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From modest savings, an entrepreneurial spirit

By Chris Hufstader
Dienabou Ba. Photo: Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

In Senegal, a woman joins a savings group, starts her own business, and becomes a leader.

Dienabou Ba is at a construction site on the outskirts of her village in southeastern Senegal. At this point you can discern the interior walls, count the rooms, and see where the front door will be. When it’s finished, she and her friends will use this 540-square-foot building in their village of Dioulacolon to run business training classes and other activities for women.

“Who knew,” Ba asks, “that all this could come from 200 francs a week?”

Two hundred West African CFA francs—or about 33 cents—is what Ba and a group of her friends contributed each week to a savings and loan group they started in 2009. Called a Saving for Change group, the 20 members slowly built the fund and allowed each other to take out small loans, at 10 percent interest, to start businesses or pay for household essentials. At the end of the first 12-month cycle the group disbursed the fund’s assets equally.

“I got enough money to buy a ‘fridge,” Ba says. And with that investment, she launched a business selling local juice drinks, offering cold bissap, made from hibiscus leaves, and pain de singe, made from the fruit of the baobab tree. That was the beginning of what has now become
a whole new outlook for Ba.

“My life has totally changed; you can’t compare it,” she says, sitting with friends in the cool afternoon shade outside her home. Before, she says, “I never had money. Now I know the value of money. Now I am always thinking like a business person; instead of just spending money, I think about how to use it to make a profit.”

Building a business

Ba, about 50, and the mother of five children, originally joined the Saving for Change group at the urging of La Lumière, an Oxfam partner organization that works with women to build their financial resources and learn to become entrepreneurs. Since then, she has also started investing in livestock and now owns six sheep—a sort of savings account on hooves for her family. 

Ba’s Saving for Change group has increased its assets over the years, and the women are now saving more: At the end of the most recent fiscal year, each member got about $130.

In 2013, women in the group collaborated with La Lumière on another Oxfam initiative called R4. The program, carried out in conjunction with the World Food Programme, helps farmers get access to credit and weather insurance for their crops. Participants work on local environmental rehabilitation projects: in Dioulacolon, farmers built rock walls and dikes to prevent erosion and retain water in low-lying areas where they grow rice. On the hillsides, they planted trees to help keep the soil in place and retain the rainfall. Farmers used their labor in these community projects as credit toward their weather insurance.

When Ba heard about R4, she joined the initiative—and encouraged others to participate so they could get insurance, too. Of the 262 farmers in the insurance program the first year, Ba personally recruited 100 of them.

And now she’s glad she’s involved. This past season there was very little rain, and her rice crop was not good. Once the insurance company has finished analyzing the rainfall data, she is hoping for a payout to help make up for her poor yield.

Success breeds confidence

Being involved in Saving for Change and R4 has led Ba to successes that have encouraged her to take on other roles in Dioulacolon. She is the treasurer of the village health post, and a president of the parents’ association at the village primary school. A crucial component of the R4 initiative is training, especially for women, including how to process raw commodities like rice, sorghum, millet, and the ingredients for juices like bissap and pain de singe. Ba and others in Dioulacolon asked the village officials for a small piece of land where they could build a training center.

“The mayor didn’t believe that we needed this,” Ba says. “We pressured him, and produced documents explaining our plans. … He tried to give us land far outside the town, with no electricity, and we refused.”

Eventually, they worked out a compromise, and the building is under construction. Ba estimates they have more than a third of the costs covered, and says she and other women around the village, some of whom started with her saving just 200 francs a week back in 2009, are confident they will raise the rest.

“We will finish the building and buy equipment,” Ba says. “That’s our challenge.”

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