Under a mango tree in the West African sunshine, a group of laughing girls from Accra Wesley Girls' High School crowded around a small table in a dusty schoolyard. In a scenario that takes place weekly, they were enthusiastically vying for their turn to hand over part of their lunch money to the youth savings program run by a local credit union.
Thirteen-year-old Matilda Paddy is one of these young savers. "[My parents] give me five cedi [about $1.33 US] every day for school, so I take one cedi out for the savings," she said. When asked if saving part of her lunch money affected her food intake she answered, "No, I'm okay with that. I'll save for a future purpose ... I want to be an air hostess because I love the job; it's my passion."
Manager Agyemeng Prempeh and a colleague from the Associated Teachers' Co-operative Credit Union are collecting money from youth savings club members during break time at Accra Wesley Girls' High School in Ghana.
Matilda is one of at least a dozen elementary and high school students I interviewed on January 22, 2014 when Ernest Aidoo, Youth Savings Program Manager at the Credit Union Association of Ghana (CUA), gave me a tour of various schools around Accra. It made an impact on me to witness the eagerness of these savvy young people to build their savings -- I wish I'd learned such a valuable lesson at their age. The students showed pride in the youth savings program and seemed to feel empowered by it.
CUA introduced the youth savings program in June 1999, after a survey revealed the average age of credit union members was 45 and that youth were not being educated in financial literacy. The program was launched with support from the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) and has been growing steadily. As at December 2013 it comprised 83 youth savings clubs with more than 19,000 members and a total net savings of GH₵ 590,000 (about $151,819 US).
Savings are helpful in any country but youth savings clubs are a very good idea in Ghana, where access to welfare, government-sponsored health care and pensions is not easily come by. These clubs are helping young people to build a personal financial cushion and a relationship with their credit union that will eventually enable them to qualify for loans. As well, they're building capital for the credit unions that support them and helping to grow their membership base as the children's parents and friends hear about the program and join the credit union.
The youth savings club at Accra Wesley Girls' High School is run by the Associated Teachers' Co-operative Credit Union, which launched the program in 2013. Today it comprises nearly five hundred members in two nearby schools, and the credit union plans to expand to a third school. Manager Agyemeng Prempeh said, "We tell the youth about the importance of the savings, what the savings can do for them. They shouldn't be wasting money; anybody who hasn't got a money reserve, you are in trouble when something happens."
Such trouble can come at any time, as young Kojo Nkye Kyer discovered. A student at Martyrs of Uganda who plans to become a Catholic priest, Kojo joined the youth savings program three years ago. Each day he saves between 50 pewases and GH₵ 2 (about 14 - 51 cents US) from his lunch money and he has accumulated GH₵ 100 (about $29 US). When recently his mother ran out of money to pay for his school fees, Kojo was in danger of being sacked from school at just 14 years of age. Fortunately, he was able to withdraw some of his own savings to continue his education.
"You should not think so much of your stomach," he said. "You should think of the future. Your parents will not always be there for you. You should learn to help yourself so that when you are in trouble you can redeem yourself through your savings."
It was inspiring to see in Ghana what I'd already witnessed in Uganda and Canada, that through financial literacy and by going the extra mile and caring about people before profits, co-operatives make extraordinary financial institutions that empower people to be full and equal members of their communities.
By Deborah Chatterton, Senior Manager, Client Services, Lucent Strategies, and CCA volunteer.
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