25 years of VSLAs: The opportunity of a lifetime

Nana, age 12, and her grandmother Aboubaca, a member of the first Village Savings and Loan Association in her village of Kagadama, Niger, 25 years ago

In 1991 in Niger, west Africa, CARE set up the first Village Savings and Loan Associations – a safe way for people, particularly women, to save money and get access to loans. Here is the story of how one of those very first VSLA groups has lifted up three generations of a family in Kagadama, Niger.

Portrait of Aboubaca in Niger

25 years ago, Aboubaca was living a different life. The people of Kagadama were poor and hungry, she says. They lived in overcrowded straw huts.

Everyone used to fight all the time. We all had a black heart, because there was no money and no food. There was no peace and no happiness.

Most often, children fared the worst. “When I was a girl, I wished the chores would just stop,” Aboubaca says, recalling the endless pounding of beans and millet, the fetching of water and firewood. She became a child bride at 15:

People would talk about marriage, and I would run away. But then I stopped running.

Portrait of Harouna in Niger

Laoura Harouna, a neighbour, remembers ambulances racing to the village almost every day:

The children were always sick, always malnourished. And when the ambulances left, they didn’t take just one child. They took 10. We were always back and forth to the hospital, about 25 kilometers away. No time for social life or to make a living. And the village suffered.

A metal lockbox used by a village savings group

In time, however, change would take root in Kagadama. It started with Aboubaca’s modest metal lockbox, equipped with three padlocks and three keys. Each key had a separate keeper – security measures to protect the life-changing contents inside.

Every month, the women paid money into the lockbox – at first, just 4 cents each. The women could apply for loans from the group, which they would pay back with interest – so creating a profit for all the members of the group. In Niger, they called this Mata Masu Dubara – or ‘Women on the Move’.

Portrait of Aboubaca in Niger

Aboubaca never attended school, but says she understood the opportunities group savings could unlock for her:

We welcomed Women on the Move with both hands. We had high hopes and thought we’d give it a try to see what happened.

They soon increased their individual weekly deposits to 16 cents. Aboubaca used her first loan, about $1, to buy peanut oil, which she sold for a profit. With that loan repaid after a couple of weeks, she borrowed more to make and sell homemade remedies, fashioned from moringa leaves and other plants that cured ailments like digestion.

And her most popular product? An aphrodisiac that she says, with a wink, quickly grew her male customer base, as men from nearby villages sought out her recipe, which, to this day, she uses and keeps secret. Her daily investment of $3 yields $5 in return.

Portrait of Haoua and daughter in Niger

Aboubaca’s daughter, Haoua, grew up attending Women on the Move meetings with her mother. Things didn’t change overnight for her – like her mother, she was married at 15, and like her mother, she never attended school. Education simply wasn’t valued in Kagadama when she was a child – but now it is.

I want my children to go to school so they can become anything they want, because I didn’t have that chance.

“People are more enlightened today,” she says. And thanks to the VSLAs, “they know how to earn money and how to invest it.”

My generation is wiser than my mother’s, and my kids’ will be stronger than mine. It will only continue.

Portrait of Nana in Niger

12-year-old Nana is Aboubaca’s granddaughter. Her day starts much like her grandmother’s did: household chores such as sweeping the floor and tending to the family’s goats. But then her day changes: she goes to school.

In fact she has just started at secondary school, and hopes to become a teacher herself. Although only 12, she has seen the benefits brought to the life of her village by the VSLAs:

When you’re a part of MMD [Mata Masu Dubara – the local name for VSLAs], your voice and advice are respected.

My hope is that everyone in my village grows and develops together.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.