Count Her In
It's a quiet Khmer village near Kratie in northern Cambodia. Wooden houses are perched on stilts to keep the Mekong waters out when the river floods. Children play together, running and laughing up and down the leafy dirt road.
There's another sound here. On one verandah a group of women sit in a circle. They're singing. For the last notes, they reach their hands out to one another.
The song is a pledge - a commitment to work hard, be honest, and to attend these monthly meetings on time. "It's a friendly meeting," says Malen (in black). "It's a nice way to get together with friends in the community." But, it's also a business meeting. When the song is finished the women immediately get busy reporting their earnings, counting cash and filling ledgers.
Malen and eight other women are part of a community micro-finance group. It works like this: the women meet every month. They're all rice farmers, and have small side businesses to supplement their incomes. These include village shops, or raising animals like pigs or chickens. Every time they meet, they pledge to donate a fixed amount of their earnings to their communal bank. The amount can be relatively small - the equivalent of two dollars or so. At each meeting, they report on their earnings, and if they earned enough, add their pledged amount to the communal bank. Then, they have the option to borrow from the bank. "We're happy to sell and contribute money, but we're also happy to borrow," says Savey, (in the purple and white floral shirt). At this meeting, about US$ 80 are available to borrow.
A few women borrow a few dollars. They use the money to improve their small businesses - for example by buying feed for pigs or a few more products to sell in their shops. "When we started this one year ago, our husbands thought we weren't normal," says Savey. "But now they see we've been successful. They're happy and they're encouraging us."
Koeuniyi is a member of the micro-finance group and lives just down the road from the host's house. She's borrowed money to buy feed to raise her five pigs. "It really helps me," she says. Pigs can be lucrative - though Koeuniyi notes she has to be really careful with every dollar. Here is the math:
- Each new pig costs about $US 50.
- A fattened pig weighing 100 kilograms fetches $US 250. Sounds good right?
- But pigs need food and water for the three months it takes them to grow. If there isn't enough money for feed, they'll take longer to fatten to the ideal weight.
- Each pig costs about $75 to raise. So one pig technically brings $175 profit.
- In three months, when she sells the five pigs she owns now, Koeuniyi will "make" $525
- Then she'll buy more pigs (5 will cost $250) and pay off her debts (say $50)
- That leaves her with $225 - or about $75 "made" each month.
So, like any business, this one will take patience and time to grow. But for Koeuniyi - who would ordinarily live on a couple of dollars a day - it's worth it. "I want to build up this business," says the 54-year old. "I'll buy even more pigs so I can sell them." The fact she can do all of this math is a huge step in itself as she didn't have the chance to go to school. Like about 50% of the women in this region, she can't read or write.
The micro-finance group is the initiative of the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT), an NGO based in Kratie that focusses on sustainable poverty reduction programming for poor Cambodians in the north. About 65% of their beneficiaries are women. Across Kratie and the northern province of Stung Treng, CRDT has supported more than 200 of these micro-finance groups. They also provide vocational training - teaching skills like how to raise pigs or balance books - and give loans to the women's groups. There are many challenges. For example, many people in the region have stopped farming in order to work in the timber industry. But, as forests are steadily cleared from the area, these jobs won't last. CRDT is trying to equip communities for the future with environmentally sound, sustainable farming skills and credit schemes that help people build their businesses.
Down the road, Sovanda shows the result of her effort to build up a business. It's a shop, and she borrows money from the micro-finance group from time to time so she can buy more merchandise to stock the shelves. Her husband, a carpenter, has recently helped her to build a bigger shop where she sells necessities for the community, such as water, dried food, and toiletries.
Sovanda finished grade 10, then came back to her village to help her parents. She's an only child. Now she says she's happy to stay in the village with her husband and two sons - one is three years, and the other is eight months old. "I hope my oldest son can be a teacher," she says, the youngest in her arms. "And this one, maybe he can be a doctor." Sovanda will continue to run her shop as the boys grow and go to school.
Back at the micro-finance meeting, the women are finalising their sums and carefully filling the ledger. Phynal, from CRDT, helps them to finish, offering tips to ensure the accounting is in order. The women sign and then stamp the ledger, certifying it's correct. The money goes into a locked box. "One member keeps the box in her home, and another keeps the key in a separate house," explains Savey.
Ideally, the CRDT wants all of the micro-finance groups to become fully independent. In a country where development projects often collapse when the donor withdraws, this can be tough. But these women are determined. "Before we didn't have any spare money," explains Savey. "Now we have a few hundred dollars saved among us. It helps a lot."
*With thanks to the staff at CRDT, who spent time explaining their work and introducing me to these women.