Savings groups are helping farmers - particularly women - get through bad times when harvests are lost
By Elias Gebreselassie
GANTA KANACHAMA, Ethiopia, Dec 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Workinesh Denda, a stocky middle-aged woman, arranges hand-made stoves in a neat line in a small shop in Ganta Kanachama village, in southern Ethiopia.
"Before we had these (stoves) we could barely get by," she said. "Endless drought would destroy our corn and teff harvests, leaving us with nothing to (sell) at the market or even feed our family."
Increasingly erratic rain and recurring dry spells have slashed harvests and killed livestock in swathes of Ethiopia, raising fears of increased food insecurity.
Women often bear the brunt of such climate pressures, experts say, particularly as they usually have less power over their lives and are chiefly responsible for feeding their families.
"In Ethiopia's rural areas, which are dominated by patriarchal attitudes, women rarely have a say in household finances," explained Sintayehu Tsegaye, microfinance specialist at Mercy Corps, a charity.
To remedy this, a project is experimenting with savings groups as a way to give women more financial clout and an alternative income when crops fail.
Denda's business was set up through one of over 300 village savings and loan associations (VSLAs) across Ethiopia, which aim to help members – most of whom are women – become more economically stable and independent.
The initiative, led by aid agencies Farm Africa and Mercy Corps, is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development.
The groups meet weekly to pool their money, with the savings used to provide loans ranging from 300 to 3,000 Ethiopian birr ($11-110) to group members, at an interest rate of 10 percent if repaid within three months.
Requests for larger loans are referred to partner microfinance institutions in the area.
"Poor rural communities have little to no access to financial institutions like banks to build a cushion against climate extremes such as drought," Tsegaye said.
"So we aim for the savings groups to act as an emergency fund in case of bad weather or other needs, such as if a woman needs to give birth in hospital due to complications," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Group members also receive training on financial issues such as accounting to help them set up and manage their own businesses.
The project encourages members to diversify their sources of income so they are less vulnerable to climate shocks, such as the loss of crops to drought.
With a loan of 10,000 birr ($370) from a microfinance institution, Shela Shekene, a farmer from Ganta Kanachama, bought two cows, which he intends to fatten and sell at a profit.
"That will help me supplement my income," he explained. "What I make from my (maize) alone isn't enough to feed my family."
Tsegaye said the BRACED project is also teaching farmers how to better manage their natural resources - by planting trees, for example.
The project is slowly but clearly changing attitudes and beliefs about the value of women growing crops and running their own businesses, Tsegaye said.
With other women from a savings group, Denda set up a business selling fuel-efficient stoves that the women make with sand, gravel and cement.
"The stoves emit less smoke than traditional ones made of clay, and last for five years instead of just a few months," she said, a smile spreading across her face.
"They also use about half the amount of wood, so they can help us preserve trees in the area," she added.
The women sell the stoves for 135 birr ($5) each to local families, and use the profits as a rainy day fund for the group's members.
Not everyone initially approved of their venture.
"At first the community didn't want me dirtying my hands using soil to make stoves, as they thought it makes women less attractive," said Denda, who previously had to rely on her husband giving her money.
"But now that they see how successful I've been, they accept it, and other women want to do the same," she added.
Tsegaye said the 1,500 members of BRACED savings groups in Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' (SNNP) region went from contributing about 18 birr ($0.70) a week three years ago to 50 birr ($1.80) currently.
He called that "a sign of how communities are taking this opportunity seriously".
(Reporting by Elias Gebreselassie, editing by Zoe Tabary and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)