My Amharic skills are basic at best, but I have managed to learn the names of a few animals - among them “gundan,” which means ant. In the middle of a recent savings and credit training session we conducted with farmers in northern Ethiopia, I heard the trainer say "gundan."
"What does an ant have to do with savings?" I asked. The savings and credit trainer, whose name was Demeke Mekuria from Bahir Dar, responded with a story, which is translated below:
"In Ethiopia, we have three animals with traits that we can learn from – the zebra (yemida ahiya), ant (gundan) and giraffe (kechiney):
- A zebra’s foal can stand within only half an hour to an hour after birth.
- Ants spend most of their time storing food – and many carry more than their own weight.
- Giraffes store food when they eat in a separate part of their stomachs. When they are hungry, they tap into these reserve stores of food.
What can we learn from these three animals?
From the zebra’s foal, we learn that we need to learn how to save quickly, just as the calf stands quickly after birth. We have to start saving early, while we are young. If we think we will start saving when we grow up and have a lot of money, we’ll lose out. Save early. This is what we learn from a zebra.
From the ant, we learn that we have to save all the time, just as ants work all the time to save. We can’t say, 'I will save today or I will save tomorrow or maybe I’ll start in one month or three months.' We have to save regularly from whatever we get, and we have to save continuously. This is what we learn from the ant.
From a giraffe, we learn that if we save money in a place where we can access it then we can use it during difficult times. We have to put our money somewhere we can access it during emergencies. If there is a problem, this money can be a solution. The giraffe doesn’t put the food in the forest, she puts it in her stomach. If she’s hungry and she needs it, she can use it. We have to be able to save some money like this.
This is how we can learn to save."
All of the farmers smiled. This was a mid-afternoon interlude in an otherwise busy session. And the parable worked well; various participants raised their hands to share what savings skills they learned from the behaviors of ants, giraffes and zebras.
Over 75 percent of farmers in our training sessions had experience receiving loans either in cash or kind for farming inputs like fertilizer, seeds and equipment. Many have also received savings training, some from the local microfinance institutes. Despite previous experience, they unanimously demonstrated interest in additional training. So we decided that, in addition to connecting the farmers with lending agencies, we would also provide them with training on savings and credit.
Farmers were selected for this training because they took loans for irrigation technology as part of a USAID Feed the Future project. Over 70 farmers in three regions of Ethiopia are testing the irrigation technologies on their fields and will keep them after the project finishes. The project is also implementing similar schemes in Tanzania and Ghana. Money repaid for the loans under the project in Ethiopia will be used to provide credit for more farmers to purchase irrigation technologies. The local multi-purpose cooperatives have agreed to finance these loans in kind, and the project has worked separately with the cooperatives to build capacities in bookkeeping, accounting and revolving fund management.
The responses we received after the first series of savings training demonstrate that the need (and the desire) for financial literacy is strong. Kende Semi, a farmer from Dangila, exclaimed in the middle of a session:
“Today I am 48 years old. I am inspired by your training ... If I had such training earlier, I would have become rich. I am really touched.”
Mekuria had explained to him that if he saved 20 birr per month for the last 30 years he would have more than 7,200 birr. He was impressed about the amount of savings he lost over the years and raised a blunt question to the trainer: “Where were you (years ago)?" The next morning he told us that he had opened a saving account and deposited 700 birr (equivalent to USD $35).
At the end of our training, another farmer, Yezena Dessi, was impressed by the equal treatment of both genders during the sessions.
“Especially the attention given to women was appreciated," she said. "We got the chance to speak, (even) while the men were there.”
Through the Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) project’s financial literacy programs, we hope to continue building the capacities of poor farmers to both save and repay loans for irrigation technologies. In areas of Ethiopia where water is one of the primary constraints to crop production during the dry season, there is significant potential to scale out financing systems for irrigation technologies.
Just as the ants save continuously, the revolving fund will exist continuously to ensure that the money from repaid loans is invested in irrigation technology for additional farmers.
This article originally appeared in NextBillion Financial Innovation.