Margret unexpectedly found herself as the sole breadwinner for her five children — three girls and two boys. She was overwhelmed and left with little hope. “It was as if all the gates and doors of hope in life for us were closed leaving us in a dark room,” she said. Her oldest daughter Mwende had just become a candidate to advance in Kenya’s primary school with the hope of continuing secondary education the following year. However, Margret struggled to make ends meet by going from house to house looking for cleaning jobs. The idea of Mwende actually going to school was a distant dream.
Over time Margret decided to join a group of women who were earning money by weaving and selling ropes. She started making and selling them, which gave her some financial support. Fortunately, Savings for Life (SFL), a savings and loan program through World Relief, was introduced in her village in Kenya. SFL is built on a century-old way of saving and borrowing. The rotating savings and borrowing system called “rosca” has been a way for people to come together, put the same amount of money in the pot, and gain a loan through a lottery system. The SFL gives the group members flexibility by allowing them to choose how much money they want to save rather than requiring a set amount as well as allowing them to choose when and how much money to loan based on need. To increase trust and accountability, the group members are self-selected, a five-person leadership committee is appointed, and the group is self-managed. Members write their own constitution and policies. Courtney O’Connell, Senior Technical Advisor for Savings for Life, explained, “It builds off of traditional ways of savings that are familiar to people. Yet there is a very significant difference — the methodology is improved upon so there is more trust, greater transparency, and accountability. People believe in it and trust the system and group members and a higher amount of money is saved because of that.”
Margret and the other women joined the group, and it gave them the opportunity to save money and access loans. After four months of saving and taking several small loans, Margret decided to take out a loan to open up a tea shop in the middle of a busy market. Initially it was difficult for people to consider Margret more than a woman who cleaned houses, but her hope never wavered. She said, “I believed that one day God will remember and bless the work of my hands.” Margret’s persistence paid off and with the combination of her growing savings and income from her business, she took another loan of $187.50 to pay for an entire year of school fees for Mwenda at the Mukomeni Secondary Day School. Now her tea shop is one of the most preferred shops in the market. Margret’s family could have fallen apart due to unforeseen circumstances, but through SFL, her life has transformed and her family has been able to stay together and thrive.
The situation Margret found herself in is not unlike many around the world. Everyone faces hardship and uncertainty in health, jobs, or unexpected family expenses at some point in life. Yet what would it be like to not have access to a reliable way to save money? What if you were unable to put away money for an illness in the family, a change of income or loss of job, or expenses for a child’s education? What if there weren’t a reliable way to grow a business? Unfortunately, less than 25 percent of people in the world who are making under $2 a day have a bank account. There is no safe place to keep resources and no sustainable way to access credit, and when they have access to saving institutions or a chance to attain credit, they face high bank fees or unattainable requirements.
The SFL program is unique because it addresses a more holistic view, based on Bryant Myers’s book Walking with the Poor, of the reasons behind poverty by addressing biblical stewardship of God’s resources, the relationship we have with ourselves, our relationships with others, and our relationship with the environment. A faith-based curriculum is used to lay out these biblical stewardship principles explaining how to save money, repay loans, grow a business, and manage a budget. This builds within the group a sense of capability and confidence to run a successful business for the long term.
Furthermore, the local church plays a substantial role by inviting vulnerable members to join the groups, allowing space for groups to meet, and helping identify key individuals to be leaders within the groups. Utilizing the local church also helps network and mobilize communities to come together to save, take out loans, and build their businesses. Pastors have described how the success of the program has increased offerings and tithes to the church, where before people had little or no resources to give. Now saving groups are mobilized to do things like providing homes for widows or paying school fees so orphans and other vulnerable children can go to school.
Women especially are benefiting from having more access to saving and credit opportunities. Christianity Today recently featured an article on the impacts microloans are having on women: “According to an MIT study, approximately 75 percent of all microloans are placed into the hands of women. Researchers found that loans given to women are more likely to benefit families and communities than loans given to men. That’s likely because where traditional jobs are available, they are already given to men. Women also tend to pour family money into their families and communities. Women will feed their families, improve their housing, send their children to school, and even take in orphans from their community.” Women in the SFL program make up over 70 percent of their members, with 115,000 women participating out of 162,000 total members.
Savings For Life is not just a method of saving and loaning money; it is taking a greater look at what God has given His people, how we are to manage those resources, and His purposes for them. In giving a testimony on the impact the program has had in her life, Margret said, “Let the SFL program never come to an end, but let it expand and cross boundaries to help the many who may be in my former state.” She is just one example of so many whose lives, families, and communities have been transformed by coming together to utilize God’s gifts and resources.