Sowing Seeds of Change

Sowing Seeds of Change

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Twenty five years ago, Moira Eknes from CARE Norway arrived in the Sahel desert to plant trees in a remote region of Niger, West Africa. She couldn’t have known just what seeds she would sow.

After Moira met with Nigerian women and community leaders, she learned what the women really wanted to grow: their financial stability. So Moira and her cohorts changed their plans, creating instead a savings and lending program for women. They called their effort “Women on the Move” — or Mata Masu Dubara, as it is widely known throughout Niger a quarter-century later. Begun so serendipitously, those original circles of women have morphed and grown to include more than 200,000 groups and 5 million people who participate in what we now call CARE’s Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA). (Some 5 million more people, mostly women, participate in similar groups around the world, unaffiliated with CARE but based on that same savings concept that CARE — and Moira — pioneered in the early 1990s.)

On a recent trip to Niger’s capital city Niamey to celebrate the VSLA legacy, I was privileged to sit in a circle with women from these original Women on the Move groups. They had travelled great distances — some of them never before having left their villages or visited their country’s capital. But they were completely undaunted, full of energy, dynamism and gratitude for the changes in their lives — changes they attributed to CARE VSLAs.

They told us how through this simple program — meeting weekly with their groups, depositing, saving and loaning one another money — they had re-made their lives. One of the women, Amina Salaou, had bought and sold peanut cakes, then traded for a goat. Now she owns a herd of cows. She has educated her children and prospered. All of the women mentioned their children, how they could afford to send them to school, how they had built schools together. They talked of modest, but meaningful, things such as owning more than one pair of clothes. In fact, one of them spoke with pride that now she can afford to help others in need of clothes. They talked about the changes in their villages, how they had moved from mud to concrete houses, how some had cars now, and solar panels that help irrigate their crops. Another wizened woman said that any big decision in her village had to go to the village chief — and her. That was unfathomable a few decades ago.

The impact has been deep and lasting. If you asked about anything good in their village, they all would credit Women on the Move as the engine behind it. When Moira commented about how one of the women had not aged in 25 years, the woman said it was because of Women on the Move! These women from remote, rural villages spoke eloquently about the power of this platform — this platform of coming together, of supporting one another, of “opening doors and gateways of progress.”

“We were separated from power,” another woman told me. “We were in the dark and now we are in the light.”

That light has spread over the past 25 years, illuminating the lives of millions of people, not only women, but men, too, who have watched their wives, sisters, daughters and mothers empower themselves through new livelihoods and financial independence. Yet this movement is not just about financial inclusion. It is also about power. Half of the women elected to political office in the parts of Niger where CARE works have been through CARE’s programming. That is an astonishing outcome, elevating the individual and collective voice of women in their homes and their communities. Women on the Move, indeed!

CARE works with 15,000 savings groups in Niger alone and more than a half-million women there. When I consider the program’s auspicious start, its transformative power, its organic growth beyond Niger — and even beyond Africa — I’m inspired to imagine what more is possible going forward. Our CARE team in West Africa, for example, wants to dramatically ramp up our efforts there — to reach 15 million more people in a fraction of the time it took to reach the first 5 million. 

That small circle of women I met in Niger sparked a movement 25 years ago when they started saving pennies a week — which they invested in themselves, their families, their communities. To honor their legacy is to extend those same economic opportunities to exponentially more women — and men —on the move.

I can’t wait to see what takes root in the next 25 years!

In Niamey, Niger, CARE President and CEO Michelle Nunn greets members of the original CARE village savings and loan groups that CARE pioneered in Niger in 1991. The women are still active in CARE VSLAs, their lives changed through income-generating businesses they started with loans from the group.