I won’t give in: How savings cooperatives help

I won’t give in: How savings cooperatives help

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in ’til I reach the end and then I’ll start again. No I won’t leave, I want to try everything, I want to try even though I could fail.” “Try Everything” by Shakira

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in,” proclaims Shakira in my current favorite you-can-do-it song, “Try Everything.” When we fall down, it usually helps when someone is there to pull us up again. In Malawi, COMSIP cooperatives are strong community organizations whose members pull each other up to the next level and to a better, more stable future.

COMSIP stands for Community Savings and Investment Promotion. It is a national project in Malawi that is more than a bank. From what I witnessed at a gathering of the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative, they were like a support group as well as a catalyst for economic growth – giving each other advice and encouragement in their endeavors.

“Our members of the Cooperative are entrepreneurs,” said Canaan Gondwe, leader of the Manyamula COMSIP, and a member of the national COMSIP Union Board. “The mobilized Savings form the capital base from which members borrow and engage in various forms of businesses, such as poultry, retail shops, irrigation farming, baking, pre-school and carpentry among others.”

After 3-4 months of saving money from her business, Beauty was able to use the savings as collateral for a larger, low-interest loan from the cooperative. Cooperative members can apply for loans in proportion to their savings shares. Beauty used the loan to buy high-quality feed and medication for her chickens. She knows that the medications are crucial for protecting her investment in the chickens. 

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Beauty with her daughter.

For Grace Banda, a widow, the COMSIP cooperative was just the kind of encouragement she needed to try again. Before joining COMSIP she had taken a loan from one of the traditional micro-finance lenders in Mzimba, the nearest city and 44km away. When an unexpected event caused her to business to flounder, she was unable to pay back the high-interest debt and had to forfeit her collateral.

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Grace in her shop in the Manyamula market.

COMSIP loans are not only low-interest, they also have repayment schedules that are adaptable to the business cycle – with longer terms for farming and cattle rearing. The local COMSIP leaders can work with the members to give them the highest chance of success. Grace’s Kikumala Shop is still going strong, and is a good source of fresh produce in Manyamula.

These are profound ways that COMSIP helps people start again. And the result is that lives are changed. Ninety-five percent of the 150+ cooperative members have improved their housing since joining. Many more can pay medical bills when illnesses arise. Grace Banda can now pay for school for her three children. “Life is continuing to become simple,” she told me with joy and relief in her voice.

This sentiment is echoed in a wonderful article from the World Bank about the successes of COMSIP groups. Gilaselia Denesi, who became responsible for her four grandchildren when her daughter and son-in-law died, shares how joining a COMSIP cooperative in central Malawi has led to positive change in her life. ““Look at me now!” she says. “God be praised, today my grandchildren, are in school, they are not hungry and even I have some time to have tea in my home. Can you imagine that? I am wearing a new dress today and I have some time for tea!””

For more about COMSIP:

After Finly joined the COMSIP cooperative and began saving, he used a small loan to buy improved Red Creole onion seeds for his farm.

After Finly joined the COMSIP cooperative and began saving, he used a small loan to buy improved Red Creole onion seeds for his farm.

4 photos, 4 stories

4 photos, 4 stories

These are the faces of Spirit in Action. Each photo captures just one moment and represents a much larger story of struggle, success, and joy.

Passionate Volunteer. (Pictured above) Dennis Kiprop with his wife, Nancy, and their son, Timo. Dennis volunteers with SIA as a Small Business Fund Coordinators in Eldoret, Kenya. He has a degree in business administration and is passionate about helping people prepare their business plans and start a successful small business. He assisted me in developing a opportunity and risk assessment for new business groups to use in their planning.

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Bridging Spiritual and Economic Barriers. Madina sells shoes with her sister and mother along the roadside in Nairobi, Kenya. With the profit, her sister was able to go see the eye doctor. They are one of several Muslim families in the Small Business Fund program in Nairobi. Christian and Muslim Small Business Fund groups have formed a savings cooperative together and they meet weekly to contribute savings and give small loans to members. (Read more about the SBF groups in Nairobi.)

