Advancing Together With Barrick Gold

People Nsabo Yetu program empowering women in rural Zambia

Around Barrick's Lumwana copper mine, the program teaches women how to read and write, how to save and manage money, and how to start and sustain a business.

When she attends church, Cecilia Wafwamashika, a 57-year-old grandmother of 10, can do something today that she couldn’t for most of her life: read her Bible.

“It’s exciting,” she says, standing outside her home in Shilenda, a village in Zambia’s North-Western province near Barrick’s Lumwana copper mine.

Wafwamashika learned to read through a women’s empowerment program sponsored by Barrick. Known as Nsabo Yetu, or Our Wealth in kiiKaonde, the program teaches women how to read and write, how to save and manage money and how to start and sustain a business. Established in 2010, the Nsabo Yetu program currently has more than 2,000 participants across the three Chiefdoms that comprise Lumwana’s area of influence.

Collectively, the women have saved more than $60,000 (ZMK370,000). The funds serve as seed money that program participants can use to start their own micro-businesses. Some women, like Florence Kawatu, have parlayed Nsabo Yetu loans into successful enterprises. A mother of five, Kawatu runs a convenience store in Shilenda. Her profits fund her children’s school fees and leave her with enough disposable income to help support five extended family members.  

In rural Zambia, most women drop out of school early to help support their families or to get married. It’s not unusual to leave school by age 12 and to have several children by age 20.

Originally targeted at rural communities, the program has been extended to Lumwana Township, a community of 7,000 on the Lumwana mine site that is home to mine employees and their families. Women in the Township were demanding it, says Winnie Kakunta, Small and Medium Enterprise Development Officer at Lumwana and one of the creators of the Nsabo Yetu program.

“We have had people from across the province asking us to teach them how to implement the program,” she says.


Low literacy rates and dim economic prospects

In rural Zambia, most women drop out of school early to help support their families or to get married. It’s not unusual to leave school by age 12 and to have several children by age 20. As a result, women’s literacy rates in rural communities are extremely low and their economic prospects dim. Saving money is difficult, obtaining credit is virtually impossible and starting a business isn’t even on the radar.

The Nsabo Yetu program takes aim at all of these issues. Working with a local non-governmental organization, Children with Future in Zambia, the Lumwana Sustainability Department devised a program that not only teaches women how to read and write, but one that teaches financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Learning materials, including three books, were developed specifically for the program and field tested to ensure they were culturally appropriate.  

The three Chiefs and other community leaders were consulted early in the development phase and offered their full support. This was crucial to spreading the word about the program and convincing women to participate. It also helped garner spousal support. “For a woman to participate, it helps to have the husband’s support and the support of the entire family,” says Adess Hambuba, Micro-Finance Officer at Lumwana. 

Barrick contributes about $150,000 annually to the program largely for the development of training materials, and for administration and consulting fees. The company does not fund micro-business loans or pay for teachers. That’s because, from the outset, the Nsabo Yetu program was meant to be a self-sustaining initiative. The women teach each other how to read and write and finance micro-business initiatives with their own savings. Ultimately, the women will administer and govern the entire program themselves, Kakunta says. “Nsabo Yetu is based on the premise that dependency is not empowering,” she says.


Just like a regular bank

Participants in the Nsabo Yetu program are divided into groups of 25 based on where they live. There are currently more than 120 groups, including two men’s groups. Groups meet twice weekly and devote one session to reading and writing and the other to financial literacy or entrepreneurship. The meetings also serve as a forum for group members to discuss other issues in their lives such as HIV/AIDS, gender violence, childcare and water and sanitation.

Each group maintains a treasury funded by a minimum weekly payment. This could be as little as $0.25 (ZMK1.50) to ensure all group members can afford to contribute. Because there are no commercial banks in the area, the funds are kept in a safety-deposit box that rotates among group members. The box can only be opened by three separate keys maintained by three different group members. Records of deposits and withdrawals are kept meticulously.

As the treasury grows, it becomes a bank that the women can borrow from to fund micro-businesses deemed worthy by their group. Many groups work collectively to launch a business and share the profits. All loans must be repaid with interest. Like a regular bank, collateral is required to secure loans.

