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The Women’s Economic Empowerment and Leadership (WEEL) project in Sierra Leone recently came to an end. On completion, as with all ITL projects, an evaluation was undertaken by in-county experts to assess the project’s impact. In this update we share a summary of the key findings.

The WEEL project aimed to increase the availability of financial services in remote rural areas by leveraging the power of mobile money technology. The project was geared towards addressing the difficulties associated with limited access to financial services, by supporting women in developing savings, accessing credit and investing in entrepreneurial activities. By addressing this need, the project contributed to women's wider social and political empowerment, whilst simultaneously boosting their economic wellbeing and transforming their lives. 

Improving the functioning of local credit unions and savings associations

Prior to the project, village savings and loan association (VSLA) members who did not live in close proximity to the treasurer would be forced to either travel considerable distance on foot, or pay for transportation to deposit their cash or collect credit. This is because community savings were kept in a cash box and managed by the treasurer who was also responsible for recording all the transactions.   

Now all credit unions have bank accounts and union representatives can easily transfer funds from the union bank accounts to their members and vice-versa with the help of mobile technology.  According to participants, using mobile money technology led to a significant improvement in the quality of services they provided to members, as well as increased transparency and accountability, and reduced the dangers associated with fraud and theft.    

Increasing access to finance and enhancing agricultural productivity

Women constitute the majority of the agricultural labourforce and play an important role in subsistence farming. However the women in the project area had little expectation of ever using formal banking services prior to the introduction of this project due to their geographic isolation.

Mobile money changed this picture. It expended women's access to finance, improved their agricultural and entrepreneurial skills, and raised their disposable income. 97% of respondents in the final evaluation confirmed that they now had access to their own income or financial resources independent of male spouses or relatives. 

The project provided women farmers with a simple and efficient way to pay for agricultural inputs and to purchase and sell commodities. Project participants emphasised that timely access to loans at a lower transaction cost led to increased productivity. Several farmers in both Pujehun and Kailahun indicated that as a result of the project they were able to hire and pay staff, indirectly boosting food security, nutrition, as well as incomes. 

Encouraging entrepreneurship

Mobile financial technology proved effective in supporting association members to engage in various business activities, including petty trade, food processing, selling mobile phone top-ups, and tailoring. There is overwhelming evidence that association members are using the credit facilities to start and grow their businesses.

Improved financial literacy and awareness

The final evaluation also found that the project led to notable improvements in financial literacy and women’s ability to utilise banking services. Participants who took part in business management and agrobusiness training attested to gaining practical management skills and financial independence. Additionally, by exposing communities to financial services, the project empowered communities to respect women’s rights to financial autonomy. As a result, there is now a general awareness that women have the right to open and manage their own bank accounts.   

Wider social benefits

As women accumulated financial resources as a result of their involvement in the project, we saw knock-on benefits in terms of health, nutrition, sanitation, and children's education, thus contributing to tackling wider social issues such as child marriage and teenage pregnancy. 

Positive Masculinity

The evaluation also found that positive masculinity training is encouraging males to make collaborative decisions while giving women a stronger voice. Both men and women confirmed that males who received masculinity training were becoming more supportive partners, are now active in household chores, and are participating in childcare duties and income-generating activities, thereby freeing women of traditional gender roles. The project also demonstrated that addressing toxic masculinity was also contributing to preventing and responding to gender-based violence, and men were becoming advocates for safer communities.

'This project showed me that women make good leaders. They simply need to be given the opportunity. I used to believe that women could not lead and should instead focus on caring for their spouses and in-laws’.

- Traditional Leader, Pujehun.

Women's social empowerment

All female respondents in the evaluation agreed that as a result of this work, women have decision making positions in associations, cooperatives and communities while 73% indicated that women are now able to access decision making positions at district level too. 

'More leadership opportunities are now available to women. For example, the secretary of our organization is now the zonal women's leader. This is because they now regard us as serious and competent of managing the affairs of this community, as evidenced by our involvement in the project.

- Focus group discussion participant, Tongay Community, Pujehun District.

In focus group discussions, credit union and VSLA members told the evaluation team that they see themselves as development partners. This is crucial as it is more sustainable and empowering than when communities see themselves as beneficiaries.

We work together to address the community's challenges. We hold reflection sessions on a regular basis to discuss what works well and what needs to be improved. This has made us respect our community's capabilities.

- Female leader, Kailahun District.

Sustainability and scaleability

By connecting to wider societal change (supporting women to take advantage of the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act, and the Customary Land Rights Act) we are ensuring that this work is embedded in government priorities. This, together with taking an approach which empowers communities, encouraging them to feel a sense of ownership, helps ensure the sustainability of this work. In terms of scale up, we are actively exploring a number of opportunities both with existing private sector partners, but also with with trusts and foundations. We have also produced a learning paper which is being used to capture the key learnings from this project and share them more broadly, to influence wider change.

Reflection from project visit

Read this article in the Church of Scotland’s magazine written by an ITL supporter who saw the impact that this project was having in person last year - Life and Work Newsletter - Features - Life and Work