Women in Mali lead Saving for Change

Moh Mariko smiles in the courtyard outside her home in Domba, Mali. Her participation in a Saving for Change group has helped her become an entrepreneur: now when she harvests her shea nuts.

If you ask Moh Mariko what has changed in her life since she joined a Saving for Change group in her village in Mali, she does not immediately talk about the money she earns or the medicine she can buy to help her children. Nor does she talk about how she manages her money, now that she has some. First, she wants to talk about her state of mind.

“Since I started with the group, my mind is more open,” she says proudly in front of her small home of mud bricks on a warm, windy March day. “I can manage lots of different things now.”

And she does. Inside her house she has little packages of spices she sells, along with smoked fish, on the dusty streets of Domba, her town in southern Mali. Once a week she goes to the market and sells there, but she has plenty of clients in her neighborhood, and she just goes door to door.

A new entrepreneur

Mariko, who is 64 and has eight children, raises and sells chickens and shea nuts (which are processed into shea butter). Since she joined her Saving for Change group, she says she manages her shea nut business completely differently. “I don’t just sell my shea nuts for whatever I can get,” she says proudly, with the air of an experienced trader. “Now I know to wait until prices are higher, and I can get more money.” She says she appreciates having money for emergencies, to help sick relatives, or to pay for weddings or funerals.

Mariko is just one of 25 women in the Saving for Change group in Domba. They named the group Ikidia, the word for harmony in the local language, Bambara. The group was established in 2007, two years after Oxfam America launched its Saving for Change program in Mali. This group, like the 7,019 other groups in 2,625 villages in Mali, is organized to help women save their own money in a safe place and make loans to each other from a common fund at 10 percent a month. Each member makes a deposit each week (it is roughly 50 cents), and the group saves, loans, and makes interest on the group funds. Since women in rural Mali rarely finish school, they don’t keep elaborate written records. Each woman keeps track of her own and one other member’s loans and payment schedule, a sort of financial buddy system. And they all remember the total in the cash box at the end of each meeting.

Once a year the amount saved plus interest earned is divided up equally among the group members. The funds are usually disbursed right before the harvest, when families in this agricultural area are most financially stressed. The Ikidia group fund disbursed about $46 to each member at the end of the first year. Soumba Doumbia, the group’s president, says she used this money to pay all the school fees and buy clothes and books for her seven children, who were just heading back to classes.

Success going global

There are now 250,000 people involved in Saving for Change groups in 6,000 villages in Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, and Cambodia. Collectively, these groups have saved over $4 million, and the average participants earn 20 percent annually on their deposits.

This rapid growth, achieved in just four years, is remarkable, says John Ambler, Oxfam America’s senior vice president for programs. “A traditional microcredit institution might take eight or 10 years just to reach 10,000 borrowers,” he says. One reason why Saving for Change is taking off so quickly is because women can form groups with fellow villagers in which they save and invest their own money. The groups need not have any relationship with a microfinance institution like a bank. This is helping the program reach the poorest women who would not otherwise be able to borrow money. Most banks consider them to be too big a risk.

Low-cost expansion

Once Oxfam and our partners start one group in a village, others can form on their own, with little or no outside support. On average, it only costs Oxfam about $20 per Saving for Change member to start and train a group to manage its own operations. Women who learn how to form a group can then help others in nearby villages do the same thing, at no additional cost to the program.

If Saving for Change continues to grow at the current rate, the number of participants should double in the next two years. Doumbia says the Ikidia group members are benefiting not just from increased income, easier access to credit, and all the material improvements. They are also building self-confidence and dignity. “Before this group, if we had money problems, we would ask our friends for help, but they could not always say yes,” Doumbia says. “We would have to go into nearby towns and borrow money. We had no hope.

“But now we can find money to solve our problems through the group.”

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