“When we first shared the idea of the group bank, there was definitely some resistance,” Kakunta says. “People worried they couldn’t afford the contributions. We told them that working in a cooperative will allow them to bring resources together that they would not have if they were alone. It wasn’t easy, but we piloted the program and showed how effective it could be and that generated a lot of interest.”


A sense of ownership

The narrow, bumpy road into Shilenda is a busy place. On a warm June day, children clad in blue school uniforms make the long trek to school. Men ride rickety bikes that somehow manage to sustain huge bags of charcoal. Women expertly balance household supplies on their heads; everything from water jugs to firewood to large bags of maize rests in perfect equilibrium even though many of the women also carry babies on their backs.

As a visitor arrives to meet the local Nsabo Yetu group, he is greeted with curious stares by a bevy of children too young to attend school. They soon lose interest and resume frolicking, most barefoot as shoes are a luxury for the young in rural Zambia. Anthills as high five meters dot the landscape. They’re an important resource, used to supply bricks for homes, kitchens and farmhouses.

The Nsabo Yetu group greets the visitor in song, as is traditional in most Zambian villages. The women clap, dance and sing for several minutes and the visitor reciprocates briefly in a show of respect. It is a poor effort, but the women, amused and appreciative, laugh and cheer.

The group meets in a new building on land donated by a former Shilenda chief. The women display the group’s safety-deposit box and demonstrate how they record transactions. While this is a familiar ritual for the group, which formed in 2010, the women received in-depth training in how to manage the funds.

All Nsabo Yetu groups have a so called “animator,” or trainer, selected from the local community. The animator helps facilitate the operation of the group and keep sessions flowing smoothly. Each group also has a fully literate member who teaches her peers how to read and write. This “literacy volunteer” is paid in-kind by fellow group members who perform services such as house cleaning, gathering firewood or cooking meals for the literacy volunteer’s family.  

The women must purchase all three books used by the group. This creates a sense of ownership and reinforces the sustainability theme that permeates the entire program. “In my experience, when handouts are given, the materials are inevitably lost or damaged,” Kakunta says. “But the books used in in the Nsabo Yetu program are almost always well preserved because somebody paid for them and cared for them.”


Building confidence and pride

After demonstrating how they manage their bank, the women, who range in age from the late teens to the late 50s, talk about how the Nsabo Yetu program has changed their lives.

Phyllis Makanda, a mother of eight, says she rarely spoke in public before joining the group. Now she runs a business selling chitengas, the traditional waist garment worn by women in rural Zambia. This requires her to interact with the public every day. “I can talk to anyone with confidence now,” she says proudly.

Many of the women talk about the respect and pride they feel from their husbands, children and extended families. “Our husbands are very supportive because they have seen what we are able to do thanks to what we’ve learned,” says group member Jennipher Piki. “My husband is now asking to join a men’s Nsabo Yetu group.”

Beauty Mwanza, a mother of two boys, says her husband initially opposed her participation in the program. Her boys, however, insisted she join even though she had to borrow money to participate. Mwanza’s husband has since relented. “No one will hold me back,” she says. “I am like a man.”

The women learn to read kiiKaonde from a book aptly titled, Our Group. It is an arduous process with the literacy volunteer reciting sentences and the women repeating them aloud. Many of the women are accompanied by their small children. Some are on the verge of attending school and literally learning to read with their mothers. “They practice together at home using the same books and inspire each other to learn and succeed,” Hambuba says.

While the Nsabo Yetu program is a success by any measure, the women face many challenges. Spousal resistance isn’t always overcome as easily as Mwanza. Micro-businesses, which are usually agriculture-based, sometimes experience crises. Livestock is stricken by disease, crop yields are poor. Even successful businesses bring challenges, as families learn to cope with the additional income. “We bring in experts to provide training on how to manage a business and provide counselling services,” Kakunta says. 

As the visit ends, the women converge on Kakunta and Hambuba to provide updates on their lives. Kakunta and Hambuba have worked with the group for years and the relationship is warm and familiar. “They are like family,” Kakunta says.

Back at her home, Cecilia Wafwamashika, the oldest member of the Shilenda group, says one of the biggest benefits of the program is that she can afford to pay her grandchildren’s school fees. But equally gratifying she says is that she can now read with them.