SaveAct
Seedling recipients: Covid brought a unique role for SaveAct, where we were able to provide relief to thousands of SG members.

Saving in the time of Covid: a review of 2021

The past year has been another tough one for South Africa, but despite the challenges that affected us all, SaveAct continued to expand its reach and there were even a few silver linings.

Through our savings groups we are introducing more people to the reality of being able to generate an income, and we are consolidating our footprint in more provinces.  Increasingly we are expanding through other organisations, as opposed to SaveAct working physically in the most remote places.

We now have fledgling start-ups in four new provinces, which, although affected by Covid, have managed to survive and start growing , albeit slowly. We are working with climate change innovators such as K2C and Conservation South Africa, in northern Mpumalanga, where savings groups are a foundation for adaptation. We are also working in the Western Cape with a Malmsbury NGO called Goedgedacht.

In addition, we are working with new partners, Gender CC in North West and Choice in Limpopo. Through these two partners we will extend our gender pilot work with savings group formation and financial education that is more deliberately attentive to gender relations.

This pilot has been running in some of our Gauteng and KZN groups for the last two years. Supported by the French Embassy and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), its progress was also hampered by Covid, but we did a lot of virtual workshopping plus some initial testing of the methodology, and there is a commitment to continue that process.

This methodology attempts to open up a conversation about money, livelihood pathways and  how women and men in households experience this. The aim is to help people to think more about the power relations around money and how this affects access to finances and decision making in the household.

It also looks at how people can begin to map pathways towards more equitable power relations in the family and community. It’s a tricky thing, especially in rural areas. One has to be very cautious around what is promoted and what is said, because ramifications can be costly. Women have the right to be free but in practice their safety could be put at risk through some of these conversations, so our staff need to be very sensitive and facilitative, rather than deterministic about rights. It needs to be owned by the participants and shaped by what they are comfortable with.

We’ve found in our work that there are some people who have deep pain that surfaces in meetings, and they have obviously had traumatic experiences. We need to look at how we can connect both the savings group member and the facilitator to professional support, to deal with those deeper traumas which we obviously can’t handle at a group level. Part of our challenge is to build that supportive ecosystem for people who have experienced such traumas.

What’s been encouraging is that we’ve also seen significant and sustained expansion in two of our “newer” provinces, Northern Cape and Gauteng. Namakwa, Northern Cape was previously one of the hardest regions to work in. Stokvels are not part of the culture there, so it has taken a few years for our model to take root, but having seen the results of the early groups there is now a growing clamour for new groups.

In Gauteng it’s been exciting this past year is to see the significant upswing in demand for participating in savings groups in townships, informal settlements and peri urban areas. We can confidently say that the pilot supported by the IDC over the past few years, to verify the relevance of this methodology in an urban context, has been confirmed.

We need to thank the far-sightedness of donors like the IDC and Government of Flanders, who have been prepared to take risks and explore what kind of support people on the margins need to find the right financial service.

Lessons learnt

There were valuable lessons learnt in the Gauteng pilot. Our physical distance from Gauteng meant we were quite risk averse and put in place a team that was not as rooted in the place as we would have liked. Initial growth of group numbers was slow, but over time we built connectedness with the local community and eventually nearly 100 new savings groups were formed.

We’ve made important progress working with a tech partner that has built a WhatsApp bot that allows members to conduct money transfers using an e-wallet system. This really came in handy at the height of the pandemic, when it was difficult for members to travel and have physical meetings.

We’ve definitely established that there’s interest in savings groups making use of those types of facilities. What we now need to build is a seamless pathway for members, to be able to record and manage their saving and lending inside savings groups, in cash, to do that digitally, and then to also link electronically to virtual digital money transactions.

That’s where we’re now heading. When we have that in place there will be room for other financial services that could be introduced, like a group funeral policy, group insurance and investments. However, while the digital path is often portrayed as a no-brainer, it’s not as simple as that. People are still psychologically connected to cash, although many of the younger members take to the use of technology quickly and enthusiastically.

So it’s a mixed bag at the moment. A societal transition is taking place and we believe in working with what people want, rather than trying to force the issue.

Silver linings

Covid brought a unique and exciting role for SaveAct, where we were able to provide relief to many thousands of SG members; 2 291 received seedlings under the Jobs Fund, assisted by National Treasury, and 6 175 were sent vouchers for farming inputs through a partnership with the Solidarity Fund.

The work we did with the Jobs Fund, as part of a Covid response, to distribute seedlings  to 2 000 + households, had a significant impact. It was heartening to see how many people took what was a relief distribution and converted it into an enterprise track for themselves. Many of them were encouraged to buy more seedlings and converted this into a livelihood.

We also welcomed the opportunity to respond to farmers affected by Covid in KZN, the Free State and Northern Cape by partnering with the Solidarity Fund. Within a couple of weeks we were able to successfully register 6 175 savings group members who are farmers, and they were able redeem vouchers, worth R2 000 for agricultural inputs, at local outlets. Some of these suppliers were introduced into the supply chain in remote areas like Msinga.

Such interventions are significant because they have the power to begin to redefine in people’s imagination what can happen economically in the community when they see their local suppliers distributing farming inputs for savings group members.

We’re  hoping to do more of these initiatives, for example around the violence in KZN. SaveAct is uniquely placed because of its members to offer a large distribution network that can be used for other development work, at scale, in multiple provinces.

The WAYSE project

We’ve been fortunate over the past year to work during Covid on formulating ways in which savings group members could recover socially and economically from the pandemic, and begin to build long-term livelihood plans.

The support from GIZ is valued. They have a good understanding from prior work with SaveAct of the opportunities and potential to continue to scale up the programme, whilst bringing in a more deliberate economic and livelihood focus.

We’re really excited about the design of the WAYSE (Women and Youth in Sustainable Enterprise) initiative, which makes it possible for us to deepen our skillset and tools that we can use to tackle the economic challenges of savings group members, where they are based.

It’s given us an opportunity to upskill our field staff and partners so that they can work with multiple stakeholders and communities on shaping plans that acknowledge the assets and capabilities of people in those areas.

The idea is to help people to think about how they can build local or circular economic activity, where goods are produced and consumed locally. Economic multipliers can bring benefits to the community, rather than being siphoned immediately out into the formal retail economy.

WAYSE has given us opportunities to also work more deliberately with women and youth, and to begin to build these economic opportunities. We’re bringing in new methodologies that enable members to map their livelihood pathways and embark on deliberate action to launch their strategies. This could be through farming, small business development, training or tertiary education.

This comes at a very critical time in the country, when it is burdened with towering unemployment and unprecedented levels of social and economic insecurity following the pandemic and the violence in KZN and Gauteng.

In a testing year these have all been significant highlights. A critical player in the background of our success stories is always the SaveAct board of trustees. Huge thanks to them for their steadfast support. It is greatly appreciated.