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Earning income, making change: Sierra Leone’s women of finance

Microfinance initiatives like Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) and savings programs help developing countries achieve economic security. They enable low-income communities to establish small financial systems, which can help individuals generate income and save for future expenses.

These programs have been of particular value to the women of Sierra Leone – where many women become single mothers and therefore, need the means to support themselves, and their families. See how these 3 women – of varying age – have each used these programs to become breadwinners in their families and leaders in their communities.

1. Fatmata: the coconut mogul

Fatmata with coconuts.

Fatmata heads to the market.

Fatmata is the Kailahun district’s resident coconut distributer, selling the produce from 8 am to 6 pm, every day in the local market. However, when she heard of Plan’s Village Savings and Loans program she was eager to take her coconut jelly business to the next level. After joining the local association, she got a loan to purchase more goods.

“I buy two dozen coconuts every day to sell, making a profit of 7000Leones ($1.60 Canadian) per day – the greater part of which I use to buy food and cook for my family,” explained Fatmata. The remainder of this profit (2000Leones or about $0.46Canadian) she contributes daily towards the VSLA, along with each of the other 50 group members. Every 50 days (when the contributions have reached a sum of about $25Canadian), members take their turn as beneficiaries, and collect the accumulated funds.

Fatmata used her funds to further diversify her business and make investments. “I increased my contribution to the group to 5 different deposits, which I collect 5 times a year. This gives me up to 500,000Leones ($11Canadian) annually and I have received it twice - making a million Leones ($250Canadian)!”

Acquiring yet another business venture and source of income, she’s even expanded to a small scale clothing business. “At first I was a bit shy to do business, as I was amongst a handful of women, but now other women are doing similar trades. I am more proud and interested in it now. More male customers seem to admire women doing such trades.”

Indeed, Fatmata has gained both monetary credit, as well as credibility through her impressive business savvy. Her success inspired women in her community and has, ultimately, helped change attitudes to support gender equality. Yet, the achievement she has most pride in is her ability to contribute, even more, to her family. “I’m really happy with my business. I can educate my children and have empowered myself to some extent and now handle the greater responsibility in my house and family.”

2. Adama: from stone worker to scholar

Adama at a group meeting

Adama (middle) attends her local YSLA meeting.

Adama, 13, moved to Freetown from her village to be closer to an education. However, when she arrived to live with her eldest sister, an education seemed just as far away as when she’d lived in her village. “I soon realized I was back to where I started from. My sister and her husband worked in a stone quarry and barely earned enough to survive. Sending me to school was out of question,” she said.

Adama started to mine stones to earn money for her school expenses, but most of the earnings went to her sister for upkeep, making saving nearly impossible. “I felt depressed and sad,” she said. One day a Plan worker held an awareness session at the quarry regarding Youth Savings and Loans Associations (YSLA).

Adama gives a woman money.

Adama (right) contributes funds to her YSLA.

“I was so encouraged and convinced my sister and her husband to assist me in joining a group. I attended the first meeting and started saving $1a week from my wages,” she said. “I learnt how to save and manage my money,” explained Adama, who also gained literacy and skills training.

With her first loan she was able to start a small business selling donuts. Her profits then enabled her to pay for lessons to study for her National Primary School Examination. When she passed the exam she was able to enroll at her local junior secondary school, using another loan to pay for her fees, uniforms and books.

Moving forward, Adama hopes to become a nurse, but for now she is contented with her education: “I am grateful for this project. It has given the opportunity to attend school. I feel proud of myself!”

3. Isha: inspiring those both young and old

Isha smiles.

Isha now has much to smile about!

When 15-year-old Isha first joined a Girls’ Savings and Loans group in her community, she was extremely shy. “I used to be quiet and not speak out,” she admitted. However, the program – which accepts girls as young as 7 years of age – instilled in her a newfound self-assuredness through its skills training. “The most important thing I learned was how to talk in public,” she said. “Now I am bold and confident.”

After a year of saving money, Isha used her funds to pay for school fees and invest in the family business. Isha’s mother, Tokumbo was impressed by what she saw, and so were others.

Recognizing Isha’s role as a community leader, she was selected as a Girl Ambassador to teach her peers what she had learned. However, it wasn’t only fellow youth that seemed interested in following Isha and her YSLA’s lead!

Isha’s mom, Tokumbo.

“The children really prepared for the Savings Group meetings - they washed up and put on their best clothes to go meet with each other,” said Tokumbo.

“All of us parents decided that we wanted to do this Savings Group,” explained Tokumbo. “Now every Wednesday on market day, 10 of us adults meet together, and we each give 10,000Leones (about $2Canadian) to one person in our group – all because of the girls who first started doing this.”

These microfinance projects help women throughout the developing world build confidence and lay a practical foundation so that they can thrive for years to come. Moreover, these girls go on to share knowledge and skills with their families and community members – revealing that investing in girls can create a better world for everyone.

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