DSC04515_1024Building a Dream. Before connecting with SIA, Paul, a shoemaker in rural Malawi, took a loan from micro-lending institutions in Mzuzu, about 15 miles away. With the high interest rate and short loan period, he was unable to repay the loan and he lost his collateral to the lender. Since receiving a Small Business Fund $150 grant in 2006, I have witnessed Paul go from one success to another. When I visited in 2011, Paul showed me his shoe repair stall in the local market. He told me of his dream to build a house and showed me the few iron sheets he had already purchased. In 2014, I visited him at his house! It was complete with cement floors, a tin roof, and sturdy brick walls. In his smile, I see the joy and pride of a dream fulfilled. (Read more about Paul’s journey here.)

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Long-lasting Impact. Steria Lungu, a widow in Manyamula Village, Malawi, used her $150 Small Business Fund grant to start a donut shop. She started her business in 2010 and it is still thriving! In 2011, Steria began saving her profits to buy iron roofing sheets to replace her leaky thatch. Today she has a new roof and when I visited, she was so proud to show me her family’s store of maize, “We now have no problem with food.”

Time for some trivia!

Time for some trivia!

Did you know that yesterday was National Trivia Day?? 

*Nigeria’s massive traffic jams are apparently called “go-slows.” (source)

*Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with 313 people per square mile in 2011. I was surprised to read this because most people live in rural areas and the capital city is moderately sized. The whole country is dotted with houses and villages! For comparison, there are about 239 people per sq mile in California. (source)

A family compound in rural Malawi.

A family compound in rural Malawi.

*July is the coldest month in Nairobi, Kenya, with averages highs of 72F and lows of 52F. The equator passes through Kenya and so there are about 12 hours of daylight all year round. (That sounds so nice right now, when we’re averaging only 9 hours in Toronto!) (source)

It was cold in Nairobi when we visited in July, 2014. I am wearing a light down jacket and Wambui (Small Business Fund Coordinator) is bundled up!

It was cold in Nairobi when we visited in July, 2014. I am wearing a down jacket and Wambui (Small Business Fund Coordinator) is bundled up!

*English is one the official languages in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Nigeria. It is the language of instruction for all grades in Uganda and Nigeria and for Grades 4+ in Malawi and Kenya. With so many languages and ethnic groups in each of these countries, English is often the unifying language.

Children at Nellie’s school recite colors and ABC drills for us. The school started in January with just 7 children and it has already grown to over 50 students!

Children at Nellie’s pre-school in Malawi recite colors and ABC drills for us in English.

*Africa contains 54 sovereign states. The smallest (by area) is the Republic of Seychelles at just 176 square miles. The largest is Algeria at  919,595 square miles. (source)

*Rice is becoming a more popular crop in Uganda. (I only include this trivia tidbit because I wasn’t expecting Uganda to be as tropical and warm as it was. As we drove to the Small Business Fund Coordinator’s Conference, we passed miles and miles of rice fields.) (source)

Rice drying in the Kasozi village meeting area in Uganda. In the background, pots are being fired.

Rice drying in the Kasozi village meeting area in Uganda. In the background, pots are being fired.

And finally…

*Spirit in Action was founded 20 years ago, in 1996! Del Anderson was 90 years old (born 1906).

Food photos: ABCs of Ugandan cuisine

Food photos: ABCs of Ugandan cuisine

The internet is filled with photos of people’s meals. To contribute to the global table I’m adding 5 (technically 6, if you include the top photo of bananas) photos of things I ate in Uganda while visiting the Small Business Fund groups there last summer!

Amaranth – Amaranth is a grain that is fighting malnutrition in Uganda. It is high in protein and also has essential fatty acids and micronutrients. We had it ground together with peanuts to make a tasty peanut sauce. Peanuts are called “groundnuts” in Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi. These amaranth seeds were growing in one of the kitchen gardens we visited.

amaranth seeds in Uganda

 

Bread & Chickens – The Yuba family shows us that they have enough food – good bread and chicken – from their pottery and kiosk business successes. We ate the chicken for dinner and had the bread with jam and butter in the mornings and with tea in the evenings. I grew up with chickens in the backyard and so luckily I knew how to hold a chicken when it was given to me!

