Being on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder doesn't mean that you're nobody. It just means you might not have had a chance to show the world that you're somebody. We meet two people who got an opportunity and seized it with both hands. The results are remarkable.

VSLA meeting in Sierra Leone

Show me the money

At every community savings and loan meeting I have ever attended (and that’s actually quite a few) the vibe has been almost exactly the same. Be it at a Catholic church in a Haitian slum, under the shelter of a shady tree in the mountains of Ethiopia, in a disused nightclub in Mozambique, or beneath a bridge in Bangladesh, formality and process are the order of the day. And it’s no different here in the village of Magborkor in the West African nation of Sierra Leone

Money is serious business.

VSLA Chairman in Sierra Leone
Yussuf Mansaray in the hot seat at the local savings and loan association weekly meeting.

Chairman Yussuf Mansaray solemnly directs the proceedings, inviting keyholders to unlock the savings box, displaying the contents to the group, and calling out each member’s name in alphabetical order. By his side, Assanatu Konteh, the association’s Secretary, goes about her business with a strict poker face. This despite the best efforts of an antsy, breastfeeding six-month-old who relentlessly pokes and prods his mother, oblivious to the business at hand.

You can read elsewhere about the importance of Community Savings and Loan Associations but suffice to say they have played a key role in the economic development of countless communities across the globe. So, holding office in a CSLA is a pretty serious business, a sign that the official in question is someone to be trusted and respected.

For Yussuf and Assanatu this is a whole new concept.

Down on their luck

“People here looked upon me as a person of no consequence, actually a bit of a gangster,” Yussuf tells us after the meeting has ended and the members dispersed. “I had no job, no land, no money – I was just hanging around, scrounging for what I could get.”

Assanatu was barely out of her teens when her husband upped and left the family home, leaving her to care for 4 young children. It was a huge blow, leaving her floundering and desperate. “I was struggling to feed my kids, there was no money for school fees, it was a very difficult time,” she recalls. “I did some small business – buying goods and reselling them, but it wasn’t enough.”

Secretary of VSLA meeting in Sierra Leone
Assanatu combines her roles as Mom and Secretary

Today, Assanatu and Yussuf’s economic and social circumstances have changed quite dramatically. Both have successful businesses and both are fast becoming pillars of their community. While they will credit Concern as the catalyst, it’s obvious that this is almost completely their own doing. All it took was a nudge.

A woman of means

The poker face is well and truly gone as Assanatu leads us down a narrow path through the bush on the outskirts of the village. She laughs and jokes with neighbors along the way, her good nature thoroughly infectious. We emerge into a neatly cultivated agricultural plot that has been reclaimed from low lying swampland, our host proudly pointing out the different crops she grows here. There’s maize and rice as staples, depending on the season, with a variety of green vegetables, peppers, okra, and cassava. “I keep some for our own consumption and sell the rest at the market or to neighbors,” she explains. “There is no more hunger in our home, my children go to school, and I am not scared if we face unexpected bills. The group is my backup.”

Woman farmer in Sierra Leone
Assanatu tends her plot

The group in question is the savings and loan association and it was established in 2022 as part of a Concern program aimed at helping less well off members of the community to develop new livelihood opportunities and improve their nutritional status. Each member can buy “shares” by regularly saving whatever amount they can afford. In time, they can borrow from the association to fund a business opportunity or cover household expenses.

Assanatu says she managed to secure a plot of land and used a loan to buy seeds and tools. She also sought advice from Concern on how to cultivate in a climate-smart way, maximize her yield, and get the best price for her produce. The rest is history.

“I am so happy,” she tells us. “I feel like I am an inspiration for other women in the community. I hope to expand and multiply what I have achieved. I have big plans!”

Man on a motorbike in Sierra Leone
Yussuf in full business mode

Man on a mission

Back in the village Yussuf awaits, looking like a million bucks. His economic turnaround resulted from a moment of inspiration, following a business training course run by Concern. “They encouraged us to look for enterprise opportunities and I identified a gap in the market. Lack of transport is a big issue in this community – there were very few options available locally. So I got a loan and bought a used motorbike.”

Yussuf is now a key part of the transport infrastructure in Magborkor. He brings farmers to the market, pregnant women to the clinic, local leaders to official meetings, kids to school, and just about anyone to anywhere they want to go. “I am so proud,” he says. “I feel empowered. I have paid off the loan for the bike, so now I am profitable. Before, nobody took me seriously – now I feel like I am somebody.”

A good reminder that everybody is somebody, and sometimes all it takes is a nudge to unleash their inner hero.

Concern staff member with community member in Sierra Leone
All smiles. Yussuf with Concern's Market Enterprise Development Supervisor, Abdul S. Koroma.
Two women farmers in Sierra Leone
Assanatu and her friend Zainab down on the farm