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.

Grant Update: Community Building in Malawi

Grant Update: Community Building in Malawi

The Manyamula COMSIP cooperative – a truly locally-led savings and loans organization – has long been a fixture in this rural village in Malawi.The low-interest loans and safe savings have allowed its 180 members to invest in their future and prosper. Now they are building a meeting room (they will not have to pay rent anymore!) and an attached training center to teach people to run similar cooperatives in other villages.

“Apart from the social and economic impacts, the infrastructural image of buildings being erected at the Cooperative premises is the talk of the community,” reports Canaan Gondwe, long-time SIA partner and Manyamula COMSIP Coordinator. “This construction of the Training centre has completely changed the appearance and growth of Manyamula community.”

Electrician installing power to the office block. Wired electricity is new in Manyamula Village.

Electrician installing power to the office block. Wired electricity is new in Manyamula Village.

And it’s not just the talk of the village! Word is spreading: “The District Assembly of Mzimba which comprises of Government departmental leaders, Members of Parliament and Councilors paid a visit to the cooperative in their routine inspection of development projects. They were greatly amazed at the project in progress. We highlighted of our contributions and also of SIA as our partners.”

COMSIP Cooperative members have contributed all the bricks, lime and sand for the construction, in addition to two grants from the SIA Community Grants Fund.

One of their biggest challenges is that the Malawian currency keeps being devalued, increasing the prices of imported items like cement. The cooperative is planning to set aside savings each quarter to pay for future repairs, “to sustain our beautiful buildings.”

One of the shops in Mzimba - the larger town nearby - where they bought cement for the flooring.

One of the shops in Mzimba – the larger town nearby – where they bought cement for the flooring.

Canaan concludes: “The Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, in true partnership with Spirit in Action, is in the business of changing lives and communities. Manyamula community is indeed grateful to God for this abundant Grace.” We are honored to be in partnership with such a dynamic and impactful community organization!

See past construction updates here and read more about construction and electrification here.

A candid moment before the "snap" (picture) during our visit to the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative in July 2014.

A candid moment before the “snap” (picture) during our visit to the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative in July 2014.

Construction on the meeting hall walls.

Construction on the meeting hall walls.

 

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Grant Update: Brick by brick, building a foundation

Grant Update: Brick by brick, building a foundation

The 90,000 bricks have been made, fired, and transported to the building site, and the foundations are set! The Manyamula Community Savings and Investment Promotion Cooperative (MCC) office and training center is under construction!

MCC members with the bricks they moulded for the construction. The bricks were fired to make them sturdier.

MCC members with the bricks they moulded for the construction. The bricks were fired to make them sturdier.

These guest rooms will be the first accommodations for hire in the village. Now, guests have to travel 22km to get to the nearest hotel.

These guest rooms will be the first accommodations for hire in the village. Now, guests have to travel 22km to get to the nearest hotel.

The MCC now has 180 members (60% women) and they will be celebrating their 5th anniversary next month! The cooperative, which provides low interest loans, a safe place to save locally, and business advice has had a great impact on the members and the community at large. “We are pleased to inform SIA that the Malawian government has brought countless visitors to appreciate the home grown models and systems of the cooperative,” reports Canaan. People outside the community are excited about what they see developing in Manyamula, and they want to learn from Canaan and the skilled MCC leaders.

Plans for the building complex.

Plans for the building complex.

The cooperative mobilized their own resources and time to get the rocks and sand and to make the 90,000 bricks. A SIA Community Grant will help buy the roofing, windows, doors, and pay some of the contractors. It’s so exciting to see the project on its way! I’ll keep you updated as I get more reports from Canaan.

One of the workers building up the office wall.

One of the workers building up the office wall.

More about MCC:

A note on my desk to remember to pray for the building process!

Note on my desk to remember to pray for the building process!

Mbwenu, Innovator

Tanya with Mbwenu, Wangwa, and one their sons. Mbwenu heard about the cooperative after moving home and immediately became an active member, including volunteering to be the group’s bookkeeper. The Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative was initially started with a Spirit in Action grant in 2009 and now has over 150 members who can save and borrow within the locally-run cooperative structure.

Tanya with Mbwenu, Wangwa, and one their sons. Mbwenu heard about the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative after moving home and immediately became an active member, including volunteering to be the group’s bookkeeper. The cooperative was initially started with a Spirit in Action grant in 2009 and now has over 150 members who can save and borrow within the locally-run cooperative structure.

Sometimes it’s not easy moving home. Once you’ve been out to see the world you look at home through a different lens. “We had a shock,” was the way that Mbwenu and Wangwa described it to me when I visited their home in rural Manyamula in northern Malawi. The couple had gone away to Swaziland to study at a bible college and when they decided to move back to their home village many things were not as they had been in Swaziland. Their four sons now had to learn to live without electricity, and Mbwenu lamented how “it was hard for the boys to get used to the dark.”

Hearing this history it is not surprising that when Mbwenu and Wangwa sought their first low-interest loan from the local Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative (formerly called MAVISALO), they bought a solar-charged light battery and a full solar panel that they put on the roof.

Mbwenu stands proudly next to his solar panel charging station. This battery is charged with the solar energy and can power the lights and appliances in the evening.

Mbwenu stands proudly next to his solar panel charging station. This battery is charged with the solar energy and can power the lights and appliances in the evening.

At this moment in his testimony, Mbwenu snapped on the small battery light for effect, “ahhhh” we all marveled! He became animated as he took us around the room showing the small TV and lights they could have now with the solar panel. There was also a cell phone charging station next to the solar panel battery. I could tell he was the kind of person who liked to figure out these technologies and show off his successful installations.

