“A partner who has walked with us side by side”

[Above: A video snippet of Canaan’s speech; with Winkly Mahowe interpreting into the local language.]

It was exactly a year ago that I was in Malawi and witnessing the amazing change happening in Manyamula Village. When I was there, Canaan Gondwe, who has been an honest and dedicated leader in his community, gave a wonderful welcome address to us and the gathered SIA friends. Imagine you are in a crowded, cinder block meeting room, the smell of dust outside, the music from the band and the clapping and singing are dying down. Over 100 of us settle ourselves in the plastic chairs and give our attention to Canaan:

Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members sing a song of welcome. (Malawi, 2014)

Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members sing a song of welcome to Tanya. (Malawi, 2014)

“On behalf of Traditional leaders, Area Development Committee, Government Staff present here, all Cooperative and Small Business Fund members and all people gathering in this room and on my own behalf, I feel greatly honored and excited to sincerely welcome Tanya Cothran (SIA Administrator) and Dr. Boyd Cothran (SIA Board Member) in Malawi and in particular here in Manyamula COMSIP (Community Savings and Investments Promotion) Cooperative, “where together we grow.” Feel free and feel at home in the warm heart of Africa (Malawi) to interact with each of us and hear remarkable stories of positive change in our lives.

The Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Society, formerly known as MAVISALO, and the Small Business Fund project, supported by Spirit in Action, have played a critical social and economic role in enabling members to escape poverty and marginalization. I am saddened to recall and report the situation of our members before these institutions were established in this area:

  • About 80% had never used a bank
  • About 90% had poor housing infrastructure (houses that are grass thatched, houses that leak during rainy season, houses built of mud and with poor ventilation
  • Members of the cooperative had to travel 44km each direction to access commercial lending institutions with high interest rates, high demand of unaffordable collaterals, coupled by short period of loan repayments
  • About 60% of our people were food insecure; members could not afford fertilizer

I am extremely excited and pleased as a leader of the Cooperative and the Small Business Fund (SBF) that these programs can and have begun to reverse the above mentioned trend. Both the cooperative and SBF project have continued to post continued economic growth on its members from year to year.

Our members of the Cooperative and SBF project are entrepreneurs. The mobilized savings (shares), which currently are 4.8 million Malawian Kwacha [about $10,000 USD], form the capital base from which members borrow and engage in various forms of business: such as poultry, retail shops, irrigation farming, livestock production, baking, bicycle repair, shoe repairing, carpentry, tomato sales, fish marketing, transport, music shows, restaurants, pre-school, barber shops, photography, and winery sales among others.

COMSIP and Small Business Fund members in their meeting hall.

COMSIP and Small Business Fund members in their meeting hall.

Impact

I am extremely excited to openly expound the positive change and better life that members of the project enjoy:

  • All 167 members (with 47% women) have embraced a culture of savings and investment.
  • Members of the cooperatives and SBF have created self-employment
  • There is increased income and general economic empowerment at household level because of improved skills and experience in entrepreneurship
  • Better housing for 95% of cooperative and SBF members (Houses with burnt bricks and iron sheets)
  • Increased asset acquisition by members (eg. Motorcycles, bicycles, band equipment)
  • Improved health at household level (good nutrition); our members afford to go to private clinics and pay medical bills.
  • Members of the cooperative support their school-going children well (uniforms, fees, transport)
  • Improved food security amongst members.
  • A total of 20 members have either done electrical wiring of their houses or are completely connected to the power grid.
  • Increased cooperation among members
  • Reduced marital violations (including income abuse)

Support from Spirit in Action

Through and over the years of our operation in the Cooperative and Small Business Fund, Spirit in Action has been a true and faithful partner; a partner who has walked with us side by side on our growing of the institution. SIA has assisted the Cooperative with grants that have moved the organization to acquire relevant assets and projects like the maize mills, motorcycle, poultry project, camera, and a laptop.

Through its Small Business Fund project from 2004 to date, SIA has supported 102 families with business training and skills with $150 paid in two installments. Over and above, all traditional leaders, SBF and Cooperative members are grateful to SIA for these landmark projects.

Conclusion

The Manyamula COMSIP cooperative, as a rural-based economic vehicle, embarked on the journey to economic empowerment of its members. With the assistance of Spirit in Action, our true and faithful partner, the cooperative and SBF project want to achieve positive change in our members. Finally, I am pleased to report that the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, in a recent supervision missions by government officials and COMSIP Cooperative Union national leaders, has been rated a national model and a success story amongst all rural economic cooperative in the country. I believe SIA is very proud to be associated with such remarks. We believe that this partnership will grow even to greater heights in the future.

COMSIP sharp! [Cutting through poverty!]

SIA sharp!”