The Yuba family shows us that they have enough food - good bread and chicken - from their pottery and kiosk business successes. (Kasozi, Uganda)

 

Corn & Groundnuts – The local savings and loans group in Kasozi generously gave us bags of red beans and corn (maize). The corn was ground and cooked into ugali, which is one of the staple foods and is like a denser polenta. The other Small Business Fund (SBF) Coordinators took the groundnuts (peanuts) home to share with their families or SBF groups in their communities. In the photo below, SBF Coordinator from Kasozi, Godfrey Matovu, receives the gift.

gift of beans and corn in Uganda

 

Coffee – Did you know that coffee grows on trees? One of the Small Business Fund families we visited in Kasozi, Uganda also grew coffee trees. Boyd – the coffee lover in our family – was excited to see them growing. However, we only had black tea and instant coffee for our tea times; the coffee all gets shipped elsewhere.

coffee in uganda

 

Samosas – also called Sambusas don’t fit in the theme of food starting with the letters A, B, or C; it was something we ate though! The bean-filled samosas were prepared by a mother and son. He rolled out the dough nice and thin and then she filled them and fried them in a pan of hot oil. Tasty!

boy makes samosas in uganda

A time to renew our shared vision

A time to renew our shared vision

“A time to renew our shared vision of working in the community so as to achieve a greater impact in alleviating poverty, and also share success stories!”

Wambui Nguyo, Small Business Fund Coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya, offered the above tagline summary of our Small Business Fund Coordinator Conference in Kasozi Village last July. We traveled from five different countries (United States, Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, and our two hosts in Uganda), arriving at the end of a small dusty, dirt road to met for three days to discuss all things Small Business Fund.

Uganda is quite a bit more tropical compared with Kenya and Malawi, so we shed our warm sweaters (which we necessary in the cold Nairobi rain) and brought out the sun hats and gathered under a pop-up awning for our morning meetings and evening check-ins.

Our conference meeting room in tropical Uganda!

Our conference meeting room in tropical Uganda!

Our Coordinators range from 12 years to less than 1 year experience with our program and so that sharing between coordinators was rich and welcome. I also had chances to share my thoughts and experiences from the office side of things.

“I met with veteran coordinators of SBF who had a lot of successful stories,” Wambui wrote after the conference. “Just listening to them on how they try to conduct their training is something that I will take back with me. There is need to mentor the groups more before giving the initial $100.”

A Focus on Sustainability

One of our most vibrant discussions was about how to coach groups about conducting their new business with an eye toward sustainability; focusing on the long-term, rather than short-term activities that will leave the family in the same state of poverty. Ofonime Nkoko, SIA SBF Coordinator in Abak, Nigeria also highlighted how he will focus more on mentoring, “This training is very helpful to me. The areas to be noted most are: the mindset preparation; the need and the right time to give out the money; the demand, investment, reinvestment, sustainably, and Share the Gift theory.

Sharing the Gift

Seeing how the SBF program is implemented in each unique community situation (rural or city, in different countries) was part of the fullness of the conversation. “It was helpful to know there are several ways of Sharing the Gift e.g. mentoring, training others on certain skills, etc.” wrote Wambui, the newest coordinator in attendance.

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Wambui and Canaan during a tea break between conference sessions.

Canaan, whose community in Malawi has a thriving culture of Sharing the Gift for SIA participants reflected, “I learned how Sharing the Gift implementation can spur more community empowerment and development.”

Dennis Kiprop, SBF Coordinator in Eldoret, Kenya captured the enthusiasm of the group and our willingness to learn from each other in his evaluation, “The time at the conference was good. The discussions in the mornings as a team were especially helpful and encouraging. I learned from the other coordinators and from Tanya and Boyd to be effective coordinator in creating sustainable business groups to the point of Sharing the Gift. We can do it better in the future as coordinators!

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