Savings Groups : Observations on Economic Cooperation and Collaboration in Rural and Informal Conditions

Recently, I was interviewed on communal rural economic behaviour, particularly socially cooperative ones  such as informal savings and lending groups. The questions posed were:

  • How has your opinion of savings group changed over time?
  • Why in your opinion, are people in Africa and Latin America countries (developing countries) predisposed to forming savings groups?
  • What is the importance of appreciating the indigenous financial services of the people of Africa (or anywhere else)?

I enjoyed the conversation reflecting on the lessons learnt over the past decade of primary research on household financial management within context of informal rural economies across continents and countries so much so that I decided to capture my reflections here as an integrated answer to both questions.

On the documentary level, nothing much has changed in the years since I first observed instances of cooperative economic behaviour in rural informal operating environments. Here’s a snippet from the Prepaid Economy Project’s report written in November 2009:

These complex webs of the rural community’s social networks of trust were obvious in the patterns of sharing and cooperation seen in every country. Groups would invest and save together, for example, the extremely sophisticated cooperative ladies lending circle which had expanded over time to include the services of a local bank in India; or the beekeepers cooperative in Malawi where half the annual profits were saved in a common account while the other half was equally shared.

Years later, we’re still documenting the complex webs of social networking and trust in informal economic ecosystems, and the wide variety of organizational structures for financial and economic management.

Its our recognition of the role of such groups, and their contribution to the resilience and the ability of informal economic actors to manage in volatile and uncertain conditions that has evolved, and changed. The layers of knowledge laid down over the years, across the geographies and cultures, now allow me to take a step back from the details of any particular context, and understand the patterns of cooperation, broadly, across continents and cultures.

Furthermore, our own increasing depth and breadth of understanding the highly interdependent networks of commerce and trade within the informal economic ecosystem – from farm gate to cross border trade – have led to us rethinking the concept of the end user, and questioning the assumptions implicit in the way user research is designed for fintech, financial inclusion, and other such related areas.

That is to say, the way my opinion changed regarding savings (etc) groups, over the years, has been to recognize their importance as the basic building block of the rural and/or informal economy in the developing country operating environment, rather than simply observing their behaviour as a means for individual household financial management, as we’d done in the very beginning.

Source Alice’s entire value web can be thought of as an informal economic microsystem

From the human centered design perspective (HCD, or UCD = user centered design), which is the basis for our work here at emerging futures lab, we have begun to consider that the “end user” of our design solutions might as often turn out to be the group, instead of the individual member of that group. This has been the biggest change in my opinion, over time, in answer to the first question

For the remaining two questions, I rapidly sketched this continuum of different types of “informal” groups engaged in financial behaviour as seen in cash intensive, rural, and informal conditions, seen below.

As we have recognized, regardless of continent or community, the group is a basic economic building block. What changes from group to group, depending on its function and its need in the community, is the sophistication of the organizational and money management structure.

On one hand is the simplest form of cooperation – people pool money that one member then receives as a lumpsum to use, only the mechanism of choosing whose turn it is may require some coordination. At the other end are sophisticated economic management structures often with formal registration and recognition.  This includes integration of formal financial institutions and their products – such as leveraging capital in the form of a fixed deposit in a bank for drawing loans, or their services, such as a designated officer from the bank attending chama meetings.

The fact that both simple and sophisticated groups exist within the rural and informal economy imply that the factors that predispose people to turn to cooperative and collaborative solutions for managing their finances in conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability are thus related to factors external to the local culture or society, and have more to do with the similarity of the conditions inherent in the operating environment of the informal and rural economies of the developing world. These include irregular cash flows from a variety of sources, multiple income streams over the course of the natural year, seasonality inherent in agricultural crop cycles, and lack of a social safety net.

Here’s another snippet from the original report of 2009:

Insights derived from the fieldwork lead us to believe that the key factor that makes the ‘prepaid’ transaction model so successful among the BoP is the fact that the decision making is in the hands of the individual. This model gives the end user significant control over time – frequency and periodicity and money – varying amounts, in the hands of the customer and thus fits in with their need to manage their varying cash flow from multiple income sources with a great degree of flexibility.

Furthermore, among rural communities, it was observed that social capital – that is, the community ties and extended networks – plays a significant role in the success of existing informal yet traditional means of borrowing, lending and sharing wealth and expenses.

That is, the negotiability, flexibility, and reciprocity, that trust enables within one’s social ties, is reflected in the prepaid business model that enabled mobile phones to spread rapidly around the world. And it’s this factor that provides the evidence for our assertion that an external business model or payment plan to be introduced into such an informal economic ecosystem succeeds when it resonates with existing forms and structures of financial and economic behaviour.

This is not only why its critical to first observe, document, and understand the existing solutions and behaviours in what may seem to be a financially excluded population, but it provides the keys to the design of sustainable solutions that are successfully adopted and utilized. The bottomline is that the “informal” or the rural isn’t adhoc or chaotic as initial observations might imply, but there are rhythms and structures inherent in the system that may, in fact, be invisible.

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