Self Help Groups-How to Start with Nothing
MATNITU IS A PROSPEROUS BUSINESSWOMAN
Less than two years ago she was dirt poor—living on less than a dollar a day as a third of all Ethiopians do. Like many women, she stayed mostly at home, isolated from social interaction, afraid of her neighbors. Abused by but economically dependent on her husband, she felt very alone, worthless, and helpless. No one in her community—not even church people—had compassion on the poor. When she had a need, there was nothing for her to do but cry.
Then a local church invited her and about 20 others to become part of a Self-Help Group (SHG). To belong to the group she had to commit to deposit a half birr (3 cents USA) per week in the group’s saving fund. “How can I do that?” she queried. “I’m so poor!” But as she slowly got to know and trust the other group members and talked this over with them, she realized that if she gave up one cup of coffee each day, even she could afford to put aside this much.
While the group began to save together, much more important things began to happen. They began to share their problems with one another. They began to trust one another. They began to love one another. They began to help one another in practical ways. They began to see how the things they had heard from the Bible might actually apply to them. As they rotated leadership they began to gain self-confidence. They began to hope. In this context saving became easy.After only three months the group had saved enough money to begin making loans to its members. With her first loan of 100 birr (about $7.50), Matnitu walked 10 km to the nearest market, bought 10 kg (22 lbs) of corn, carried it home on her back, and sold it to her neighbors for a profit of about 30 birr. A couple of days later she repeated this. Soon she was carrying 20 kg (44 lbs) of corn back from the market. She repaid the loan with 10% interest over 3 months, as required by the group, then got a 200 birr loan. Now she was able to rent a donkey to carry the corn home from market for her. Little by little her corn-selling business has grown. She now also has two other businesses, and she is expanding them with a 1000 birr loan. In addition, she and her friends are selling to a coffee-bean co-op and planning a “super-market,” through which each will retail in their little village one of the commonly used commodities, together eliminating their neighbors’ needs to travel to the market 10 km. away.
Poverty has not been the only casualty in this story. Ignorance is also weakening. The SHGs have all learned about HIV, gotten tested, gotten their church leaders to get tested, and begun to educate their neighbors on HIV, deforestation, and other issues. Fear has been fatally wounded. Matnitu regularly goes to the local government officials to exhort them to do their jobs. Helplessness is dead. Matnitu and her friends not only solve their own problems, but their neighbors’ as well. Compassion has resuscitated. In addition to saving for their own economic well being, the SHG sets aside “special savings” for neighbors outside the group who are in need of medicine or other emergency help. They also help with funerals, weddings, and graduation celebrations.
We now see that our real problem was not poverty, but ignorance of how to utilize our resources properly. We didn’t know how to think. We ate what we should have invested. We sold low and bought high. Now we see that we can change things, with God’s help.”Tim and Andrew Thiery and I heard similar stories from other members of this SHG in southern Ethiopia when we visited them in late June. The 36 SHGs which have been started in the area over the last year and a half have together accumulated over 50,000 birr (about $4,000) which they are using to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbors. As one “side effect” of the groups, 144 members, 137 women and 7 men, have signed up for adult literacy classes—a huge step for formerly “helpless” folk.
After our visit, our top leaders enthusiastically embraced this model and attended a week-long training on running SHGs. They have already begun implementing it in at least 4 towns as well as among the Catholic renewal movement, and many other small group churches are anxious to start. Imagine the effect on Ethiopian church-planting movements if Christians began to be seen as prosperous—and began to tithe!
What will it take to add this simple means of economic development to the more than 500 discipleship groups our friends have started so far? NO outside resources, except for training. But that is important. Without good management, accurate records, and enforced discipline, SHGs can fail. To assure success, we anticipate that we will need one full-time trainer for every 15 new groups for 1 year. After that those SHGs should be able to pay for the trainers’ salaries.
If you would like to help pay the salary for a trainer for this first critical year, you would be making a long-lasting contribution not only to poverty eradication but also to making the Ethiopian church self-sustaining. To donate, go to Donate Now.