Tanzania, July, 05 2016 -
Almost everyone knows Vicoba, although not all may be aware that Vicoba means Village Community Banks. The popular microfinance scheme has over the years helped lift many out of poverty. It has been a success in boosting and raising incomes among different community members in the country.
Despite its popularity, very few know the brain behind this great scheme that people have been joining at any available opportunity to boost their income.
Recently when the Mwalimu NyerereProfessorial Chair awarded George Swavette for inventing Vicoba, many were surprised to learn that it was actually a man who started the scheme.
Many believe Vicoba to be a women's thing though men too are members and so they naturally think it must have been started by a woman.
Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair honoured three Tanzanians in recognition of their role in furthering the late father of the nation's philosophy and ideology on human dignity and development.
Success had the opportunity to have a chat with George recently and he opened up about how it all started.
"It all started in February 1999 in Zanzibar, when I was employed by CARE International to start a business department. I was an expert in microfinance in community mobilisation," says George.
As a cooperative officer,he started organising small groups within the Zanzibar community. Unfortunately the model they used didn't work because it involved interest which is against Islam. It was also hard to mobilise the groups since villages were scattered with low population, explains George.
Instead, George established a programme of giving out loans but again, loan repayment was not done on time. He appealed to the CARE office In Dar es salaam for technical support from the regional office in Nairobi. Apparently, there weren't well experienced microfinance experts at the regional office and so George's request was forwarded to the head office in Atlanta, USA.
"An expert with experience working in Islamic countries but mostly in African countries, Mr Hyu Allen came to do some studies and taught me the best scheme that could be implemented in areas such as Zanzibar. We adopted a scheme called MMB from Niger in west Africa."
The scheme which was established in 1991 in Niger aimed at helping women who were more responsible in caring for their families after they were very much affected by the aftermath of a two years drought. The drought led the majority of men to neglect their families leaving women to suffer and so the MMB scheme came in to empower these women economically.
The project was a success therefore other countries adopted the scheme from Niger. Such countries include Uganda, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
According to George, he adopted the scheme and introduced it for the first time in Tanzania through the groups he had already formed from the previous scheme he was using.
"What I did was to merge the small groups to make large groups and instead of having revolving funds and operating through banks, the groups started to build their own funds. My job was to train them how to manage their own group banks, how to run the banks and how to do simple recording," he explains.
Before joining CARE International, George was employed by Opportunities Industrialisation Centres Tanzania. With expertise in entrepreneurship he managed to excel using the new scheme he introduced by coming up with an effective business package.
In 2001, George visited West Nile in Uganda where he found another package called Selection, Planning and Management of an income generating activity( SPM) which is a small economic activity done by family members.
"I came back with that idea and modified it a bit and implemented it because it was simple and cumulative since it could be well understood and done by people who don't know how to read and write" says George.
It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 groups of Vicoba countrywide today with up to Sh1.3 trillion mobilised by these groups.
"This is a lot of money. The largest part of this money has been given as loans to its members while some is kept into the groups' accounts as savings. I never expected that what I initiated would one day turn out to be this successful," says George proudly.
He thanks University of Dar es Salaam for taking time to do research to find out the person behind Vicoba. And to recognise the fact that the scheme that resonates with Mwalimu Nyerere's ideology of helping the poor is done effectively.
"This is a very special Award. It motivates me to work even harder and it has proven to me that people out there appreciate what I have been doing all this time," says George.
His wish is to see Tanzanians continue to believe that Vicoba has a bigger chance of improving their living conditions. But for this to happen, he says they need to do it in the right way.
"There are a number of people who are conducting Vicoba but they don't follow the proper rules. They need to look for organisations which have qualified in providing the knowledge on how to conduct Vicoba. A good example is Social and Economic Development Initiative of Tanzania which has qualified professionals who can assist. They work in 48 districts countrywide," he advises.
"I am willing to help those who need my help or advice on better ways of running Vicoba. If they call me I will surely be there to offer whatever help they need so that they can do well because in future, there will be no room for those who love short cuts," he says adding;
"I also wish to extend my concern to those who were once hurt or swindled in one way or the other by people who took the advantage and started Vicoba and later ran away with their money. Vicoba is there to provide economic empowerment to citizens and not to steal from them."
George has a bone to pick with the government, although they are now working closely together. It took government a whole 13 years to get on board, despite visits to the prime minister's office in 2003 to introduce the scheme and to ask for their support. "If government would have assist ed when I approached them back then, I am sure even those who are starting fake Vicobas to con people wouldn't have had a chance to do what they are doing today. We also would have reached out to a larger number of Tanzanians."
As an individual, George does not have the power to stop those conducting Vicoba unprofessionally for as he puts it, they might end up question his authority or to what basis he is questioning their wrong doing.
He believes that if government is serious in eradicating poverty and helping Tanzanians who live in poverty, then it should take into consideration that assisting them start Vicoba would be a better way to go and that this can only be possible if we started a national Vicoba scheme.
"With such a scheme, within two years' time, families will have made a big step in changing their economic status."
He says those in fake Vicoba don't benefit at all but instead keep shifting from one Vicoba to another with their hard-earned money ending up in the hands of a few.