Behind the Scenes: Establishing Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) in Coastal Sierra Leone

Behind the Scenes: Establishing Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) in Coastal Sierra Leone
November 5, 2019 2:53 pm Blog

Written by Francis Reffell


When my team arrived in Bonthe Municipality, it felt like we’d landed in a rustic paradise, rife with the vestiges of its past colonial influence. Severely damaged infrastructure, caused by either abandonment or the civil war, littered the landscape. Despite my curiosity about the area, my team, composed of Seinya, the Community Development and Livelihood Specialist from the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change Program (WA BiCC), Ibrahim, my assistant and myself was not there to simply explore. We had plans to conduct trainings for Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) across the landscape. The VSLA is a financial model in which a group saves together and takes loans from those savings.

Bonthe wasn’t our only stop. We visited 24 communities in four designated regions of coastal Sierra Leone — the Sherbro, Sierra Leone and Scarcies River Estuaries and Yawri Bay — and were often greeted by warm and dynamic people. All these communities have faced climate change-related challenges for some time now, most notably rising sea levels, the impacts of which are made even worse due to the decimation of mangrove forests for fuelwood and construction. In some cases, such as on Yeliboya Island, this can ultimately accelerate the submersion of coastal localities.

These challenges have not dampened the communities’ resolve to turn things around for the better. On top of restoring the depleted mangrove forests bordering the ocean, establishing Village Savings and Loans Associations can address coastal resilience to climate change in these communities.

VSLA groups work by having a pre-determined timeline that dictates when contributions to, and loaning from, the fund occurs. After each cycle is up, the accumulated profits are distributed among the members.

During community meetings and focus group discussions to raise awareness on the importance of VSLA groups, the team discovered there were already many such practices being used. All the communities visited already had established groups that were involved in some form of financial savings plans. A feasibility study conducted by WA BiCC identified 176 active groups spread across 24 communities across the landscape. While communities reported some challenges affecting the sustainability of groups, the continued existence of some the groups meant that they possessed some level of resilience that had enabled them to keep the groups up and running in the face of climate change and other societal pressures. Thus, rather than establishing new groups the tactics shifted to provide additional training and tools to interested groups as an opportunity to reduce some of the challenges and enhance any ongoing efforts.

One challenge the existing groups had was the limited ability to increase their savings and inefficient record-keeping practices. Of the 176 financial groups identified, over 100 were already using savings and record-keeping practices like VSLA, but these practices were not standard and effective. Out of that 176, WA BiCC trained 78 groups and provided them with one savings box each, plus additional materials for record-keeping.

The training sessions were very interactive, with community members sharing success stories such as this:

“Three months ago, the Gohelah VSLA Group was formed based on the concept that was introduced to us by WA BiCC. Today, there are 40 of us in this group. We support our members in times of hardship or joy….” – Mamie Ganda, Bonthe Community.

One key lesson learnt from all of this is that the communities often have their own answers to daily challenges. They just need facilitation. My experience in these communities is a confirmation of that. We only threw the bait, now people are catching fish.

Three people standing and one person sitting.
Francis handing over a savings box and other materials to a group in Mahela Community.