Fueled by social biases, discriminatory laws, practices, and disproportionate household responsibilities, gender inequality limits women’s life choices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Decades of armed conflict in the eastern DRC region Kivu have made the villages unsafe for women and their children. They had to largely abandon farming and move to rural areas with few job opportunities for females. The necessity of caring for families pushes women to create their own opportunities - engaging in small-scale trade or cooking meals for sale.
Savings groups facilitate access to finance
Most Congolese entrepreneurs put everything on the line and invest the little savings they have. Any unforeseen event puts their micro-enterprise and the entire family’s security at risk. Taking out a loan to cope with financial shocks is necessary in most cases. Despite the growing microfinance sector, the poorest communities in rural Africa still struggle to access affordable financial services.
For women, credit conditions are particularly strict. However, joining forces increases their chances of getting a loan. Together they succeed in saving and managing emergencies. Self-regulated saving groups AVECs (Les Associations Villageoises d’Épargne et de Crédits) provide solution in accessing affordable finance in the DRC. They offer their members low-cost financial services based on the pooling of funds. AVECs consist of 15 to 25 people, almost exclusively women engaged in small-scale trade, who know and trust each other. These independent cooperatives allow women to make savings (contributions ranging from 13 to 31 cents per week), apply for MFI loans of bigger size and at lower rates, receive immediate relief in case of personal emergencies. In the second part of the financial diaries research project, we are exploring the lives of female members of AVECs.
Financial diaries research: learning about MFI borrowers
Esther Duflo, a 2019 Economics Nobel Prize winner, transformed the field of development economics with a simple idea: Scientific research is essential to breaking the cycle of poverty, and all interventions must be tested in the local context. Inspired by Esther’s work, CIM is dedicated to implementing a scientific approach into impact investing.
To learn more about the livelihoods of Congolese entrepreneurs using the financial services of the MFIs, Cordaid Investment Management funded research for our partner Hekima. This MFI with a strong social mission operates in the North and South Kivu region and develops financial solutions tailored to the needs of low-income households, mainly led by women. The financial diary research, realized by an experienced team of L-IFT, was meant to generate insights into clients’ behaviours and help design the products that clients need.
Over six months in the series of interviews, researchers could dive deeper into borrowers’ livelihoods and daily struggles. At the same time, keeping a financial diary and tracking their economic lives helped Hekima’s clients better understand their own financial situation. While the summary of findings and main takeaways from the research on MFI borrowers will be published shortly, in this two-part series, we tell the stories of the Congolese entrepreneurs. Their courage and entrepreneurial spirit promise a bright future for the country’s private sector.
Tsii Kahunga Salome
“I love my business and the financial independence it entitles. Being able to help my family gives me confidence and motivation to go on despite all the difficulties and insecurities. My husband is proud of my efforts and encourages me to develop the business further,” says Salome.
23-year old Tsii Kahunga Salome is a small-scale trader and a farmer. Most days, she spends 12 hours selling shoes at the market in Kaduki, the locality of North Kivu province. On Thursdays, she spends the day taking care of her crops: beans, banana trees, cassava. Salome knows how important it is to have several sources of income: her farming activities bring her small but stable earnings.
Farming allowed Salome to save some initial capital, $800, and open her first kiosk. Yet the first business endeavour wasn’t too successful. “I sold all sorts of things, but the location wasn’t right, so I didn’t have many customers and ended up closing this business. The unsuccessful first attempt didn’t stop me from trying again, and I started with the sale of shoes. I found it to be much more profitable. Besides, there is almost no competition in my niche,” says Salome.
Although the trip takes all day, she regularly visits the market in Goma, North Kivu’s capital, and selects new shoe models to expand her client base. “All the money I can spear, I re-invest in my business. My biggest dream is to see it evolving and expanding, even though it can take years. Perhaps, one day I will become a wholesaler,” shares Salome. The young entrepreneur says that saving and accessing loans to grow her small business would not be possible without AVECs. In fact, she takes part not in one, but in various saving groups. It is not only about financing, but also being able to share experiences and grow social and business networks.
Ushindi Balume ventured her first business with as little as $13 of capital. She could have spent her father’s gift on something else, but this young woman had always dreamt about being financially independent. “In ten years, I see myself as a business lady, owner of a proper clothes store,” says Ushindi Balume. Having ambitious business plans, Ushindi Balume knew she had to start small: “First, I tried selling fries at a small market in the Sake province, but it wasn’t profitable, so a year and a half ago, I switched to trading ndazi, local donuts. And I’m glad I’ve made that choice.”
Accumulating capital is challenging; that’s why Ushindi joined the informal savings group, putting aside all she could spare to start selling clothes and owning a shop one day. With the research, she learned to record all her daily transactions and analyze sales evolution. Taking the initiative to start her own business has transformed her life. “Now that my primary needs are met, I can think about expanding my business,” confirms the entrepreneur.