Rakia, a 35 year-old woman living a small rural village of Tubu in eastern Niger, is now enjoying some prosperity for the first time in her life. A year ago, Rakia joined one of the Mata Masa Dubara (MMD - meaning “women on the move” in Hausa) women’s credit and savings groups that CARE has helped organize throughout Niger. Over an eight-month training period, these groups of 25 to 30 women learn how to manage and use the collection of weekly contributions to make loans to their members. For example, each member of Rakia’s group deposits with the group’s management committee the equivalent of 25¢ per week. This may not sound like much, but in a very poor country like Niger, where most people live on less than 40¢ a day, this is a significant sum.

Rakia has shown how even a small loan of a few dollars can make a big difference in improving the lives of poor people. After a few months with her group, Rakia was able to borrow about $20. With this money she bought a young ram that she fattened over several months with household leftovers and residues from her family’s millet field. She later sold her ram for $60 when prices were high during the annual Muslim Tabaski celebrations. With this money she made a down payment on a donkey cart. With this cart she started with her eldest son a business of hauling water and firewood. Today, she has paid off all her loans and has a steady income to help her care for her six children. She is now considering buying a second cart.

Rakia’s case demonstrates how a family’s life can be improved by a small capacity building investment. CARE’s project in Niger helps raise self-esteem and awaken within women’s groups the possibility of what they can achieve by working together. By building women’s capacity for self-improvement, the project reinforces their ability to survive in Niger’s harsh environment. Moreover, with the growth of these groups a movement has been built whereby the voice of women is better heard and, therefore, the chances of improving women’s rights in a male-dominated society are improved. Sure, some groups can’t make it alone after the eight-month training period that CARE supports, but most go on to thrive. Since starting its first MMD project in 1991, CARE can now account for over 4,500 groups with about 130,000 members spread across Niger in over 600 villages. These groups collectively mobilize over $1 million every year. Now, that is kind of critical mass needed to get Niger, the poorest country in the world, moving toward a better future!

The beauty of the MMD approach is that no external funds are given the groups. All loans are made possible through the women’s own savings, and they are on their own after an eight month training period. During this period CARE-trained village agents make regular visits to the women in their village, and teach them how to organize and manage their group. The choice of the village agent is challenging as over 90% of Niger’s rural women are illiterate. The village agent works closely with the women and each group collects a small amount to pay her.

After successfully completing their eight-month course, a group is granted its independence with a graduation ceremony. The village agents then move on to forming another group in the same village or in neighboring villages, while CARE field agents have already moved on to training new village agents in other areas.

CARE is now starting it third generation of MMD projects. Along with further expansion and continued improvements based on lessons learned, CARE will begin in this phase to respond to the needs manifested by the women themselves. These needs include the desire for literacy training, legal rights education and technical assistance with the raising of small livestock. CARE is also continuing with another project in one area of the country that allows some of the better off groups to have access to larger amounts of credit through linkages with formal lending institutions. This is a big step and one that carries some risks in drought-prone Niger. But, there is very little that could be much worse than the desperately poor conditions that most of Niger’s hard working women face.

By thinking big and acting in small, incremental steps, CARE-Niger is showing with its MMD projects that lives can be improved in a sustainable way with a relatively small investment. The idea is that with thousands of cases like Rakia a real and lasting difference can be made in improving the lives of many more thousands. And, when hundreds of thousands of women demand their rights and realize what they are truly capable of, a new and better day will have surely dawned in Niger.

Mark Wentling, ACD/Program, CARE Niger: May 8, 2001 Have a look at some of CARE's other programmes in Niger

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