Community Savings for Urban Change: Building a Women’s Leadership for Slum Upgrading

Harare, Zimbabwe

Savings groups form the basis of collective action in urban poor communities. The establishment of community savings is a core ritual of the urban poor federation building process, and the central participation of women in community savings significantly improves the quality of the process and the probability of sustainable change. Community savings schemes help meet the needs of low-income urban dwellers and create the foundation for building urban poor federations that provide their savers with more influence and scope for action.

By being members of small daily savings groups, women with the lowest and least stable incomes are able to create a consolidated voice to help bring about the changes they seek in their city. They also realize their capacity to influence and change the nature of leadership from individual to collective, within and between communities, and thus effect even greater change. This is the essence of the federation-building model in SDI: it is by addressing the needs and aspirations of the city’s poorest women that the rest of the community begins to see meaning in coming together. 

Sheila Magare of the Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation recounts the effects of community savings in her life and her community:

“…I started getting small loans as well from the group to improve my vending business and I repaid the loans. I then joined other members of the group and got a big loan and we started a collective business of buying and selling snacks from our vegetable markets. This was a huge success and we never looked back. The profits from the business we used to buy building materials for houses even though we were landless. We used our savings booklets as evidence of the capacity of the poor to save and to collectively build their own houses. Armed with our savings records we engaged the City of Harare to allocate us land to build houses. The officials were surprised by how much we had saved. We earned their respect. In turn they changed their conditions for registering on the Municipal waiting list for accommodation… Even though it took us 5 years the City eventually allocated us land to build houses.

Using the same method we started talking to national government ministers as well. Our message was simple – that we were slum dwellers but we were not hopeless. We wanted government to change the policies that make it difficult for the poor to live decently in towns. We wanted the government to give us money to add to our savings. That way more poor people can have decent homes and safe water to drink and proper toilets. Mayors and government ministers in Zimbabwe now know me by name because, with other federation leaders we never get tired of fighting for other poor families.” 

In addition to community savings, members of many savings groups also save towards a national fund. This is a fund that is used to leverage the savings of the urban poor to support larger investments in slum upgrading. As savings groups come together (or “federate”) at the settlement, city and national level, they begin to look beyond the needs of their savings group alone to the needs of the federation and the urban poor at large. In the same way, committees found at the level of the local savings group are replicated at network, regional, and national levels. This enables the generation of a self-governing national movement that is rooted in the hopes, aspirations, and challenges of its members.   

Both functions reinforce each other. The savings and loans systems at the group level prepare communities for much bigger loans and project management demands when upgrading is undertaken. Federation savings groups see savings as uniting the community and building collective capacity to address larger issues with a wider impact beyond a particular group. Traditional savings associations work to the benefit of the members of the group. Within the federations, however, savings groups serve as building blocks for community institutions that in turn enable them to address and invest resources in issues that affect the entire community or city, stretching beyond those of livelihoods alone. 

The development of the city-level federation is inextricably linked to the federating of the savings groups. The city-level federation grows out of the networking and institutional structures that arise from the coming together of savings groups in the same settlement or network, regional, and national level. In Uganda, this process started in Kampala and Jinja regions, and then spread to other areas through community learning exchanges.

Leaders groomed at the saving group level that demonstrate their capacity and dedication have the opportunity to rise to positions of leadership at higher levels, where they can provide mentoring to the citywide agenda that is firmly rooted in the ideals of the savings groups. In this way, the voices of the poor are taken from savings group level meetings to network-level meetings, and from there are able to inform the city agenda. Thus, the city federation is driven from the bottom, not the top. Network, regional and national level meetings are critical to maintaining this bottom-driven process. These, rather than projects, are what make the savings groups feel part of a larger process, a larger agenda, a movement. 

One example of this is in Jinja, Uganda, where there are 42 savings groups across the city. These savings groups come together as six networks, each network having eight program facilitators – 60% of whom are women. The program facilitators (for issue-based committees on evictions, health, loaning, auditing, etc.) come together to form the regional council. The regional council provides a space where representatives of the savings groups are able to come together to plan and strategize. Facilitators are chosen for the capacity and accountability they have demonstrated in their savings groups. Five representatives from the Regional Council – three of whom are women – sit on the National Executive Council – the space for national planning rooted in the struggles and ideals of the savings groups. 


Check out SDI’s 2012 / 2013 Annual Report to read more about how community savings impacts urban change through organized communities and strong women leadership. 

Zimbabwe federation holds forum, Southern African hub meets

Zimbabwe forum 2011

By George Masimba, Dialogue on Shelter

The Zimbabwean Alliance hosted the second National Forum whose theme was ‘strengthening our process through savings’. The Forum which was held in the Midlands Province in Gweru was attended by Federation members from the seven regions namely Harare, Matebeleland South Matebeleland North, Masvingo, Mashonaland West, Manicaland and Midlands.

SDI affiliates from South Africa, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia graced the occasion and assisted greatly with the discussions. The Forum’s main agenda involved presentation of regional reports, reflection on the Federation rituals and drafting of regional work-plans.

