THERE ARE MORE than 70 credit unions in The Gambia, a small West African country that is one of the poorest nations in the world.
Over the past 25 years, the Irish League of Credit Unions’ International Development Foundation (ILCU Foundation) has supported the development of these branches.
The Gambia, which is rated 175 out of 188 on the Human Development Index, now has around 70,000 Credit Union members and total savings of €16 million.
Alpha Jallow is one of those who used the credit-union membership to access both loans and savings which allowed him to empower himself financially.
The 27-year-old left school ten years ago and travelled to the US to find a job after having no success in securing one at home in The Gambia.
However, after two unsuccessful attempts to secure an American Visa, Jallow was introduced to the credit union by his sister in 2010.
He took a loan of GMD 2,500 (€51) from Kombo East Youth Development Association Cooperative Credit Union (KEYDA), to help to set up a hair salon business.
The business grew and he repaid his sister and began to make regular savings in the credit union. In 2012 he took out a number of loans to expand the business.
Alpha continued to save regularly and in 2016 he opened a second business, a fashion shop, all with the financial support from KEYDA Credit Union. Jallow said:
I don’t travel to Europe or US now to look for employment, I am self-employed and am happy and proud of my businesses, thanks to my sister and credit union I am now empowered financially.
Ran by Gambians
Alan Moore, the foundation’s general manager, visited The Gambia for the first time 12 years ago.
He told TheJournal.ie, “What struck me was how tiny the country was – it has about a third of the population of Ireland and is about the size of Munster.
Even though they live in extreme poverty, the Gambians are very friendly and happy people. Also, when I visited any credit union, it was very clear to me that they owned the credit union and no-one else – like our Irish credit unions, which are owned by their members.
He said that the credit-union membership supports up to 700,000 people and as the average Gambian household has up to 10 people in it – that’s close to 50% of the population.
The Credit Unions run in Gambia the same way they do in Ireland, Moore said, “It is very much the Irish model there … what you would see in your own local credit union.
Credit Unions are fully owned and operated by Gambians, and this has always been the case. We have provided training and some financial assistance, and continue to do so, but today at a more strategic level.
“We also have an annual coaching programme where Irish credit union senior staff travel to The Gambia to volunteer their technical expertise.
“Unfortunately, due to the circumstances in Gambia this year, this programme has been postponed until later in the year. It is important to remember that the relationship we have with any of the projects we support is a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out”.”
Looking to the future
Moore described how over the past 20 years, the number of people who have access to savings and loans has skyrocketed, which has helped bring them out of poverty using same model we have been using for the past 50 years in Ireland.
Looking ahead, Moore explained that the current emphasis is on rural areas, which are still underdeveloped.
“Financial literacy programmes, group lending with a strong focus on the participation of women, and agricultural lending are key areas for continued development.
“The foundation is also exploring how the use of new mobile technology can enable rural development by bringing financial services to remote areas which, up to now, have struggled due to lack of roads and physical infrastructure.”