Limited access to credit from financial institutions and agricultural services, especially in rural areas, have always been a challenge in the agricultural sector, leaving smallholder farmers and those in the value chain, particularly women, trapped with poverty and an inability to purchase farm inputs and machinery to increase productivity.
An initiative implemented by Solidaridad Network is helping to change this situation in rural communities in coastal West African countries. The organization’s regional branch has been adopting the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), a community-based approach for saving money and offering loans at the local level. As a result, many smallholder farmers and communities involved in agriculture have gained access to credit to improve their livelihoods.
Under the Sustainable West Africa Oil Palm Programme, which seeks to contribute to the transformation of the oil palm sector in West Africa, the VSLA scheme has so far benefitted 2,817 women in 146 oil palm producing communities in Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Sheila Dwamena, a palm oil processor from Anweam, near Kade in the Eastern region of Ghana, said access to credit has been of great challenge in her line of work. She has had to rely on banks for loans, which she could not afford because of the high-interest rates. “We usually run at a loss. After selling our products and deducting our cost of production, and paying off part of the loans, we realize we didn’t make any profits.”
After encountering Solidaridad in her community and having been introduced to the VSLA scheme, Sheila, along with other women in her community, received training on financial management, record-keeping and alternative livelihood.
Grouped into smaller units, they saved at least GHS 5 (USD 0.86) through the purchasing of shares on a weekly basis. Through the saving of these small amounts of money, members of the association were able to get a larger pool of money. The women were able to access credit up to three times their savings with a favourable interest rate, which allows them to invest in their businesses.
“We are no longer financially constrained; most of us have been able to double our purchase of fresh fruit bunches from five to ten tons after just a year with the scheme. We are also able to assess our profits, as well as losses after each production, thanks to the record-keeping training,” says Sheila.
Now able to see her children through school effortlessly, Sheila says she has also been able to purchase a piece of land through the credits she accessed from the association. “The scheme has given me and the other women some relief in accessing finance for running our businesses.”
After witnessing the enormous benefits to women, local men working in palm oil farming and processing in Anweam community have shown interest in joining the association. Hence women leaders from the various groups have trained the men to form an all-men group. The community has currently five different groups with 30 members each.
The scheme is aimed at helping smallholder farmers, particularly women, to develop a savings culture and achieve financial inclusion. This approach helps to de-risk their financial conditions, increasing their access to credit from formal financial institutions, and hence developing local ownership.
Improving access to finance can support women’s and smallholders’ investment choices as well as provide them with more effective tools for sustainable production.