“Alice, what’s your secret? Did you come into some inheritance?”

“Alice, what’s your secret? Did you come into some inheritance?”

Sénèq Pierre-Martelly

After a one hour drive on tortuous roads outside of Dame Marie, I finally reach "Nan Sapou," a commune of Grande-Anse. Coming out of the car, I am greeted by a vivacious young woman that immediately reminds me of a bee, buzzing back and forth; she can't seem to stay in place, hopping from one foot to another. You see, Alice is a very busy woman. She juggles duties as homemaker, manages her small business … all along with plans to build a house. She is also a member of one of CARE's Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA).

Today, she slows down enough to share her story with me:

Initially, I was a stay-at-home mother; I would keep the house and take care of my son. On occasion, during mango season, I would buy a few baskets and sell them in Jérémie. My partner works in a field and we struggled to put food on the table and send our son to school, let alone afford the small house we rented.

One day, I was visited by two gentlemen. They spoke to me about a program called VSLA. I admit I was skeptical. It all sounded too good to be true. But their enthusiasm was contagious, and I agreed to come to a presentation; I had nothing to lose after all.

When I went to that meeting, I was intrigued by what I learned. I decided to take a chance. I used the little money I made from my sale of mangos and bought "shares." Later, I took out a loan and I started a small business. At first I would sell candies in front of my house. Then, with my profit I would repay the loan and expand my business, to include pasta, rice and beans.

I was overjoyed when, at the end of the year, came time for the profit distribution. I never had so much money in my life! I felt confident enough to invest in something bigger.

My next project was to build a house. To maximize our savings, we left the small apartment we were renting, bought a tent and set it up on a piece of land my family owned. We lived there for a few months – all the while taking out loans to expand the business, and buying more VSLA shares. With my profits, we immediately started buying sheet metal, tarp and wood. Before we knew it, we had the foundations of a house. It isn't complete yet, we still need to replace the tarp walls with wood planks. Now, may it be buying a box of nails, or a single plank of wood, any money I made from the business that didn't go to VSLA or daily expenses is used toward completing our house.

Our neighbors were amazed. They couldn't believe how quickly we were building the house. "My goodness, Alice, what's your secret?" they would ask, "Did you come into some inheritance?" I would then go on to talk to them about VSLA and how with a little discipline they too can accomplish their goals and attain relative financial security.

VSLAs allow rural poor people, particularly women, to develop capacity and pursue economic independence. Groups of about 30 people are formed, and every week members contribute savings according to a system of shares with fixed values. Amounts saved into the group fund typically range from $0.10 - $6.00. Members then can borrow from the revolving fund at a monthly interest rate decided by the group (usually 5-10 percent) for the duration of 1 to 3 months. Loan amounts depend on the availability of funds, member demand and individual repayment capacity. At the end of an agreed period or "cycle," the accumulated savings and interest earnings are shared among the membership in proportion to the amount that each member saved throughout the cycle.

"Upon hearing my story, they all became intent on joining, and today I'm in the process of starting my own VSLA group. In fact, micro-credit institutions in the area are getting worried," Alice tells me, with a mischievous smile. "But that's our next step, linking VSLA to formal financial institutions."

"I want VSLA to reach all corners of Haiti. It became instrumental to our progression in life. It gave us this house and is filling me with hope for tomorrow."

She concludes, "I truly believe it is the key to a better, brighter Haiti, and that's all I want for my children's future."

© Alice