January 12, 2010 was an unforgettable day for the members of the Brave Warriors (Konbatan Vayant), a savings group based in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Members lost their homes, businesses and loved-ones to the Goudou Goudou, the earthquake that tore through their city. Despite the devastation, this group continues to meet every week in its host church, Paroisse Sainte Claire.
I first met the Brave Warriors in July of 2009, and was struck by how inspired their reasons were for joining back when it was forming in 2007. I recall one remark in particular: “I joined the group to reduce headaches! I was tired of the local meat-seller hounding me for a loan. The group asked to meet the vendor, and when it did, told her that the group itself would be making the loan. If the vendor were so much as one day late in repayment, she would answer to the group, not only me.” The meat-seller was, in fact, late in repaying her loan and while the group eventually recovered its funds, it never lent to her again. “Because of the meat-seller’s bad credit, which we had the chance to observe and discuss together,” said the appreciative member, “Brave Warriors would not allow me to lend to her, and this gave me the confidence to just say “No”.”
And why did members stay in the group? Said one woman, “When you save alone, you save just for you. When you save in a group you are saving for many.” In 2009 members were each saving $15 per week. All were saving for a common goal: to buy a bus and transport children to and from school, for a fee. They had routes mapped out and had investigated the costs of purchasing the bus. They believed that within six years they could buy the vehicle and be profitable within a few months, if they timed their launch correctly.
The model the group was following was called Mutuelle de Solidarte (MUSO). Bernard Taillefer, a consultant, pioneered the foundation of Haitian mutuelles in 1998. He infused a community-focus and ideals of self-reliance into initial trainings. Savings and lending were financial activities to be pressed into service to create confidence and financial independence.
The model Taillefer used was a variation of one tested in multiple countries in Africa, where brightly painted boxes helped groups distinguish their financial accounts. The same model is used today. The Green Box as the primary account is called, functions like a small bank. Members deposit money into it and borrow money from it; the Red Box holds cash in reserve for member emergencies; and the Blue Box operates like a retail bank awaiting funds from a wholesale lender.
In the weeks that followed the earthquake, using Google Translator, I was able to communicate regularly with two members, Adulcia Francois and Antonine Henry, who both had occasional access to the Internet.
The earthquake struck on a Tuesday. I happened to be in Port-Au-Prince at the time so knew it would be impossible for members to meet that Thursday. But, remarkably, just ten days later the Brave Warriors convened, and continued to do so every week for the rest of the year.
At its first post-quake meeting, members sprung into action: they decided to suspend weekly deposits into the Green Box, as saving money was now impossible, but agreed to meet to support members. They granted fresh credit so that borrowers could repair homes, get medical attention, mend ruined livelihoods, or jump-start brand new ones. One woman launched a business selling mobile airtime, which she reports is now profitable. Her total loan for $120 was used mainly to purchase airtime cards for resale. While she considered the business a good opportunity, she confided that her true motivation to borrow arose from a wish to preserve the spirit of the group. “I wanted to show them hope,” she said.
Money from the Red Box was used for food or to help family members. Since the group’s Blue Box was empty – it had not taken out a loan from a financial institution, as that would come later to purchase the bus - members had no discussion around the Blue Box contents.
Over the course of the year, the Brave Warriors decided to save again, despite a poignant email in which a member described: “Life is very complicated now in Haiti. Some of our members find it difficult to survive. We are trying to find a solution to this problem and will keep you informed of our progress.”
In November, the group threw a party to celebrate its annual close-out of The Green Box, in which it distributed savings and income back to members. Earlier in the year, members had agreed to lower the interest rate from 3% per month to 1%. Charging a high interest rate in difficult times seemed both impractical and inappropriate, so the amount each received from the Green Box was less than in past years. But, wrote Antonine: “We Brave Warriors are all right. We made another party on December 29. Linda and I prepared food and we bought a cake and enjoyed ourselves. We used some of our group funds to purchase gifts for members born in December.” They also celebrated two new Brave Warriors who had joined during the year, making the group twenty-two strong.
Brave Warriors reports that it still has its dream of owning and running a school bus, only now it has a new timeline. It may not happen in the next few years but Antonine and Adulcia “have faith that it will happen.”
This linked paper, “Haitian Informal Finance,” (Kim Wilson) describes how Mutuelles de Solidarite work. Skip to page five.