Women Helping Women in the Warm Heart of Africa ─ Creating Access to Credit Where There Was None


Photographer PhilBorgestraveled for two weeks in May to
Malawi with colleague filmmaker/photographer Smith Patrick to learn about how women's village savings and loan associations impact families and communities. It was Phil's seventh trip with CARE.

A village savings and loan association is a group of 10-20 members – usually women – who save small sums of money each week to create a fund from which they can access loans. The loans are used to start or expand small businesses, and are repaid with interest. With the income from interest and their individual enterprises, women are able to improve the health, education and well-being of their families.

Even from first impressions, it's clear how Malawi came to be known as "the warm heart of
Africa" – the people couldn't be more welcoming. As soon as I arrived in Kandaya village, women began singing and dancing. I later discovered that they sing to start and close their association meetings, as well. It is such a refreshing change of pace to see adults being so freely joyful and open. I can't imagine a business meeting in the

United States
starting with a song, but maybe more should!

After the singing, though, it's down to business. The women make their savings deposits for all to see and the treasurer records each one. Because some of the women can't read the written records, it's important that each transaction is done before the full group. The trust among the women is so important to the success of the association. One woman told us that, years ago, a serious misunderstanding in her group led her to thoughts of suicide. This was shocking to hear from someone who is so strong and poised today. But it reinforced the gravity of the undertaking for these women – their livelihoods are on the line. CARE's training on how to form and manage the associations is crucial because the rules help members avoid conflict in the first place.

Women Helping Women in the Warm Heart of Africa ─ Creating Access to Credit Where There Was None   image 1
Kandaya village women depositing savings at their village

savings and loan association meeting.
©2008 PhilBorges/CARE

One group chairwoman, Jinesi, made a particular impression on me. She had such an artistic flair about her, and she was definitely a savvy businesswoman. In the five years she has been a member of a village savings and loan association (VSL), she has purchased a cow, increased her farm plot and purchased land to build two rental houses. She is a role model for her three daughters, as well as her peers. CARE helped contribute to this success simply by introducing the concept of VSL and showing the women how to form strong associations – all the capital is the women's own savings!

Women Helping Women in the Warm Heart of Africa ─ Creating Access to Credit Where There Was None   image 2
Jinesi, a member of the original Kandaya VS&L formed eight years ago,

is now a chairwoman of the association. ©2008 PhilBorges/CARE

Because it doesn't depend on external funds, the VSL is self-sustaining; Jinesi is a member of the original group CARE helped start about eight years ago. I guess success can be contagious because now this small village has six separate VSLs. I love to see this kind of entrepreneurship change lives. And the icing on the cake: Jinesi's husband has been so inspired by what his wife and the other women have accomplished together, he is starting another VSL for men.