I came to Nebaj in search of a way to start my project working towards integrating savings groups within the framework of Soluciones Comunitarias’ (SolCom’s) micro-consignment model. I just happened to be doing most of my work at the restaurant El Descanso due to their solid internet connection. While there I learned that El Descanso was closely affiliated with SolCom, having been started by the same founder. Trying to adhere to the plan of inward-out, I decided El Descanso could be a great place to start a savings group.
While interviewing the employees everyone told me they liked the idea and would be interested in creating their own group. I then set up a meeting to further explain the concept and verify that everyone was still interested. This meeting, unfortunately, was tacked on to the end of their employee meeting due to the feasibility of getting everyone together. This meant everyone had to be in attendance. During the meeting I got the sense that they were not as interested as I had previously thought. When I asked for their questions and concerns I was met with blank stares. It took some poking and prodding to get them to voice their opinions and they still assured me they wanted to start a savings group at El Descanso. Looking back, I should have dug a little deeper to uncover their real thoughts, but instead took their answers at face value and moved forward.
When it finally came time to establish the group by deciding on the various rules and voting on leadership roles, only 3 employees showed up for the meeting. I was confused by this and went to investigate. Three of the potential members plan to leave El Descanso within the next few months and thus won’t be able to participate, and one other member told me she simply does not have time to attend the monthly meetings. With the original group only having 11 members, this brought the total down to 7, which is not enough people to properly run a savings group. With only 7 members it becomes too difficult to accumulate enough money to later lend to the members, and loans were the main draw to the group in the first place. I had to bring them to the brink of real commitment to uncover their actual feelings about creating their own savings group.
Being blinded by my desire to start my first ever savings group, I did not take the time to assess whether or not El Descanso was really a good place to form a group. Looking at it now I’ve realized that a restaurant is not the ideal place for a savings group due to its high employee turnover. The average restaurant employee is someone looking to make some money while they figure out or work towards their next steps in life. Very few waiters see their job as their career. This means they plan on eventually leaving thus breaking the solidarity of the savings group. With employees coming and going every few months it is near impossible to build the necessary level of trust among the members of the savings group. Without this trust the group will inevitably fail.
Where there is the level of trust necessary for the group to survive is with the SolCom management team’s newly formed savings group. They call themselves SolCoop (Coop being short for Cooperative, a very similar type of financial institution that many of the members have used in the past). With SolCoop all of the members are good friends on top of being long-term colleagues and a strong team. At SolCom the employees are working towards a common goal of helping communities improve their quality of life through the purchase of SolCom’s various beneficial products. Also, the SolCoop members view their jobs as their careers and thus are in it for the long haul. All of these ingredients form a great recipe for long-term success with their group.
At the last monthly regional meeting for SolCom we took the time to form the group, decide on all of the necessary rules such as interest rates, maximum loan terms, ratio of amount saved to amount available to borrow, etc. At the upcoming monthly meeting the members will have their first real savings group meeting and they will begin to save. This group has real promise and all of the members seem very excited to get the ball rolling. I am also excited to see the group progress and to continue playing a supporting role as I move forward with my project here. In my next post I will dive into the details of the decisions made by the group to help you better understand how a group is formed and what decisions need to be made at the outset to set the group up for success.