LIBERIA Ebola Outbreak Spreading Economic Opportunities Amidst Crisis

By Holly Frew, Emergency Communications Officer at CARE

The outbreak of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone and Liberia did not just infect and kill thousands of people. It brought these West Africa countries to a standstill. Entire communities were quarantined. Borders were sealed off. Markets closed. People were confined to their homes. This devastating disease was not only robbing people of their lives, but also of their livelihoods.

In many communities, the devastation would have been even more severe if not for something else that was spreading relentlessly through the countryside: CARE’s Village Savings and Loan Associations, or VSLAs. Dozens of additional VSLAs formed in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, as people saw firsthand how the savings groups acted as safety nets and critical sources of information for families such as Nyonblee Malayea’s.

When the palm oil plantations in Liberia closed during the height of the outbreak, Nyonblee’s husband lost his job, and she suddenly found herself with the burden of supporting their family. Nyonblee, a VSLA member in her Margibi County community, asked her group for a loan of $100 to help get her family through this difficult time. Thanks to financial training Nyonblee received from CARE and the support of her group members, she was able to make that money grow even in the midst of the Ebola crisis. She used the loan to buy seeds and tools to begin doing some simple sustenance farming and also bought two chickens. Her family has been able to survive eating cassava leaves, groundnuts and eggs; and earn some income selling extra eggs to neighbors.

Life is slowly beginning again for Nyonblee’s community in Liberia. The markets have reopened, but the palm oil plantation remains closed. This leaves Nyonblee’s husband unemployed, but their farm is growing which helps ease their fears of going hungry. Nyonblee has been able to sell extra produce and eggs in the markets, and almost has enough to pay back her loan with interest.

Having worked for years in communities throughout Sierra Leone and Liberia, CARE was able to leverage its relationships to mobilize communities in helping contain the spread of Ebola. During the early stages of the outbreak, there were many rumors circulating about the disease, like that Ebola was not real but was a conspiracy. Working with trusted community members, including VSLA members, CARE reached over 200,000 people with education materials and delivering critical messages on the symptoms of Ebola and methods for preventing infection. It was the VSLA groups that proved to be both a source of prevention and an economic safety net for communities hit hard by Ebola.

Empowering people with the ability to bring themselves through crises like the Ebola outbreak is at the heart of CARE’s work. The VSLA groups, for instance, provide people like Nyonblee with access to financial services that helps them save their money and kick start a stable income, which in turn makes them less vulnerable to natural disasters and health crises.

Each VSLA group consists of 15-30 people who meet weekly to save money as a group. CARE helps launch the groups with start-up funding opportunities and provides a year of financial training, but the groups are completely self-managed by the members. Members pool their savings and take loans from the savings pool to invest in small businesses and pay family expenses. The loans are then paid back with interest, which is shared among the members as interest on their savings.

Many people living in rural areas of Liberia and Sierra Leone do not make enough steady income to access formal banks, but by forming a VSLA group they’re creating a bank amongst themselves. As a community, they’re building up savings, which provides a cushion to fall back on during times of crisis, like the recent Ebola Outbreak that periodically left the majority of people with no income generating options for several months. 

Since CARE launched the VSLA program in Liberia in 2008, they’ve grown to 205 groups with nearly 6,000 members and the groups have collectively saved over $250,000. The groups are now completely self-sufficient and still growing, with some even growing during the Ebola crisis.  In Margibi County, which was hit hard by Ebola last year, VSLA groups multiplied on their own, nearly doubling from 50 groups in 2013 to 86 groups at the end of 2014.

Similar results have been seen in Sierra Leone with some groups beginning to work with local banks which is opening them up to a wider range of financial services. Since 2004, VSLA groups in Sierra Leone have grown to more than 2,200 groups and 62,000 members. There have been 900 groups launched in the past two years that have saved over $830,000 and disbursed nearly $200,000 in loans.  

Nearly 70 percent of the VSLA group members are women. CARE believes that when women earn, everyone benefits, as they play a vital role in fighting poverty and are most often unable to access formal financial services. Women are typically the primary caretakers for their families, and when they are earning an income, they invest that into the well-being of their children and communities.

“There’s also a strong bond of trust and support that is built amongst VSLA members who are working together to save their money. Members want to help each other succeed because they know it will help the group succeed as a whole,” said Jordan Hoffman, CARE program developer for the Ebola response.

When the markets closed in Sierra Leone during the Ebola Outbreak, income generation came to a halt for a VSLA group in Mateboi made up of 30 women who all had businesses selling in the market. To make it through the crisis, the group collectively decided to give $200 loans to each member, which they used primarily to buy food. The group also decided to use $300 to purchase seeds to ensure members were able to plant in the upcoming planting season.

One of the group’s leaders, Relevance Fontaine, proudly shared that she is confident that the group’s hard work saving over the years helped them survive the Ebola crisis.  The group has actively been saving for years, and after all the loans taken for members to survive those critical months of the Ebola outbreak, they still had a balance of $4,000. 

In some communities, VSLA groups lost members to Ebola leaving behind widows and young children, which surviving group members rallied around to support. According to UNICEF, the Ebola Outbreak orphaned over 16,000 children in West Africa. Many young people found themselves with the responsibility of caring for younger siblings, including 14-year-old Christian Gbendembu in Mapaki, Sierra Leone. He and his three younger siblings lost both parents to Ebola. Christian’s mother was an active VSLA member, so the group decided to provide Christian with a “trust fund” to help him and his siblings with living expenses while they are in the process of finding a more permanent living solution. The group is also helping Christian learn how to be a car mechanic so he can start earning an income.

During the height of the Ebola outbreak, VSLA groups proved to be a strong safety net that helped many survive, but many groups had to deplete most of their savings to do so and are now struggling to start over. The movement restrictions and market closures had major impacts on farming and trade which are the primary economic generating activities. According to a recent Food and Agriculture Organization assessment, there was an eight percent decrease in harvest in Sierra Leone and 12 percent decrease in Liberia, with the hardest hit communities experiencing over 15 percent decrease in their harvest. People had to use most of their savings and resources to buy food to get them through those difficult months of the crisis.

With limited savings to work with, many farmers and VSLA group members are finding it difficult to restart their businesses. To help with this rebuilding effort, CARE will be providing seeds farmers need for the current planting season and VSLA groups with start-up funds through cash for work opportunities, such as installing or rehabilitating community wells. Installing wells in public places will also contribute to promoting hygiene to prevent Ebola infection, and as VSLA groups begin to accumulate savings, they will be able to maintain the wells and buy soap for the community.

“Ebola has yet to be eliminated, so for people to truly rebuild their lives in a way that’s sustainable, we must also stay focused on reducing the number of new infections,” said Hoffman. “The VSLA groups are consistently proven to build resilience, and will be a key part of CARE’s strategy for helping rebuild livelihoods while fighting to get to zero new infections.”

Read more about CARE's work in West Africa