Since the start of the microfinance revolution about 30 years ago, poor people who live in many rural areas and urban slums still find it difficult to access appropriate microfinance products, even in countries with a well- developed sector.
Although during the last decades microfinance institutions have provided millions of people access to financial services, in rural areas such an opportunity remains a major challenge. Among others, it is costly for microfinance organisations to reach the rural poor, and as a result, the great majority of them lack any access to formal financial services
This has seen a number of organizations stepping up to offer the services at village level to ease the financial stress. Stephanos Foundation is one of them and has introduced a traditional community method of saving dubbed: Voluntary Saving and Loan (VSL) through a programme called Family Adoption Programme in the area of Traditional Authority Ngabu in Chikhwawa aimed at contributing to the economic empowerment of the poor masses.
Those interested i n participating are invited to form groups averaging about twenty and receive training. The groups, comprised mostly of women, meet on a regular basis, as decided by members, to make savings contributions to a common pool.
At each meeting, members can request a loan from the group to be repaid with interest. They also introduce an emergency fund, allowing members to borrow money for urgent expenses without having to sell productive assets or cut essential expenses such as meals.
Programme Manager Chimwemwe Salie-Hara said the five-year long programme is aimed at supporting orphans within their communities and extending the benefits of guardians that are caring for orphans by providing them with different community empowerment initiatives to ensure adequate care and support to orphans.
"The goal of family adoption programme is to retain orphans living in their homes with active guardians. We want to see community members developing their own plans and advocating the programme to other communities and continuing the initiative without outsiders," he said.
Hara said another objective of the project is to enhance the culture of saving loans and to promote economic empowerment to 500 guardians and 500 child orphan-headed household in some parts of the district.
"This programme would promote the culture of saving among community members especially vulnerable guardians as well as child headed households.
The belief is that once this is done there will be disposable income to use at household level which will help the family meet the daily needs," he said.
He said among other things, they provide informal village-based banking structures where group members meet regularly to save, and the collected funds are used to make loans to group members.
"We have trained several groups in church and village communities where participants have successfully run their own village savings groups.
"We provide them with training kits such as boxes, cash and record books on top of conducting business management training and capacity building in entrepreneurship to guardians and community agents," he said.
Group village head man Chapomoka said through the initiative, guardians have increased their household income by establishment of various businesses.
"My people in this area have embarked on small scale businesses which have enhanced their marketing and entrepreneurship skills. The use of indigenous knowledge has also cemented the groups," he said.
The chief said the initiative would not only help to serve the very poor whose income is less reliable, but also offer useful services to the economically secure.
"Every family and farmer needs to be able to save in order to invest in their farms or small businesses, pay school fees or make other larger purchases. Access to banks often involves a long journey and an expensive bus fare and a large extended family usually makes saving difficult. Access to microcredit is not available to most farmers," he said.
One of the beneficiaries, Stella Manga'anda said apart from paying school fees for her children at boarding secondary school, the proceeds from the business have helped her to use them for purchasing drugs.
"With little access to formal financial institutions, we didn't have the opportunity to invest in agricultural inputs like fertilizer that could increase our income in the past. But this initiative has helped us to become self-reliant and we are currently predominantly engaged in agricultural activities," he said.
Chairperson for Chimpambana Village Savings Club Rosemary Macheso said the initiative has managed to empower them in micro financing activities, reduce vulnerabilities and expand economic viable ventures in rural areas through improved financial services, especially for women and youth.
"This approach has also helped us to sharpen our cash management skills and to boost up our microfinance needs," she said.
The district's director of planning Kelvin Harawa said the inititiave attempts to overcome the difficulties of offering credit to the rural poor by building on a model to create groups of people who can pool their savings in order to have a source of lending funds.
"Members make savings contributions to the pool, and can also borrow from it. As a selfsustainable and self-replicating mechanism, village savings have the potential to bring access to more remote areas, but the impact of these groups on access to credit, savings and assets, income, food security, consumption education, and empowerment is not yet known," he said.
Stephanos executive director Arjan Hoeflake said it was the mission of his organisation to develop, provide and champion microfinance services that are economically and socially empowering women using the village agent model.
He said the model is revolved around supporting the formation and capacity building of village-based savings and loan associations that will support economically viable initiatives related to livestock rearing and other income generating activities.
"This will pave way for social and economic empowerment of women and the youth in leading to enhance livelihood security and well-being of target households and communities," he said.
The Village Savings and Loan (VSL) model is a self-managed and self-capitalised microfinance methodology. By having its members mobilise an intermediate local pools of investment finance, it offers savings, insurance and credit services in markets outside the reach of formal institutions. The model was developed by CARE International in Niger in 1991 and has spread to 58 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with over 6 million active participants worldwide.
VSLs have altered the development equation in marginalised communities worldwide, providing members with the means to cope with emergencies, build capital and re-create social dynamics that support genuine selfreliance. Stephanos Foundation is a faith-based organisation working in five districts namely, Blantyre, Nsanje, Chikhwawa, Zomba, Thyolo and Mulanje. The organization which started operating as an orphanage in Blantyre.