Small investments, big changes

By Chris Hufstader
Djouri Konar bought the first of her sheep with her savings accumulated through her participation in a Saving for Change program in Mali.

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The rains came late last summer to the cornfields in N'Golofala, a small village about an hour's drive from Bamako, the capital of Mali. By August you could see fragile six-inch shoots bursting up out of the ground, a vibrant green set off against the red-brown earth. Most families here rely primarily on the corn—and groundnuts, sorghum, and other vegetables—for their meals as well as their income.

Between harvests, farmers have little available cash, so families struggle to find money for those necessities they do not produce themselves—clothes, soap, or even medicine if a child falls ill. So Djouri Konaré, a mother of six in her mid-40s, earns a little money by preparing rice flavored with tomatoes and piment, a super-spicy pepper, to sell once a week on market day. With little available cash, Konaré used to have to borrow ingredients from a food dealer, and repay him at whatever price he demanded at the end of the day. Profits were slim.

Konaré found a better option when Oxfam America's partner TONUS helped the women in N'Golofala form a savings group, pooling their deposits of just a few cents a week and then loaning each other the capital to invest in money-making ventures. It is part of Oxfam's Saving for Change program, established in 2005 and now reaching more than 24,000 women in Mali alone.

Konaré joined the group and borrowed enough to buy the ingredients for her business at a better price than the food dealer's. "Some days I can make 10,000 CFA [about $20]," she said in an interview in her home. After paying back her loan and interest, she can clear as much as $65 a month—nearly the average monthly income for Mali and a tidy sum for a rural woman with no assets.

Once a year the savings group divides up its assets equally among the members, and the women can use it to invest or buy necessities for their families. This year, Konaré's share was $18, and she used it to buy a sheep. "I bought a female, which had a baby, another female. Now I think I could sell the mother for about $30, so I am getting a lot for my $18."

There are currently about 40 women participating in three savings groups in N'Golofala. "We are seeing a lot of benefits," Konaré said. In addition to earning income raising livestock and through other forms of commerce, the women meet regularly and help each other with their businesses and discuss problems faced by the larger community, like malaria.

Malaria is one of the biggest problems in N'Golofala and many other villages in Mali—indeed, throughout much of Africa. With many families forced to devote a large proportion of their income to deal with health problems, reducing vulnerability to malaria is an essential way to fight poverty. After helping establish the savings groups, TONUS staff led eight training sessions to teach the women in the program how to prevent and treat the disease.

"Now I know how to treat children for malaria," says Konaré. "I am contributing to the better health of my family by helping my husband eliminate mosquito breeding areas, and I can buy treated bednets."

She and other women have even convinced village leaders to eliminate mosquito-breeding areas. This was a milestone for these women, who previously had never been consulted on village affairs and were not used to speaking in public. Before Saving for Change, women tended to defer to their husbands. "Now we know we have to do things ourselves," Konaré said. "The Saving for Change group has changed a lot for me."

Since the first Saving for Change groups were established, many of the women could see that it was a simple matter to help others start their own groups. In the village of Guilly, just 20 minutes from N'Golofala, a 30-year-old woman named Minata Coulibaly joined a group and then helped establish four others, recruiting 63 other women to the Saving for Change program. Of the 1,126 groups in Mali, 391 were formed spontaneously by the women themselves, and these 391 include nearly 8,000 members—all of whom have taken small steps toward big changes.