What is a self-help group?

A self-help group consists of 10 - 20 people of similar socio-economic status from the same village. Most self-help groups are either single gender as mixed gender self help groups tend not to work together as well. AEE abandoned mixed self-help groups in an early pilot.

A self-help group collects weekly savings from each member - anywhere from 100 Rwf (10 U.S. cents) upwards - until enough money is accumulated to make loans to group members. Members must meet their savings commitments to attend group meetings and loans must be repaid. Early loans are likely to be small as the group's members become comfortable with the savings-loan-repayment regime. Micro-finance institutions do not become involved until later in a group's life.

AEE Rwanda facilitates the formation of the groups in a village and provides training to the groups on how to organise, how to save and lend, and how to start small businesses. Self-help groups are frequently used as a vehicle to deliver additional training on children's and women's rights, HIV prevention and treatment, hygiene and sanitations, and nutrition. Self-help groups can request training relevant to their circumstances.

Within a relatively short period of time - sometimes under a year - enterprising self-help group members can start substantial businesses that would have been previously unimaginable. As the self-help groups mature AEE facilitates the formation of Cluster Level Associations, collections of 10 - 20 self help groups in an area. These clusters can then take on more ambitious projects benefiting both the member groups and the communities. The clusters will frequently seek funding from government bodies, international NGOs, and banks. Cluster level associations take over the formation and nurturing of new groups and clusters in their area, and AEE Rwanda retreats to a consultative role only.

As the clusters mature, they in turn are collected in Federations of clusters with the ability to pursue larger projects and the creation of new clusters.

A brief history of self-help groups in Rwanda

Self-help groups emerged during the mid-1980s in Mysore, India in response to the failure of large cooperative associations. Self-help groups formed almost organically, but development agencies quickly identified them as an effective vehicle for village-level development. By 2000, the Indian government had included self-help groups in its annual plan.

In 2002, AEE Rwanda invited the Indian NGO "Activists for Social Alternatives" to come to Rwanda and help develop a plan for creating self-help groups in rural Rwandan villages. A pilot of 42 groups over five villages was quickly rolled out. At 2016, AEE Rwanda were directly, or through the clusters they had established, responsible for the creation of close to 12,000 self-help groups containing over 212,000 people. At 2016, 92% of these groups were women's groups. Anecdotally, the number of successful men's groups appears to be increasing over the last few years.

Grassroots women in their own words

This is what the six women from the Kasebuturanyi and Gakomeye have to say after twelve months in their self-help groups.

"Today I feel joy, I don’t have so many problems to worry about, I don’t worry much about the future." Ancille, 72, Kasebuturanyi

"Today I feel very good about the other women because I can walk into someone's home and ask for something I don't have." Philomene, 36, Kasebuturanyi

"Being a member of the group made me light-hearted." Julienne, 37, Gakomeye

"We have become one person, they are all my friends. We are able to trust each other." Immaculate, 30, Kasebuturanyi

"We share ideas and become bold." Immaculate, 30, Kasebuturanyi

"We share the same hopes and challenges." Jeanette, 33, Gakomeye

"Women are the ones facing home problems, so they want to improve things. Women use the money to solve family problems." Ancille, 72, Kasebuturanyi

"She has changed a lot [...] she got confidence. She is able to do business and provide things. I hope she will take me to another level." Immaculate's husband, Emmanuel, Kasebuturanyi

"I used to ask my husband every time [there was a problem]. I never ask anymore, I go and solve them and when he comes everything is fixed." Jeanette, 33, Gakomeye

"I became more confident with speaking in public." Jeanette, 33, Gakomeye

"I learned to be open-minded [...] I learned how to save money because I would think about the future and realise that I have to work and save for it." Claudine, 19, Gakomeye

"We can start taking loans and buy animals. When you buy [an animal] it helps you to progress faster." Julienne, 37, Gakomeye

"I would never think about quitting the group because I can see the things I have achieved so far." Claudine, 19, Gakomeye

"I would not leave the group because I can make something out of being with others." Julienne, 37, Gakomeye

"If we are strong enough we can start other groups." Jeanette, 33, Gakomeye

The comments below are from other self-help group projects in Rwanda, around three years in their groups.

"I was a peasant farmer, I would dig for others. Now I employ three people to dig for me." Dieudonne, 43, Kagarama

"After saving with my group for a while I could take a small loan. [...] Now I buy and sell anything I think will make a profit, and I don’t have to dig for other people. I can keep working and keep my children in school" Olive, 43, Eastern Province

"I realised that there was no milling machine in this area. I went to the bank to get a loan and added that to my money to buy a milling machine." Dieudonne, 43, Kagarama

"We are working to change our mindset. We are working to prevent GBV [gender-based violence]." member of the "Determined Men" men's group, Kagarama.

"We started saving for [our children] because this country has not enough land for our children to inherit. Everyone has to save until their child will grow up [...] because we don’t have that land which our parents used to give to their children in the past." CLA group member, Akamashya

"At this stage, we will keep building ourselves even after the project is gone. Our own projects will go on, we promise that to you." CLA group member, Akamashya, on the closing of the AEE Rwanda self-help group project

Words from older hands


How much does a self-help group cost?

Self-help groups are one of the cheaper development interventions. The groups in Rwanda cost US$30 per woman (or man).

This is a one-off cost and pays for the formation of the group, delivery of training, and monitoring over the first three years. The groups are self-sufficient after that.