The various regions reported how they had expanded the Federation coverage through opening savings schemes in new areas. In areas around Harare, new initiatives like Shamva, Bindura, Guruve and Marondera had now been mobilised whilst Matebeleland South now encorporated areas that include Plumtree, Kezi, Gwambe, Esigodini and Tsholotsho. The countrywide mobilisation of new areas had seen uMfelandawonye chapters grow from 32 areas in 2008 to the current 54 areas. The different regions also reported on the establishment of networks in their areas – a strategy that had seen participation of more members and strengthening of groups through breaking regions into smaller clusters. Networks were also reported to be facilitating the decentralisation of regional budgets.

A majority of savings schemes outlined how they had started the creative usage of savings through the mobilisation of money for buying groceries, pre-purchasing building materials and availing loans for business projects. Some of the products from the business ventures were also on display at the Forum. Harare region, for instance, showcased products from a project that was producing building materials and herbal medicines. The various regions also highlighted that the move to ensure the immediate usage of savings had been necessitated by the lack of trust in the banking sector.

The regional reports were then followed by specific presentations on the Federation rituals and components. Under the health component, it was reported that a pilot mobile clinic had been set up and been functional for close to three months. The clinic was currently stationed at the Crowborough Federation resource centre catering for the wider community as well.

The presentation on land noted that negotiations with both central and local government institutions had since yielded a total of around 5354 stands across the country. Infrastructure was however reported to be the biggest challenge hence there was a now a well-coordinated campaign for alternatives like boreholes and ecological sanitation units. Whilst on one hand lobbying was going on with officials to have buy-in, the Federation’s capacity to build the eco-san toilets was being developed through training sessions and exchange visits. Seven artisans training sessions have so far been conducted in the country’s six regions.

Enumerations as a powerful tool for negotiations had been expanded and sharpened to include mapping. The national enumeration team reported how they had started building and strengthening their teams in preparation for a number of surveys as well as the Harare Slum Upgrading Programme. Lastly, the Forum participants then grouped according to the regions in order to prepare regional work plans on the basis of the different areas’ priorities.

Southern African hub meeting

Consistent with current practice with other SDI hubs, the Southern Hub of Africa met in Zimbabwe around the latter’s National Forum. The five SDI affiliates in attendance appraised each other through country reports.

The Malawians provided feedback pertaining to their National Forum held in 2010 and thanked the other affiliates for their support. The Malawians also reported on a series of exchanges around water and sanitation that had taken place with Zimbabwe. The activities in Malawi had also started to have impact on policy as shown by the Malawian government’s Growth and Development Strategy which was modelled around the Federation concept.

The Zambians indicated that they were currently busy with a number of housing projects as well as building resource centres hence they had plans to strengthen their capacity through artisans training programmes. In addition, the Zambians had scheduled two Forums on Housing and Health in the first half of the year which drew a lot of interest from other affiliates.

In Swaziland, the need for Federation strengthening emerged as the main priority although it was mentioned that interaction with central and local government had significantly improved. A national forum held in December inn Swaziland had helped to boost the savings schemes.

In Harare, the Federation was implementing Slum Upgrading Project in partnership with the City of Harare and already an exchange had taken place with the Malawians around this project. The Zimbabweans noted that there were plans to scale up current health programmes.

In Namibia, a countrywide 5-year programme (Community Land Information Programme CLIP) documenting informal settlements, was reported to be underway. The Namibians also informed the meeting about the pending programmes aimed at supporting the emerging process in Angola.

The South Africans invited other affiliates to their National Forum earmarked for March 2011. In particular, FEDUP requested support on health issues from other affiliates during the Forum.

After the country reports the meeting then went on to discuss the UPFI call for proposals whose sum total for the entire hub was US$100000.00 with a repayment period of 3 years. The affiliates discussed the terms for accessing UPFI funds and the following country-level issues were noted as the basis for allocation;

  • Fully-fledged status
  • Existing city-wide processes
  • Existing revolving community-based loan fund
  • Existing country-wide network of federations
  • Existing partnerships with government.

On the project level, the following specific considerations were observed as critical for the disbursement of funds;

  • Impact – the extent to which a project will yield results and benefit members
  • Policy – the extent to which a project will influence central and local government policy
  • Leverage – the extent to which a project has scope to attract additional resources
  • Innovation – the extent to which the resources will go towards new alternative
  • Sustainability – the extent to which the resources will go beyond the project period

In the end, the affiliates agreed on the following allocations for the UPFI call;

Country Loan Amount Project Description
South Africa US$40000.00 Housing project in North West Province
Zambia US$20000.00 Completion of Federation resource centre in Lusaka
Malawi US$20000.00 Construction of Chinsapo Community Hall
Zimbabwe US$20000.00 Scaling up of the health initiative in Harare

*Namibia did not have a proposal during the time of meeting

The following exchange programmes for the hub were planned for the year 2011.

Visiting Countries Destination Country
Malawi and South Africa

Malawi and Zambia

South Africa and Zambia

South Africa and Namibia Swaziland
Zimbabwe and Malawi South Africa
Swaziland and Zambia Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Francistown
South Africa Gaborone