East African community and its needs.

Many needs in the Willmar African community have not been addressed, Mahboub said. Other organizations have tried, but they have lacked resources and have been stalled by language and cultural differences, too.

Mahboub, a Somali who has been in the United States for 30 years, said he thinks he can help bridge some of those differences. Other partners in his efforts are the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Bremer Bank and the West Central Integration Collaborative.

The goal is to build skilled leadership locally to operate an effective community-based organization.


"Myself, I can't do it, not just me," he said. "My plate is full."

Mahboub, 51, recently moved to Willmar with his wife and three children.

"This is a really great city," he said, pointing to his warm welcome and "nice neighbors."

The family is becoming acquainted with their new community. Mahboub and his wife enjoy going out for breakfast at Freda's Cafรฉ downtown. He's learning to say, "You betcha," and is looking forward to winter.

This year, he earned his master's degree in public affairs from the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. His bachelor's degree is in mechanical engineering. He has worked in the past as a software developer and in grant writing in the nonprofit sector. He is currently a Bush Leadership Fellow.

Mahmoud says he sometimes thinks about working again in the public sector. "But I see the community need; I have a passion to work for them."

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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