How savings groups empower young women in Egypt

Amira (far right) checking pass books during a savings group meeting

In Egypt, more than two-thirds of the population are under 35. Around 90% of the country’s unemployed are under 30. And young people – particularly rural youth and young women – often have limited access to financial services and advice, which further limits their opportunities to work and earn money.   

Banking on Change – a partnership between CARE, Barclays and Plan – is helping to change that. But for young women, it’s not just about the money – being part of a savings group increases their social network, their access to information, their confidence and their mobility. Here are three things I learned on a recent visit to Egypt.

1. Savings groups bring young women together

I met a group of young women in Khairallah, South Cairo. Khairallah is an informal settlement, very densely populated with 4-5 storey houses and narrow streets.  

It may be part of greater Cairo, but for many of the young women, travel is difficult, so the only opportunities they have are in this very poor settlement. The community is very traditional, and there are strict rules for women, especially young unmarried women.

Joining a group is a way of making new friends, having a space to discuss issues, having your own money (not having to rely on family) and thinking for yourself. The young women told us that while their families were worried about them joining at first, now they can see the benefit too, and are proud of their daughters and sisters for being so entrepreneurial and finding new ways to contribute to the household.

Amira, age 18 and the group secretary, wants to work as a hairdresser and her dream is to have her own beauty salon. She took a loan from the group of 500EGP (£44) to buy equipment (including make-up and a hair dryer) so that she can go to people’s houses and do their hair and make-up. Before she started, Amira researched where the other hairdressers in her area are, confirming that there wouldn’t be any competition in her immediate area. She’ll be getting enterprise training through her group, which will help her to build and manage her business.

Nada in front of her shop

Nada in front of her shop

2. Savings groups can help build a future for young women

I also met Nada (18), who lives in a village near Minya in Upper Egypt. Again it’s a traditional area, and although the village is only half an hour from Minya, that feels very far away for many women living there.

Nada joined a youth savings group in 2014, and has been inspired to set up a shop in her parents’ house. Like Amira, she took a loan of 500 EGP (£44), added 300 EGP (£26) of her own, and went to Minya with her father to buy some products she thought would be popular in the area. It wasn’t just a hunch, she’d researched what was available and what people would want. She decided to sell shoes, school bags and accessories, because her school friends and their families would buy them.   

“If I buy for 1 pound, I’ll sell for 1.50, which is still affordable but gives me a [profit] margin. I get 50 pounds profit each month after I’ve paid all my expenses including my loan. I use this to reinvest in my business,” she told me.

Nada has just started, but as a true entrepreneur, she’s getting a feel for what sells, and buying more of that.  

Nada is still at school – but she’s not neglecting her studies: “My shop is open every day and I fit it round my studies because it’s in my house. If there are no customers I study.”

Like Amira, Nada is also ambitious: “I am very proud to have my own business and can afford my own expenses and improve myself. In the future I want to have a bigger and bigger project.”

3. It’s really important to engage young men

For the groups and communities I met, young men and women experience life differently. In South Cairo, women have to be home by 7pm because there are no street lights, so it’s not safe to be out after dark, and there are many kidnappings of young women in the area.

While some youth savings groups are women only there are also mixed groups. They bring together young men and women who might not otherwise talk to each other, and understand the challenges they face. It also helps reassure parents if a young woman’s brother is in the same group that she is.

And it seems that age, rather than gender, stops the young women from contributing. One young women told me: “If we were in a group with older members, we would feel shy to contribute. However, our parents’ groups [formed during an earlier stage of the Banking on Change programme] showed us the path to follow. Now we want to encourage more youth to join and play a more active role in the community like us.”

Her group are in the process of setting up a coffee shop on the roof of the community centre as a small business. This will be a safe space just for young men and women – as well as being able to catch up with friends, the group plans to use the coffee shop as a space to discuss issues such as sexual harassment.

They will also use it to show and sell the products from their other businesses such as jewellery – and to demonstrate how savings and loans groups work, in order to encourage others to form them, and reap the benefits for themselves.

Ella Moffat is a Senior Corporate Partnerships Executive for CARE International UK.

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