Forced to marry at 13, Salamatou Dagnogo from Côte d’Ivoire was a mother of five by the time she turned 20. She says her 60-year-old husband regularly abused her — physically, verbally, emotionally: “He did everything to me.”

A platform for change

Salamatou had one dress, “which I washed every night,” she says. Unable to go to school, she didn’t know how to write. But she understood the concept behind the Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) — and she found in the program an opportunity to change her life.

In 1991, the first VSLAs were launched with a few dozen women in Niger, harnessing the power of group saving and lending. VSLAs offer women in particular a safe way to save money and access loans, which they use to start small businesses or to cover expenses like school fees. No outside capital is needed — only a lockbox, three keys and some basic financial training.

The financial shift

A quarter-century later, VSLA members like Salamatou are doing the rest. Numbering more than 5 million in 200,000 groups across 26 countries in Africa and other parts of the globe, they are turning financial independence into better lives. They make an estimated 350 million financial transactions a year and, with a 99 percent loan repayment rate, generate millions of dollars in annual savings and profit.

“Inspired by the transformation in her own life, Salamatou has started 175 VSLA groups...”

Other organizations are helping spread the model as well, with VSLA membership now totaling 10 million worldwide. The next frontier for VSLAs is to link members with formal banks, which increases their security and doubles their profit.

From bottom, up

But their power will continue to start with small transactions, such as the $2 loan Salamatou used to buy salt. She was the first salt seller in her community. She paid the loan back in a couple of weeks. Then took another loan. And another. She bought salt in increasing quantities, selling it quickly in the local market. Word spread. And so did her business. Salamatou answered the growing demand with more supply — until she became a wholesaler.

Empowered and financially free of her abusive husband, she divorced him. Having built a thriving business, bought her own home and educated her children, she says, “I have found a good place now.”

Inspired by the transformation in her own life, Salamatou has started 175 VSLA groups, is president of the VSLA network in her area and supervises 15 village agents who introduce the VSLA model to nearby communities.