“In African culture, women are the ones who provide for the household and keep it running. They buy the food and cook it, they make sure there’s enough for everyone. They make sure there’s shelter and clothing.”
That’s Dr Sazile Mtshali speaking, but her view is shared by Nolufefe Nonjeke-Dlanjwa, her colleague at SaveAct, when they’re asked why there is such a high percentage of women members in the savings and credit groups (SCGs) supported by the organisation. Mtshali is the programme co-ordinator in KwaZulu-Natal and Nonjeke-Dlanjwa is programme manager in Eastern Cape.
Although SaveAct doesn’t ignore men or exclude them from joining savings groups, it’s a de facto women’s empowerment organisation, with ninety percent—or 54 900—of its SCG members female.
In the rural areas where SaveAct works, stokvels have traditionally been an important platform used by women striving to provide for their families, and this familiarity has made the SaveAct model, that provides structure and support for saving in groups, an easy fit. The organisation also provides financial literacy training to members, with more recent parallel programmes that promote enterprise training and development added to the mix.
“It’s a very good model, it works,” says Mtshali, who did a PhD on household livelihood security in rural KZN, at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. A rural development veteran, she says what impresses her about the model is that people learn about financial management and have agency in the process.
Since opening its doors in 2007, SCG membership growth has been exponential, reaching 61000 members (men and women) in July. Data collected by SaveAct shows that last year members saved an average of R4334, with a whopping 31% return. The total taken home by women members last year was R238 million.
What they spend their share-outs on confirms their role as keepers of hearth and home. In a recent preliminary survey—undertaken in Matatiele and Underberg—of what members spent their share-out money on last year, home improvement was the top item (42%), with school fees second (22%) and food third (15%).
The availability of loans is also a big plus. Members can borrow money from their groups on more flexible terms than those offered by banks, providing a lifeline that can help to cushion the blow of a family disaster, or make it possible to start a small business.
“For women who suffer a lot of social and economic deprivation and exclusion it becomes very fulfilling to be able to have something that you can do for yourself, once you believe you can and there is a financial platform to cushion you,” says Nonjeke-Dlanjwa. “Those are the testimonies you always get when working with people, particularly women, in savings groups. It’s very common to be asked ‘Nanikade niphi na kwakukudala sihlupheka,’, meaning where have you been (in all) our struggles?”
After her first share-out of R5000 in 2015, fifty-seven-year old Joyce Mboyisa, who lives in rural KwaMavundla near Margate, was able to provide a decent funeral for her daughter when she died. The following year she started building an eight-room house with her second share-out of R6000.
“I feel like my burden has been lifted, because I am able to borrow money when I’m caught up in situations that require it,” says Mboyisa.
Twenty-five-year-old Sanelisiwe Sikobi, also from KwaMavundla, used her savings group to access finance to help her start a construction company. Despite not knowing anything about the building industry, she used her college business and financial management qualification to put together the company. It employs three builders, one of whom is her father, and seven labourers. All ten employees are men, and so far Sikobi Construction has built two houses and worked on two more.
Nonjeke-Dlanjwa says SaveAct’s financial education modules try to open conversations about long-time financial planning, where members look at what they want to achieve in the short, medium or long term. “If the priority for a particular household is food, we start there, looking at how people can meet their basic needs. (These are) small things, like having your own shelter, producing your own vegetables and reducing your vulnerability and the need to buy everything.
“This is where the awakening enterprise module and enterprise development programme fit in, strengthening people’s consumption-smoothing capability, and polishing their production skills so that they can start operating small enterprises that contribute to increasing household income. Once people gain confidence in their abilities, they prioritise investing in these enterprises, and by that, sustaining their livelihoods. And so SaveAct’s vision becomes a reality for that individual.”
Nonjeke-Dlanjwa has been with SaveAct since the early days, and describes her background before that as “heath promotion and training for transformation”.
“I am always amazed by how what I do now relates to my long-lived passion for positive living and helping ordinary citizens to believe in their efforts to make their lives better. (There is an) increased sense of agency once people get to savings groups,” she says.
“What I appreciate about what we do at SaveAct is that we are providing an opportunity for someone who wants to do something better for themself, to begin to dream and take tiny steps to live that dream. That for me is the key to people’s empowerment and their own development.”
• Additional reporting by Londiwe Mtanda and Nomthy Mbonambi. Photo by RECIPROCITY