Empowering and transforming the lives of the poor through savings project


By January Watchman Mvula,  Executive Director of SURCOD, Malawi.

In this report I would like to share what happened, and what I learned from the summit which can assist us as a local NGO in Malawi to take savings as a serious business, as well as the way to eradicate poverty in my country.

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A Meeting of Minds

Arusha Savings Group Summit (ASGS), was held October 4th through October 6th, 2011, at the Arusha International Conference Center (AICC) in Arusha, Tanzania. ASGS is a program of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire in the United States.

This was the first summit ever which brought together practitioners of savings group methodologies from all corners of the world.

The purpose of the summit was for participants to share experiences with savings groups in order to identify responses to common problems, share the outcomes of research conducted by various organizations which are implementing savings-oriented projects, uncover demand-driven innovations, and explore the frontier of the movement.

As a practitioner of savings methodologies, I was privileged to be one of the selected few to attend this conference, as the Executive Director of Sustainable Rural Community Development Organisation (SURCOD) Malawi.

I was successful in applying for the scholarship to the summit which was sponsored by MasterCard Foundation Canada.

Savings Approach is Powerful, Inclusive 

It was an honour for Arusha3me to meet with well-known, influencial people who have succesfully accelerated savings in many countries –  as well as in various international organizations, such as Cathleen Stark, Paul Lippey, Bill Maddocks, and many others who I haven’t mentioned in this report.

The conference was convened at AICC Conference Center, which is one of the highly secured centers in Tanzania. The meeting started with the welcome remarks by the organizers, and then the conversation about savings was started by Stuart Rutherford. In this conversation, a lot of topics were discussed as well as approaches of the savings concept, which are being used by various organizations.

This conversation aroused many of us and motivated us to participate in the discussions.

After this discussion Kathleen and Paul came with world café where a number of perspectives and achievements which are brought by the savings to the lives of the poor.

At this café, I discovered how powerful the saving approach is and how it is bringing riches to the poor in the participatory way.

It is now time for developing countries leaders to put a lot of emphasis on savings and capital building projects in order to transform the livelihoods of many poor communities, since the savings concept is participatory, change oriented, learner centered, innovative, empowering as well as needs minimal resources as compared to the other approaches of development they are using which keeps on exploiting the poor.

The savings concept is inclusive, not selective. It accommodates the needs of all the people we work with.

Target the Youth to Become the Savings Generation

Later in the afternoon, we were divided to attend to various group discussions by various organizations; I chose youth savings group, a concept which is being piloted by Freedom from Hunger in Mali through Advancing Integrated Microfinance for Youth (AIM Youth). They presented to us the approach they are using of targeting the youth in the field of savings and their target is the youths between the ages of 13-24.

After their presentation, I discovered that if we target the youth, we are a bringing a sustainable solution to poverty through savings; when the youth understand the concept, we are assured of the Savings Generation in future.

These youth groups can be organized in schools and colleges. When the youth grow with –  as well as in the saving culture, poverty will be history in the world.

I agree with this concept since it is looking at the long-term impact of our intervention. Youth saving groups are not that easy to form, but if we chip in things like games and other interesting things, the  youth become interested –  and when they are used to that, it develops into a behavior. 

The Mango Tree Session

The second dArusha4ay we started with under the Mango Tree Session; this is the term taken from the practical saving field where in most villages savings groups convene under the mango tree.

We were using this to discuss various practical topics as well as energizers which we apply in the field and also, creativeness, in the field of savings. Then we went into the snapshots of saving groups research which were to be presented in various rooms within the day.  We were asked to select one research presentation by the end of the day; there were six research projects to be presented:

  • Preliminary Findings from the CARE VSLA  Impact Studies in Ghana, Malawi, and Uganda.
  • Commercializing the Training and Support of Saving Groups (CRS Catholic Relief Services).
  • Understanding the Context in Which Savings Occurs: How Group and Household Perspective Speak to the Sustainability of the Saving Group Model (Freedom from Hunger and University of Arizona).
  • Beyond Financial Services: a Synthesis of Studies on the Integration of Savings Groups and other Development Activities (Savings Revolution).
  • How Do Socio-economic and Cultural Contexts Matter for Saving Groups (University of Bath and FSD Kenya).
  • What is SAVIX and What is It Telling Us (VSL Associates).


I participated in the presentation of the research topic number two, which is Commercializing the Training and Support of Saving Groups, by Michael Ferguson PhD.

I chose this because I was thinking of the better way of linking our volunteers with the savings groups beyond the project funding.Arusha5

The concept promotes the use of the fee-for-service Private Service Provider (PSP) model. This approach encourages the community-based field agent to support savings groups on a commercial basis.

The PSP model is operating effectively in pilot areas where the agents are earning $40-$50   monthly member paid, and the average groups the agent is supposed to have is 20 groups (450 members). This is an initiative which is looking beyond the project funding.

They were comparing this with the paid agents-based savings the research proved that the PSP model the group formation is done slowly as compared to the fast rate of group multiplication by the paid agent, but in the case of sustainability the PSP model proves very sustainable

During the afternoon we attended the debate which was discussing the theme “The goal of saving groups is to bring their members into the formal financial systems”.

On this debate I also learned that the most important thing is that we need to groom these saving members for the formal financial services, but the process should be participatory, whereby the implementing organization needs to build the capacity and learn from the pace of the group, the group need not to be pushed by us but they should be given freedom in that process.

I really liked this because this acts as a benchmark in the savings project implementation.  

The more that groups graduate to formal financial services, the more that change has taken place in the livelihood of the people working with.

Another Mango Tree Discusssion

On the third day we started with the under the mango tree discussion where we shared various topics we discussed in the previous day, as well as having some stories from participants.

After this, I also attended the research presentation on SAVIX “What is SAVIX and What is It Telling Us.”

My aim of choosing this was to know about this database, which assists in comparing our savings groups with other groups in various countries; my aim was to learn how we can integrate this in the project we are implementing.

The database seems to be very good; the only challenge is that we need to go through CARE Malawi for us to be using this. I was privileged to discuss with the Programme Manager from Care Malawi who promised to take us on board when the training is open, and I am planning to contact him so that we can agree on the way forward.

After this, we had our word café where we were introducing each other to various friends, and then had a recap of all the topics we discussed and lessons learnt during the summit –  from the beginning up to the end, and all the learning points that were presented.

Many Thanks to My Supporters

I appreciate the MasterCard Foundation for sponsoring me with a return air ticket plus accommodation in Arusha, Volkat Vision Foundation – our partners - for supporting me with $450.00 (not forgetting Rebecca Velmot for coordinating this support), Chris Crowstaff and Jennifer Timmons of The Safeworld International Foundation for encouraging me in various ways and training me on correspondence, Harry Singh – my dear Christian partner - for praying for me during the trip. The organizers as well as everyone who shared a hand in making this activity brilliant as it was (Bill Maddocks and the whole team; I can’t manage to mention all.).

After attending ASGS, I have gained a lot and I have already started implementing the lessons. Recently, I was training the village agents on savings, I am planning to train more and brief many government staffs on this.

Further information: Arusha Savings Group Summit