The transformative POWER of Village Savings and Loan Associations

by 31st Oct 2018
Daphrose, a participant in the POWER Africa project in Burundi Daphrose, a participant in the POWER Africa project in Burundi

Today, on World Savings Day, we are celebrating the VSLA model by sharing learning from CARE’s POWER Africa (Promoting Opportunities for Women’s Economic Empowerment in Rural Africa) project. In our first blog in this series, we looked at VSLAs as an entry point for financial inclusion, but POWER Africa has shown that VSLAs can also have positive impacts across other areas of CARE’s work. Here we highlight some key lessons on adapting the VSLA model to the needs of adolescent girls.

In Burundi, the project focused on adolescent girls: the hardest hit by the combination of poverty, conflict, violence, societal disintegration and high rates of sexual exploitation. Through continual monitoring and feedback loops, POWER Africa learned valuable lessons about working with adolescent girls and adapted to their needs in real-time:

Challenge gender norms and power dynamics

Girls are challenging the status quo in their societies in terms of what girls can and should do. POWER Africa’s online product What’s so special about adolescent girls? digs further into the stories of girls who have successfully – and safely – challenged and changed traditional inequalities that limit women’s economic opportunities and life choices.

Respect girls’ agency

Adolescent girls cannot be treated as children who lack the agency to determine their own futures, or as adults who may be unfamiliar with new technologies and more cautious starting and managing businesses. Projects need to create spaces for girls to describe their own needs and define their own goals, even if these are at odds with the values of their society or programme objectives.

Adapt to girls’ schedules and how they learn

Adolescent girls moved through training content at a faster pace than adults. To adjust to girls’ school schedules, POWER trainings and meetings were only held after-hours, or on weekends or holidays. Training modules were condensed and delivered during school holidays, meaning that the team was able to move through content rapidly, in line with the girls’ learning pace.

Engage families, teachers, men and boys to earn full-community support for girls

Adapting programming to girls’ schedules also depends on freeing up some of girls’ time that is often disproportionately spent on household responsibilities compared to their male peers. Engaging with parents to earn their support to free up some of their daughters’ time through different distribution of household labour was a key step to making sure girls’ participation in VSLAs did not create an additional time burden for them.

POWER also invested significant efforts in engaging teachers to get their buy-in. Teachers were initially wary, fearing girls would ignore their studies to focus on their businesses. POWER had not initially directly engaged teachers but girls said they must be involved and CARE listened. Engaging teachers helped earn their support and led to changes that allowed girls to balance their school responsibilities – and get practical experience to solidify their school learning – with their savings and business activities.

Girls identified older brothers as posing a serious risk to their security as they were seizing girls’ livestock, products and valuable assets. In response, CARE partnered with community-based male champions (Abatangamucho) to lead discussions with men and boys on equality and promote support for girls within communities more broadly.

Make supply meet demand – balanced with client protection

As girls’ businesses flourished, they wanted to be linked to formal financial services for greater security of their savings and to access larger loans for continued business growth. Here, CARE had to find a delicate balance between responding to girls’ demands and need for safety of assets, while at the same time reducing risk to avoid doing harm by connecting young clients to financial institutions who could potentially take advantage of them. Projects need to assess the suitability of financial institutions’ products and services for youth, as well as their willingness to adapt products and services to suit this specific clientele’s needs and interests.

Ensure sufficient and sustainable resourcing

Girls need sufficient support. Initially, POWER Africa’s project field officers were thinly spread across the thousands of savings groups they supervised. POWER recruited and trained a network of participants from within the programme, who were taught to train other participants to provide necessary monitoring and support.

A platform for gender transformative change

In this case, VSLAs are about much more than increased income and savings: they are a platform that unlocks opportunities for gender transformative change. POWER Africa is just one example among nearly 500,000 Youth Savings and Loan Associations (YSLAs) established and trained by CARE in recent years, as well as VSLA programming working with parents to help them keep their girls in school and discourage child marriages. VSLAs are a potentially powerful tool for anyone working to support adolescent girls.

POWER Africa’s youth-focused learning resources can be found here:

Coming next…

To round up this blog series for Financial Inclusion Week, we will share some lessons from POWER Africa on the potential of VSLAs to build the resilience of members in the face of economic, environmental or political shocks.

Kathie Oginsky

Kathie Oginsky is the Programme Manager for CARE Canada’s POWER Africa project supported by Mastercard Foundation across Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire.

Prior to joining CARE, Kathie worked with Global Affairs Canada’s Pan-Africa Bureau, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) in Nairobi, and the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime in Montreal.Kathie holds an Master’s degree in Human Systems Intervention from Concordia University in Montréal, Canada. She currently lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.