Spreading the wealth

By Chris Hufstader
Minata Coulibaly: "I decided to create another group in this village, so more would benefit.

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Minata Coulibaly takes a straightforward approach to her business raising and selling chickens in the small village where she lives in Mali. "I keep the chickens here," she said showing visitors a dark, cement block coop near her small house. Her business model is simple: "I sell the largest ones for the most money."

Coulibaly got the capital to start her business from her Saving for Change group. Since she joined the group she has been impressed with the way it has helped her and the others in her group earn money and improve their lives. "If you need money, you can ask for a loan," she explained outside her mud and thatch home. "When you earn some income you can buy clothes for your children, buy food, and solve a lot of problems."

Coulibaly, age 30, is married to a carpenter. They have a six year-old daughter. She started her business with a $14 loan and four chickens. Now she has 23 chickens, and has earned enough money to set up her newly wed god-daughter with a new bed and a well-equipped kitchen.

With the chicken business working well, Coulibaly wanted to help other women form Saving for Change groups. "I decided to create another group in this village, so more would benefit," she said, as if starting a group is like filling up another bucket of water at the well: When you can see it needs to be done, you just do it. All together, she has helped form four new groups, in which there are 64 members.

Coulibaly followed the example set by Moussa Diakité, who works for TONUS, a non-governmental organization that partners with Oxfam America. Diakité is an animator: he teaches women how to form Saving for Change groups, and trains them in managing loans and running a business. First, Diakité meets with the village elders, then explains the concept to all the women interested in joining. He then helps the women set up their own rules and elect officers, manage the accounts, and start saving.

The first time Coulibaly proposed starting a saving group near her village she asked Diakité to help her. She observed his actions, and after that, she said, "I did the same thing, I met with the chiefs and men and explained the benefits of these groups, and that I wanted to share the idea with the women in their village."

She then helped the women get organized. "The first things you need are rules," she said. "That's the most important. Then you need good leaders, a president and vice president, and an accountant who can write and count, or your accounts will never be correct. You need the most trustworthy people to lead the group."

Managing the cash box is a sensitive job. To ensure there are no unauthorized withdrawals, most Saving for Change groups have one locked box with a single key that is kept with different members between meetings. Some groups, such as Coulibay's, have special safeguards. "The box has three locks, and a keeper for each key," Coulibaly said.

There are also strict rules for attendance. "You have to be present at meetings to deposit your savings each week, unless you are sick," Coulibaly explained. "But you have to pay a fine if you miss a meeting, of 50 CFA (about one cent), and 25 CFA if you are late."

Spontaneity is part of the plan

There are now about 1,200 Saving for Change groups in Mali with more than 30,000 members. About 35 percent of these groups were formed spontaneously—women themselves found out how to organize a Saving for Change group and went ahead and did it. Some of these spark plugs were already members of groups, like Minata Coulibaly, others saw groups being formed, observed the process without joining themselves, and formed their own group in the same or other villages. They can do it without the help of an animator and the groups seem to function as well and save as much money as the others.

The concept of Saving for Change is easy to replicate because it is similar to other forms of traditional saving groups most women in Mali know well. The structure is a little different, but it is easy to explain for a smart, enthusiastic person like Minata Coulibaly.

"Encouraging women to run their own group builds autonomy, and this also builds confidence," said Vinod Parmeshwar, Oxfam's program officer for the Saving for Change program in Boston. "The fact that these women are willing to invest their time and effort into forming these groups themselves shows the immense value Saving for Change brings to their lives."