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Astel Diallo is the president of a Saving for Change group in Senegal’s far southeastern region of Tambacounda, where she says she and her fellow group members together learned the value of 100 francs. In US dollars this is about 20 cents, which to them did not ever seem like much-- until they started saving that amount each week, loaning the capital to each other, and investing in small businesses.
“Before we would use 100 francs to buy tea,” Diallo said after a group meeting at her home, while she was selling a small bag of cooking spices to a young boy waiting patiently in her doorway. “We would sit around and laugh and tease each other. We didn’t know that if we put our 100 francs together, we could do something really important.”
Saving for Change group members pool their savings, and borrow money to invest in small businesses. Selling foodstuff as Diallo does is quite common, as is selling phone cards, and buying and selling cloth and clothing. Members pay back their loans with 10 percent interest, and the money grows in the group fund for 12 months, when all the assets are disbursed to members equally, and a 12-month cycle starts again. Last fall at the end of the last cycle, each member got nearly $50.
Mariama Ly, a 38-year-old mother of four wearing a bright red head scarf that forms a perfect circle around her face, says she did really well this past year. “I bought new furniture for my house, a bicycle for my son, and I invested the rest in my business,” she says brightly.
Her enthusiasm is easy to understand when you hear her story: Unable to find any steady work in their village, called Bandafassi, Ly’s husband had to move to Dakar where he is a fisherman. It is a good 800 kilometers (just under 500 miles) away, so he only comes home for the annual Tabaski holiday, which marks the end of the Ramadan fasting period. He stays for a couple of weeks, handing over the money he has earned to support the family.
But the money rarely lasted a year, forcing Ly to buy much of the food and clothing for her family on credit. When her husband came home, Ly says “He dealt with all my debts, he had to go around the village paying it all back.” It was the source of stress in their relationship.
After she joined the Saving for Change group in her village, staff from an organization called La Lumière used a grant from Oxfam to teach her and the other members how to establish a saving fund, make loans to members, start their individual businesses, pay back the loans, and re-invest her profits.
Ly began selling dried fish, pepper, vinegar, and other spices around her neighborhood. She says she can now cover all her household expenses. And her relationship with her husband has completely changed. “He’s treating me really well,” she says proudly outside her small home, the only one in her neighborhood with new thatch on the roof. “We talk a lot, we talk things over together. Before he just did what he wanted, but now we discuss it first.
“He’s really happy that I take this responsibility. I get a lot of respect from him now, and it makes me really happy.” Best of all, she says, “when he comes back to the house, there is just peace and love between us.”
Her group president Diallo says harnessing the modest savings and energy of the group members has created similar changes for all of them. “Before we had no way to help ourselves, but now with just 100 francs a week we solve a lot of problems, and help our husbands and our children.” Now, instead of sitting around drinking tea and teasing each other, she says “We tease the men. We are handling all the expenses now, not them.”