By working together and putting aside small amounts of cash, participants in savings groups are finding new ways to start businesses and improve their lives.

As savings groups form, members choose their own leaders, who then coordinate the weekly meetings. From left are president Marceline Ntawigenera, secretary Théogene Maniragaba, treasurer Beatrice Nyirambonera and accountant Elie Nikobizaba.

Friday morning is savings group time in Kadereri, a rural neighbourhood outside the Rwandan city of Musanze.

Each week for a nine-month cycle, 26 women and men gather at 7 a.m. — greeting each other with laughter and conversation and starting the meeting with prayer.

They watch intently as three trusted group members, each with a key to a different lock on the money box, open the metal container that holds cash and share books tracking how much money each member has saved.

The amount that each person puts in per week is not large, just about 83 cents to $4.

But through this MCC-supported effort, people are starting new businesses and finding a valued safety net for everything from school fees to health care costs.

“My life has changed so much,” says 47-year-old Marie Godance Murekatete.

The savings group advised her not to rely only on seasonal harvests of bean, maize and potatoes and working in other people’s fields. So she borrowed money to buy charcoal that she could sell in town. Now, instead of asking her husband for money for clothes or soap, “I provide for my family the simple things.”

She took out a loan from the group for school fees, and the money she earned enabled her to repay it.

And being in the group gave her the confidence to join in other community activities and to see herself differently.

“I can tell you I was a village woman who was shy and who thought I didn’t have any potential other than giving birth and I just depended on my husband,” she says. “Now I feel valuable and responsible for my own life.”

Antonciata Uwizeyimana, left, with son Uwidohaye, and Esperance Nyiramajyambere, with daughter Alliance Nyiramugisha, turn in share books at a savings group meeting.

Building on two decades of work to foster peace, reconciliation and trust after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide against the Tutsi ethnic group, this project of MCC partner Peace and Development Network (PDN) continues to strengthen community ties and partnerships while helping people find new opportunities to earn and save.

So far, 475 savings groups have formed through the project, which MCC supports by funding a national coordinator, staff in nine districts and training for staff and local village agents who work with group leaders in their communities.

The entire effort is aimed at showing people they have the power to make a difference in their own lives and communities.

For instance, new groups have no startup funds. “They start with what they have,” says PDN president David Bucura. “We do show them how to save from what they have.”

That’s usually a few cents or dollars at a time. But as people begin to save at this level, they’re harnessing the power of amounts of cash that are so tiny they seemed worthless – and therefore easier to waste.

Now I feel valuable and responsible for my own life.” — Marie Godance Murekatete

“We couldn’t take small amounts like 1,000 or 2,000 Rwandan francs ($1.65 to $3.30) to the bank,” says the group’s president, 30-year-old Marceline Ntawigenera.

In the past, when she got this amount of cash, she’d spend it. Now, at the weekly meetings, she can buy a savings share for 500 Rwandan francs (about 83 cents) or pay about $4 to buy five shares, the maximum savings amount per week.

After investing money in savings, members can begin to take loans. They may not borrow more than three times the amount they have saved through the group, and loans are at a fixed interest rate, often at 10 per cent.

But it’s easier to access cash through the group than through a bank, and interest payments go directly back to group members at the end of the savings cycle. Group members also can offer advice on projects people plan to start with their loans.

Saving together can mean saving more, says Théogene Maniragaba, the group secretary, who recalls seeing a group member buy five savings shares on a week he bought two. “It showed me I could do more and encouraged me to sacrifice more for saving,” he says.

When his savings group in Kadereri began in 2015, secretary Théogene Maniragaba recalls the most difficult part was that some members thought the effort would work, some thought it wouldn’t and others were waiting to see. But the 33-year-old, who used to spend all he earned from his construction job, watched as his savings and the savings of the group began to grow over time. And the ties among group members grew closer. “Now we all work together, we work hard as a team and help each other to be where we are now,” he says.

For him, though, the best thing about the group is not the money itself — but the trust and unity members have built to help each other develop their lives. “The group helped us to come together to join our hands as a family,” he says.

Just as relationships build over time, so the group’s savings grow as members borrow money and pay interest. Also, at each meeting, members donate an agreed-upon amount — 100 Rwandan francs (about 17 cents) — to a fund that helps others in the group in times of crisis.

Transparency and trust are critical. Savings are handed over within the group, and at each meeting leaders announce totals of the savings fund and the fund to help others. There’s good reason for that.

Ntawigenera was part of a savings group before, but the leader took members’ money. She had no interest in joining another group but over time she saw how neighbours in a PDN savings group were able to save and how their lives changed. “I was motivated by the results,” she says.

Just talking about joining a group sparked change in her family.

Knowing she could not come up with savings each week from the crops she was growing, Ntawigenera took the money she could from her bean harvest, 2,000 francs ($3.30), got 3,000 francs ($5) from her husband and bought two 20-litre jerry cans of milk to sell in town. She used the earnings for savings and to buy more milk to sell, eventually growing her business.

The best thing about the group is not the money itself — but the trust and unity members have built to help each other develop their lives.

With a loan from the group, she bought her family health insurance, which the Rwandan government provides for a fee of 3,000 francs ($5) per family member per year.

After nine months, when the savings from the group were divided out to group members based on how many shares they had purchased, she was able to rent two fields for two years — creating another stream of income.

Now, the group is in its second nine-month cycle, and she hopes to buy a cow with the money she receives at the end of this cycle.

It’s a success that’s being repeated across groups. Of the first 95 groups started through this project, all but two started a second round of savings.

“They see the change. They see the transformation of their lives,” PDN president Bucura says. “They see the importance.”

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