One of Burundi’s Friends Women’s Association’s self-help groups.

I am a widow. Being a member of one of the self-help groups at FWA has helped me to purchase iron sheets for my small house. Indeed, my group gave me a loan to buy the sheets. And I have now paid back the loan. This has encouraged me. Now I can save $3.00 per week while I was saving only $0.60 per week at the beginning.  Self-help group’s member.

In Kenya, as other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, women organize themselves together into self-help groups. Here in Kenya these are called “Merry-Go-Rounds”. Their commonality is that they are mostly consisting of women. Otherwise they vary according to the needs of the participants. The number of members can be from about five to twenty-five women.

One common method in Kenya is for the group of women to pool a certain amount of money each month and then the total amount is given to one of the women. For example, if the group has twelve women who each give $10 per month, then the recipient each month receives $120. Why would they want to do this?

$10 does not buy much and because of necessary expenses, the amount will drip away. But if the woman waits until she is the recipient, then she gets the $120 at once. This is enough money for her to do something significant – start a small business, buy a calf, build a latrine, pay secondary school fees for one of her children, or other similar needs.

An alternative method is for the funds to be deposited into the participant’s account as a savings account. The funds in the group are then loaned out, usually at a 10% interest rate, to members of the group who have a need to borrow for some expense, frequently to launch or increase a small business venture.

The One Acre fund that supplies small-scale farmers with inputs encourages the use of merry-go-rounds. In this case the group collects funds each time it meets and the collection is used by that day’s recipient to pay for her costs of seed, fertilizer, and other farming inputs.

Why do these self-help groups are so common and work to well? I think there are a number of reasons.

First, women always move to their husband’s home to live among all the husband’s relatives. She is the stranger, the new-comer. As a result she has a need to get out of the confines of her husband’s family. Since all the women in a group would be “strangers” in their new families, socialization with peers is extremely important.

Second, in Kenyan (and most sub-Saharan African cultures as far as I can determine), whatever income a woman earns is hers to decide how to spent it. This is totally different from the old European/American tradition before the twentieth century where the husband controlled the wife’s finances. I think this is an extremely overlooked positive aspect of African culture. Naturally the women are much more concerned with using their income for the betterment of their family and children. On the whole they do not waste their money on drinking, smoking, “other women,” and drugs as their husbands sometimes do.

Third, the group is much more than just a financial operation. It is a support group. Women can have many issues including sickness of themselves, their children, or other family members. When this happens the group pitches in to help out as needed. Perhaps it is to weed the field of someone who has become sick.

Fourth, the women have to live close together and can meet in a common place such as a church or rotate in members’ houses. I have heard of some groups that work together communally by all working in one women’s field for a day with the beneficiary supplying lunch, another woman’s field on the next day, and so on. In fact one rarely sees a lone woman working in her field by herself during planting, weeding, or harvesting. 

A Friends Women’s Association’s self-help group counting their funds.

After the death of all my parents in 1993, I found myself in an internally displaced persons’ camp. In this camp I was sexually abused by a soldier until I had two children — the first at the age of 14 and the second at the age of 16. After I separated from the soldier, I became a sex worker, first in the countryside and then here in Bujumbura. I got HIV/AIDS when I was a sex worker. The reason why I came for HIV voluntary testing was that I lost weight every day. I always had headaches, temperature, and oral thrush. When I started ARV treatment, my health began to improve. For now, I greatly appreciate the discussion groups because it is an opportunity to meet those who have the same HIV+ status as me. I have been a member of a self-help group for one year. For many years, I had received training in a sewing center, but I had never managed to have capital to have my own machine. Now I was able to receive a loan of 150,000 francs ($86) from my self-help group. I was able to buy a sewing machine. At the moment, my children can eat three times a day and can go to school easily. HIV+ self-help group member.

The Friends Women’s Association’s (FWA) Ntaseka Clinic in Bujumbura, Burundi, now has 54 self-help groups with a total of 1280 women for an average of 24 women per group. These groups are trained and supervised by Grace Horanimana. The women are survivors of gender-based violence with many being HIV+. Their system is a savings system.

Each group meets weekly with each woman contributing to a savings account. The amount is determined by the participants’ ability to save, but with a minimum amount of $0.50. If someone needs a loan, she writes a letter requesting a loan and the group checks the balance this person has already saved. It will then be multiplied by two. For example, if the person saved $50 she could borrow $100. The interest rate is 10%. Most loans are to start small scale businesses so that the women can become self-sufficient.

In any one year a group collect between $450 and $1000 in interest. If we assume that the average is $700 per group, this means that $16,800 is collected in interest and then returned to the women at the end of the year. Moreover this implies that at least $168,000 is lent out to the women each year — a quite substantial amount for poor women in a slum in one of the poorest countries in the world.

At the end of the year, the interest income is divided equally among the members. If a person is behind in her repayments, the interest along with her continuing contributions are deducted from her outstanding loan. Surprisingly there are only two current cases of women who are seriously delinquent in their repayment. They are being counseled by Grace and they cannot take out an additional loan.

In addition to the training on how the self-help group and savings system works, most of the participants have participated in a basic Healing and Rebuilding Our Community (HROC) workshop. Nonetheless, as expected, there are conflicts. Grace reports, “There are a lot of conflicts. We encourage members to resolve conflicts themselves by referring to the rules they have in their notebook but also by listening to everyone. The decision is made by referring to the idea supported by several people. In a serious case they consult with me.”

I remember many years ago when FWA started its first few self-help groups. They failed. I knew at that time that the Bududa Vocational Institute in Uganda had a successful program with self-help groups. So I arranged for Grace to visit Bududa and learn the ropes on how to do it properly. Clearly she learned how to organize successful self-help groups.

This program by the Friends Women’s Association is remarkable. Here they are taking some of the poorest, most abused women in the world and turning them into self-supporting individuals by their own collective efforts. Yet this happens all over sub-Saharan Africa. Although these efforts are usually overlooked by economists and policy makers, they contribute significantly to the resilience of African women.


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David Zarembka

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