The band (who had also received a low-interest loan from the cooperative) played before the presentations.

The band (who had also received a low-interest loan from the cooperative) played before the presentations.

Opening a Savings Account in Uganda

Opening a Savings Account in Uganda
Rehema us tells about how the savings group keeps their funds secure, and their records accurate.

Rehema us tells about how the savings group keeps their funds secure, and their records accurate.

We sat on very small wooden stools and faced a group of about Ugandan 25 women sitting on woven leaf mats. In between us sat a green metal box with three locks. I listened with growing excitement as Rehema Mutesi told me and the other Small Business Coordinators about the Kasozi Village Savings Group.

If the women kept the profit from their business endeavors in their houses, the money would be quickly spent, with none of it going to savings. So, about two years ago they started talking to the local Spirit in Action Small Business Fund Coordinator, Godfrey Matovu, who helped them form their own micro-savings group. The 30 members meet once a week and commit their savings to the secure green box, in increments as small as the equivalent of 5 cents.

DSC05615Each transaction – how much each person has saved and how much they have borrowed – is recorded in a green ledger book. Then the money is placed in the green box, which is secured with three locks. Three different women have keys, and “the ones with the keys are not neighbors. They are all from a different place,” Rehema told us, assuring us of the safety of the saved funds. Then she added, above the loudly mooing cow, “and the person with the box also is not one with a key.” All these safety measures are important because at the end of last year’s saving cycle the box held over 3.8 million Ugandan Shillings (about $1,800)!

Each member can borrow a portion of their savings for a one-month period. They are charged a small interest rate, which is included back in the savings fund and disbursed to members at the end of the annual cycle. One of the group members took a loan this year to pay for a certification course in hair braiding. Now she is braiding hair in the village and in the nearby town, as well as mentoring and training some girls who have dropped out of school.

Canaan gives advice to the Kasozi savings group and encourages them. "You need to be organized and have strong leadership."

Canaan gives advice to the Kasozi savings group and encourages them. “You need to be organized and have strong leadership.”

I was impressed to see how these women were working together to encourage each other to save for those bigger expenses. Things like re-thatching their homes, paying for school fees, and medical expenses. I saw that the women supported each other emotionally too. They did a skit for us, showing how to care for a child with fever. They clapped for each other and laughed together. One of the members is a district counselor, but within the group she is on equal footing with all the others.

Before we ended our visit, Canaan Gondwe, the SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator from Malawi who also leads a savings group, stood up to give the women a few words of encouragement. Speaking from his own experience, he assured them,  “This is a journey towards economic empowerment. In five year’s time, you will never be the same.”

New Wheels for MAVISALO (Grant Update)

New Wheels for MAVISALO (Grant Update)

Do you know that joy? That moment when, after saving and saving, you finally have enough to make that big purchase?

The Manyamula Village Savings and Loans Cooperative (MAVISALO) felt that joy this month. After six months of diligent saving the Motorcycle Fund reached it goal!

Growing Grassroots

To back-up a second, SIA supported the formation of MAVISALO in 2009. Since then, the cooperative has provided a safe place to save money and access low-interest loans. Loans help people expand their small farms and local businesses. Savings are kept safe until a family can afford to buy a cow or a tin roof to replace their thatched one.

This group of 165 members deals with a lot of cash.

Loan payments and voluntary savings are collected each Tuesday. And so each Tuesday the MAVISALO Treasurer must travel to Mzimba to deposit the collected money to keep it safe and accounted for. Though Mzimba is the nearest town it is still a bumpy, dusty, hour-long bus ride away. Except there isn’t bus service between Manyamula and Mzimba. So people ride standing in the back of trucks to travel the 14 miles.

And packed in the back of a truck isn’t a safe way to carry lots of cash.

In addition, MAVISALO needed a better way to reach their many, distant, rural members – especially to conduct site visits before approving loan applications or to check on loan defaulters.

One of the bumpy, dusty "roads" around Manyamula Village in rural Malawi.

One of the bumpy, dusty “roads” around Manyamula Village in rural Malawi.

A Compromise

So MAVISALO requested funds from SIA to purchase a motorcycle. And SIA, wanting to support this amazing grassroots institution while also encouraging a sense of ownership of the motorcycle, proposed a compromise. A SIA grant would cover half the cost, and MAVISALO would have to save for the other half.

Canaan Gondwe poses on MAVISALO's new motorcycle. A log book will track usage, mileage, and scheduled maintenance.

Canaan Gondwe poses on MAVISALO’s new motorcycle. A log book will track usage, mileage, and scheduled maintenance.

That was last July. And now: the joy!

