When I was in Dakar, Senegal a year ago, I met several teenage girls. They were confident and energetic. I loved Fatimah’s clothes. Bright bold colors with a modern twist to traditional Senegalese dress. She was wearing her passion for design and sewing. “I had a small embroidery business. Now I have access to credit to buy cloth and can expand my business.”
Another girl, Lekum, had begun selling coffee beans. “I learned to check the market before I sell anything. I asked each vendor how much they would pay for coffee. I found a way to get quality beans from my town to the venders by motorbike.”
Both girls have long left school. What they earn either helps their families and younger siblings or is reinvested in their business. Each girl got her start through a community-based youth savings program set up by PLAN International to serve vulnerable youth in West Africa.
What’s impressive is that these savings and loans associations are run entirely by young people, after a short period of training. Quite simply, a group of up to twenty meets weekly. Each person saves amounts as small as 20 to 40 cents. After a few weeks, the accumulated funds are made available to group members as loans ranging from $5 to $12. Each group sets its own rules about interest rates and repayment terms. At the end of year, the group “cashes out.” Members receive their savings plus a percentage of interest earned on repaid loans.
In West Africa, close to half of the population is under the age of 25. Many young people, particularly girls, are unable to complete even the six years of primary education. Options for out-of-school, marginalized youth are dim. Employment opportunities are limited to low-paying, unskilled work and sometimes dangerous work. Young girls often work as domestic help or in restaurants and bars where there are high instances of abuse.
These savings groups represent an innovation beyond providing marginalized young people with a safe place to save money. They are channels to deliver life skills training including financial literacy and health information as well as build self-confidence. For these adolescents, this was first time they had an opportunity to learn to save, manage money and develop new skills.
What makes this program unique and exciting is that young people play a critical role in the design, management and evaluation of the program. Both Lekum and Fatimah were not only members of savings groups, but also of the national youth advisory council that PLAN formed to guide the program.
Based on learnings from a pilot program, we are working with Plan to scale up the program in Senegal, Sierra Leone and Niger to serve 70,000 youth over 4 years. As one participant told us, “This project must go beyond us. We must spread this knowledge.”