China to form Savings Groups in Africa

China to form Savings Groups in Africa

A consortium made up of Shenzhen Development Bank, the Hang Lung Group and Lenovo have announced a major initiative to bring savings groups to Africa on a scale never before imagined.

The group, through a joint venture called Virtual Sharing Resources Applications (VSRA), plans to introduce very low cost savings group kits with illustrated instruction sheets through retail outlets across the continent. They have set ambitious targets of ten million members in the first year, forty million in the second, and one hundred million in the third.

Hua Lin, the Chief Executive of VSRA, announced the initiative at a press conference Friday in Yaoundé Cameroon. Hua, who prefers the anglicized nickname “Hank”, said that VSRA intended to leap ahead of traditional distribution and group management methods being promoted by international NGOs. “Rather than imitate the West, we have re-invented village finance, using our own entrepreneurial creativity. Our goal is to form new groups of high quality at a cost-per-member of five yuan, or about eighty US cents.”

Hua described several innovations that he believes will make VSRA the clear industry leader. The company will use a share system, similar to what is used by other approaches, but passbooks have been replaced by small electronic counters called SnowCranes™. “The snow crane is a perfect symbol for this initiative,” said Hua. “This rare bird has the longest migration patterns of any crane, and is a sacred bird associated with sun, spring and kind celestial spirits.” 

The SnowCrane™, made of chromed steel with an attractive decal image of a snow crane, shows the number of shares purchased at each meeting, and the total number of shares ever purchased, on a simple LCD readout. Record keepers can increase or decrease the number of shares purchased by moving one to six levers up, one lever for each share purchase; the counter only records savings when the saver herself touches the “count” button. This button has low-cost biometric circuitry that assures that no one other than the saver can validate the amount that the record keeper has recorded. Allowing six shares instead of the more widespread practice of allowing only five shares will permit members to save 20% more, according to Hua.

The SnowCranes™, along with any spare cash, are kept in a transparent plastic lock box with a single integrated lock. Hua says that the new boxes will be manufactured in Shenzhen and imported in container loads of about eight thousand boxes, with each box containing an entire kit including 35 SnowCranes™ and a profusely illustrated one-meter-square instruction sheet, that graphically shows even non-literate people how to save. The instruction sheet is supplemented by a solar powered radio, also included in the kit, which is pre-tuned to capture signals from China’s “African Riches” communication satellite, now in geosynchronous orbit centered over the Easter region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The satellite will broadcast instructions on forming and managing a group in 120 African languages, as well as Mandarin. Hua explained, “We are broadcasting in Mandarin so that our citizens now residing in Africa can learn how to manage savings groups themselves and serve as resources for their African sisters and brothers.” Hua continued, “This will speed the introduction of Mandarin as a lingua franca in Africa”. Hua added, “Although English, French, Portuguese, Swahili and Arabic have all gained acceptance in different parts of the African continent, Mandarin is the only language which is widely spoken in every Africa country, and therefore it has a legitimate claim to be adopted as the unique continental language. Please call me ‘Hank’”. The broadcasts will offset some of the costs of group formation by including advertising for Chinese manufactured products of particular interest to African villagers, including soap, lighting equipment, and school supplies.

The boxes have embedded RFID chips, which will enable police departments to help recover any stolen boxes using radio trackers that China is supplying to many African countries as part of trade and mineral agreements. Hua says that micro-chips can also be embedded under the skin of group treasurers, usually behind the right ear. VSRA considers this practice optional. 

The cash boxes included in the kits are made of transparent polycarbonate, symbolizing the transparency of the group, and also allowing potential thieves to see that there is very little cash kept in the boxes, thus reducing theft.

VSRA has its own approach to managing a group. Hua said that they had conducted a number of focus groups, and had determined that most groups did not care about proportional share-out, and were happy with “flat distribution”, that is, returning each member’s savings to her or him at the time of share out, while dividing the interest equally among all group members. “Flat distribution is acceptable to most groups,” said Hua. “It is also consistent with the principles of Chinese Socialism.”

Phase One of the project will involve forming the groups and reaching the initial target of 100 million members. VSRA has planned a second phase in which it will introduce income generating activities (IGAs) into groups. Some of the IGAs imagined include mining coltan and assembling televisions, laptops and tablet computers.

VSRA asserts that it can sell a kit at retail in villages around the continent for USD 24, which will enable it to attain the goal of 80 cents CPM with an average group size of thirty members. That retail price is somewhat below the company’s real costs, but the consortium plans to make up the difference through sales of replacement parts, advertising, mineral rights, and other business deals developed during Phase Two of the project.

Oh - just to be clear, this entire post is an April Fools Joke. Not one word is true. I’m pointing this out because we did something similar last year, and a few people took it seriously. I wouldn’t want the same thing to happen this time. I hope you enjoyed it. Now let’s all get back to work.


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Reader Comments (7)


Sat, March 31, 2012 | Hua Lin

Like any good joke Paul, it contains nuggets of wisdom. Firstly, the issue of scale. Don't we all struggle with the question of how the best initiatives can grow and spread in order to have an impact at a statistically meaningful level of any national population? Umpteen million lockboxes isn't so far-fetched!

Secondly, technology. At this very moment I have with me a small widget from a bank that I must use whenever I wish to authorise a value transaction via internet access. It may only generate a random number, but it's a tiny step from this to storing one's personal balances. (And it looks scarily similar to the Snow Crane.) So whether it's oriental birds or mobile phones, we all know technology will be a critical element of 'the solution'.

Finally, as China morphs from being a 'lesser developed country' and expands it's ODA activities, why shouldn't we begin to see it become more active in this type of socioeconomic development? The currently visible emphasis may be on dams and other macro resource-linked interventions, but I'm sure there are plenty of conversations in China about the extent to which a range of 'softer' activities should be added to their repertoire.

Sat, March 31, 2012 | Greg Pirie

I am honored that Mr. Hua responded so quickly, though cryptically.

I am confident I speak for many readers in saying, 谢谢。 我许诺不显露您的其他身分。

Sun, April 1, 2012 | Paul Rippey

谢谢。 我许诺不显露您的其他身分 Paul, you had me fooled until I saw Mr. Lin

Sun, April 1, 2012 | C. Musoke

Good one Pau!!! Like Jeff, I was you mean the Chinese have beaten us to it???

Mon, April 2, 2012 | Kuria


You had me fooled completely until the photo of "Hank" and embedding a chip behind the treasurer's ear. This was brilliant on your part. My heart sunk. Here we are just starting to think about going digital and the Chinese beat us. I loved the concept and the snow crane counter, what a cool way of dealing with connectivity issues – In noticed that it had six prongs. The flat interest payment is emerging in SfC in Cambodia as a simpler option to payout complexities.

It's quite similar (with a digital twist) to some of the ideas that Patrick McAllister had when he was at Gates. Patrick suggested that the forms and instruction should be easily available from local school supply stores and that SGs should be promoted by the private sector and volunteers. (We were able to convince Gates to go the INGO in 2008 but ultimately we were sidestepped because what we have been doing was too expensive, too small scale and not connected.

Of course the focus for the new Gates strategic paper for Financial Services for the Poor - which you have doubtlessly seen – is entirely digital. It would be a useful challenge for us to go down the digital route without throwing out the group concept (as your bogus Chinese outfit proposed.) Worth some more thought.


Tue, April 3, 2012 | Jeff Ashe

haha! Love it!

Fri, April 27, 2012 | Gareth Evans

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