I was so inspired by my visit with Mbwenu and Wangwa, and it gave me three insights about what makes SIA so great:

1. SIA’s programs are diversified

Mbwenu and Wangwa’s house was nice. It had a cement floor, stable brick walls, and tin panels on the roof. They were clearly not the poorest family in the neighborhood. And because of that they had not received a SIA Small Business Fund grant, which are reserved for the poorest. Instead, they had joined the SIA-supported Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, which gives very low-interest loans and is open to ALL community members, regardless of wealth. There are different SIA tools for each family to benefit.

2. SIA empowers rural communities to thrive

The family is developing their farm and investing in cattle and goats. “The COMSIP Cooperative is a big help,” Mbwenu explained, “we couldn’t buy the solar changing system all at once on our own.” Yet, their small farming enterprises are steady enough to be able to pay back the loan in a timely manner. A solar panel TV and light might be seen as “luxuries” in areas where there is no running water. Yet, these things made it agreeable for the family to move back to their village. And this means that the whole rural community benefits.

Mbwenu holds his son as he explains to the group how his bio-gas tank will work. Cows in the background will supply the manure.

Mbwenu holds his son as he explains to the group how his bio-gas tank will work. Cows in the background will supply the manure. Canaan (left in purple), the SIA contact for the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, was so excited by Mbwenu’s enthusiasm for rural solutions.

3. SIA partners are innovative

The solar panel was just the tip of the innovative iceberg in Mbwenu and Wangwa’s household. He also showed us a bio-gas contraption that uses cow manure to make a cooking gas, and also creates a liquid compost by-product for the farm. At the end of the visit, surrounded by 10 COMSIP Cooperative on-lookers, a little boy, a rooster, and a brood of chicks Mbwenu demonstrated his prototype drip-irrigation garden. He’d seen the technique in Swaziland and was combining new technology with local supplies to create a system that allowed you to “attend a meeting while irrigating the crops.” At the thought of such multi-tasking ability, the group laughed and then began asking questions as they inspected the tubing and bucket.

It was exciting to witness these exciting developments from Mbwenu and Wangwa and see the many ways that SIA is serving and benefiting the people of Manyamula Village.

A crowd of interested cooperative members look on in admiration at Mbwenu's irrigation system. You add water to the buckets at the top of the beds and it slowly releases (through gravity) to water the garden beds.

A crowd of interested cooperative members look on in admiration at Mbwenu’s irrigation system. You add water to the buckets at the top of the beds and it slowly releases (through gravity) to water the garden beds.

Catch a glimpse: See their TV and laugh about watching the world cup in rural Malawi:

A reminder of goodness in the world

A reminder of goodness in the world
The MAVISALO Maize Mill cooperative helps bring food security and prosperity to rural Malawi.

The MAVISALO Maize Mill cooperative helps bring food security and prosperity to rural Malawi.

Have you heard those stories about people pulling up to the coffee drive-through window, ready to order, only to find out that the person in front of them has already paid for their drink?

What a gift! And often, that person turns around and pays for the person behind them – passing along the gift to another fellow café-goer.

My friend was part of just such a chain of giving in Minnesota. The chain was 19 links long when she got to it, each person wishing the stranger behind them, “an awesome day.” It was something that was fun; that brightened her day. For those who heard the story, it was a reminder that goodness exists in the world.

An Example from Malawi

MAVISALO members working the maize mill. Maize is the staple crop, and milling it into a coarse meal significantly increases the market value.

MAVISALO members working the maize mill. Maize is the staple crop, and milling it into a coarse meal significantly increases the market value.

This sharing of the gift – passing along the joy – is built into the very fiber of Spirit in Action grants. Sharing the Gift can take many forms, though I haven’t yet heard of a Kenyan coffee giving chain yet. Until then, here’s an example from Malawi:

Manyamula Village Savings and Loans Cooperative (MAVISALO) members have benefited greatly from the 2013 SIA grant to collectively purchase a maize mill. (Read more about the maize mill here.)

The co-op rents out the use of the mill, providing a good source of income to the group. Funds from the project – the total profit from 2013 was an impressive $600 – have added to the capital base of the loan fund in order to meet the high demand for low-interest loans among MAVISALO’s members.

What about Sharing the Gift?

The next generation of piglets will be passed on to vulnerable families in the community.

The next generation of piglets will be passed on to vulnerable families in the community.

Social assistance is part of the mandate of the MAVISALO and so some of the income also helps to pay secondary school fees for orphans and vulnerable students from the community. That is part of Sharing the Gift and paying-it-forward to benefit the community in the long run by education its youth.

“The other most important activity done with this fund,” reports MAVISALO leader Canaan Gondwe, “is the implementation of the Pig Pass On Project in the eight zones of the cooperative.” At the end of the year the cooperative had enough in the social fund to purchase twelve pigs!

The piglets are now in the care of the zone leaders, who are charged with watching and breeding them. Canaan Gondwe, who is experienced in pig rearing, is also helping to insure that the pigs are healthy and growing. Once the pigs have their first offspring, piglets will be given out to the most vulnerable households in each zone.

Pigs represent a big investment in Malawi, much more than a cup of coffee. This Pig Pass On Project, then, is a huge gift given to those in the community who need it most. The MAVISALO members realize they have received a great gift through SIA and they in turn are helping families with HIV/AIDS, widows, and orphan-led families to give them a chance to thrive.

How’s that for a story to remind us of goodness and generosity in the world?

More about MAVISALO:

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