MAVISALO has saved loan profit and contributions from their maize mill and bought what Canaan Gondwe (MAVISALO Coordinator) calls their “sturdy and strong” motorcycle. Proving again their resourcefulness, MAVISALO enlisted a Malawian organization, COMSIP, which supports cooperatives like MAVISALO, to help them find a good bike and pay for the registration and insurance.

“The Cooperative is grateful to SIA and all members of the cooperative for raising the fund on a cost sharing deal,” announced Canaan in his recent report, “and we pledge to put the motorcycle to its proper care and use.”

Congratulations MAVISALO! Your diligence has paid off! I have no doubt that the bike will be well maintained and used for many years to come, enabling this strong and sturdy Cooperative to better serve their members and work even more efficiently.

When it’s hard to save; but that might be okay.

Vestor with the car he bought with a grant and low-interest loan from the Manyamula Village Savings and Loans Cooperative.

Vestor with the car he bought with a grant and low-interest loan from the Manyamula Village Savings and Loans Cooperative.

I’ve often read that the importance of women’s savings and loans cooperatives or savings circles in Africa is that they address two challenges:

  1. These women are unable to access formal savings services at banks because of distance, access, or minimum requirements;
  2. Saving at home is difficult, especially when extended family members live nearby. Women who are known to have savings are often expected to loan money to extended family for their needs – whether medical, burial, business, or basic needs.

Savings circles address both of these issues by providing a safe, formal place to store savings and disincentivizing withdrawals outside of the normal schedule. The result is a system that effectively helps  women reach their own savings goals.

This is all very neat and makes a lot of sense. But real life is not always so clear cut.

Recently, a close friend of ours, I’ll call her Hazel, asked to borrow some money. Hazel’s car was on its last leg and she needs this car to take her daughter to daycare and get herself to work. She needed something better right away.

But, Hazel had lent her meager savings to another friend who had needed to replace her totaled car last summer. Neither woman had real access to credit and both were smart enough not to use any usury quick-loans. The loan is being paid back slowly, but Hazel needed the full balance now; so she turned to us with the request. Luckily, we were able to lend her the money, with the understanding that she’ll pay it back with her tax return.

The moral of the story is not as simple as wishing Hazel had been part of a savings circle so that she could’ve saved the money for her own car needs. Though it is important to recognize the need, both here and abroad, for people to be able to save and to access low-interest loans.

Really, this story is about celebrating the fact that when a friend needs help friends reach out to offer what they can. Even when they themselves don’t have much to give.

And it is about recognizing that saving money is hard when we are generous. But that this sharing the gift – even when it’s our savings – is a good thing in the world and it’s something I’m proud to be a part of, in my own life and through Spirit in Action.

Related posts:

Making me happy: Savings Groups, Moringa, & the Unexpected

I started my morning today with one of the things making me happy this week: Moringa Green Tea! And from there I read a great article about local leadership in Liberia and then received an encouraging update from the new savings and loans group in Zambia.

I guess you can say that there are a lot of SIA-related things making me happy this week. Here’s a taste to share with you:

1. Savings and Loans in Zambia

Chickens in a coop at a school campus in Kitale, Kenya.

Chickens in a coop at a school campus in Kitale, Kenya.

This new savings and loans cooperative in Mfuwe, Zambia started just last summer after SIA-partner Canaan Gondwe held a training workshop there. Below the cooperative’s new leader, Mrs. Misozi Kadewele, tells us how the group is working together to succeed:

“The co-operative is doing well although we met less days in December as everyone was busy with their families. We have started giving out small amounts of Loans to individuals with security. The chickens are doing very very well. We have now 25 active members in the co-operative. We give each other turns to clean up the chicken houses and those who can not make time pay a small fee towards the cooperative.”

Money raised from the chicken sales goes to build the loan fund. The group is considering buying an incubator for the eggs, in order to speed up the process of production and hatching.

2. Moringa Green Tea

moringa tea

Moringa, the “miracle tree,” is one of the plants that Del encouraged people around the world to plant. In part, this was because its leaves are highly nutritious. It’s said that Moringa contains amino acids, protein, potassium, calcium, iron, and so much more. Wow!

I bought Moringa powder a few years ago and made some tea out of it, but I wasn’t wowed with the flavor. However, this week I bought some Moringa tea that’s blended with green tea. The result is a very nice, earthly green tea – and it’s good for me too!

The brand I got in Canada is RootAlive. You can also find it in the US through Grenera. I’d love to try the Moringa Apple Infusion sometime!

3. Respect for the Unexpected

One of my general New Year’s resolutions is to “go with the flow” more. To allow for the unexpected in life and welcome that unknown as a chance to grow. This quote from the Swiss philosopher and poet Henri Frédéric Amiel speaks to that:

Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for the unknown God.

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