Changing the Currency of Rural Poverty

Written by Becky Rosaler on May 19, 2015 in Sower


This article originally appeared in the Spring Sower. If you missed it, read on and see how economic empowerment is transforming lives through Plant With Purpose.


Money. It’s what makes the world go ‘round. It equips us to buy food and clothing, pay our water and electric bills, purchase services, obtain goods, get from one location to the next, and experience endless forms of entertainment.

Yet for poor rural families with limited funds, money represents barriers rather than opportunities. Lack of income reduces options, forces painful decisions, and leads to further despair. Arnulfo and Adriana Morales, a young couple from Montefrio, Mexico, understand this all too well. Confronted by desperate poverty, Arnulfo had little choice but to leave his family and immigrate to Los Angeles. He worked for six years as a day laborer, earning money to send back to his wife and children–the family he couldn’t afford to stay with. He explains, “It wasn’t because I wanted to leave, but because I had to.”

Sadly, their story is not an isolated one. But there is hope. Plant With Purpose is addressing crippling poverty in a way that empowers our partners and offers financial security.



Economic empowerment is a key piece of Plant With Purpose’s three-part holistic approach to development, and Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) are the driving force behind it. Not only do VSLA groups equip impoverished families to increase their savings, they’ve launched Plant With Purpose into an era of unprecedented program growth.

According to the World Bank, 2.5 billion adults around the world do not have an account at a financial institution. This means saving, transferring, or borrowing money is not an option for one-third of the world’s population. Without access to financial services, these individuals will never be able to borrow the necessary funds to buy a house, launch a business, pay for college, or even cover the cost of emergencies. The ability to get ahead forever remains out of reach.

Even if rural families could earn more money, they lack safe places to save it. Accumulated cash is stashed in random locations around homes, putting families at risk. Often cash-in-hand is spent quickly as a precaution. Through VSLAs, Plant With Purpose partnering families have a safe place to put their hard earned money, while earning interest on their savings. By providing an alternative to traditional financial services, VSLAs are transforming communities.



Thousands of partnering families are discovering the value of saving. A comparison between the 2011 and 2014 Impact Evaluations* showed encouraging results. Across the board, the number of households actively saving money increased throughout the six field programs. The most dramatic results came from the Dominican Republic: three years ago only 29 percent of participating households were saving; today, 100 percent of participants surveyed are saving.


VSLAs are creating opportunity for substantial program growth, while economically
empowering thousands of impoverished farming families.

VSLAs provide the financial support necessary for partnering families to save cash and access large sums of money. When Arnulfo returned from California, he and Adriana joined Montefrio’s VSLA group. They used funds from the group to construct a fuel-efficient stove. Adriana now makes the bread the family used to purchase, and recently started a small business baking cakes for special occasions. Her business saves neighbors the time-consuming trip to bakeries in Oaxaca City and according to local staff, the quality of Adriana’s cakes rival those found in the city.

Perhaps the most unique outcome of saving comes in the form of relationships. For widows in Tanzania, their weekly VSLA meeting provides a consistent source of community. These invested communities look out for one another and provides added layers of accountability. When loans are borrowed to establish businesses, the 20-plus group members have a vested interest in the success of the business.



Arnulfo and Adriana purchased a pair of sheep with their savings. Other improvements around their farm are evident: hens and chicks from their coop run through the garden, which bursts with pumpkins, corn, and beans. A greenhouse full of tomatoes stands near the house. The majority of the family’s food is homegrown. In addition to fresh vegetables, Arnulfo says, “We now have eggs and meat.”

Many VSLA members save money with the goal of purchasing livestock and improving their farms. The array of traditional farm animals—chickens, goats, pigs, sheep, and cows—act like savings accounts for rural families. By investing their money in animals, families like the Morales’ are getting a return. Eggs, milk, meat, and offspring create a sustainable source of income. Livestock and other farm additions are the rural poor’s equivalent of monetary assets. In an emergency situation families can choose to sell their livestock and instantly access funds to cover unanticipated expenses.



As the saying goes, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” It’s never wise to keep all your funds in one investment, which is why financial planners encourage clients to diversify their portfolios. Plant With Purpose also encourages diversification on family farms. By increasing crop diversity, partnering families will be better positioned if a disaster occurs. For example, a coffee rust disease recently wiped out coffee plants on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Farmers who depended solely on coffee crops were hit harder than those with additional crops to sell. 2014 Impact Evaluations show that partnering farmers in Haiti harvest a variety of 35 crops compared to the 26 species that nonparticipants grow. This 35 percent increase in crop diversity is helping families absorb shocks and weather storms.

Not only does greater crop diversity increase financial security, it also provides food security. Arnulfo’s highest household expense used to be food purchases. Through the encouragement of Plant With Purpose, he and Adriana now grow (or bake) most of their food. The Morales family plans to continue integrating aspects of Plant With Purpose’s program into their daily life.



Arnulfo and Adriana are succeeding in raising their children together. When Arnulfo returned from California, they purchased property and built a house complete with a cement floor, an indicator of economic well-being. As a family, the Morales are thriving as they embrace new economic opportunities The exciting news is that the Morales are not alone in their success; 40 percent of partnering families in Mexico have an actual emergency cash reserve to cover living expenses for six months—something only 2.5 percent of nonparticipating families can claim.

Economic empowerment through VSLA groups is positioning families to improve their livelihood, increase their well-being, and dream of a different tomorrow. Arnulfo and Adriana are an example of this. When asked if he would have migrated had he been given the chance to work with Plant With Purpose years ago, Arnulfo said, “Of course not.” The evidence is in: economic opportunities exist where families are rooted, and VSLAs make self-sufficiency possible for the rural poor.

*Every three years Plant With Purpose conducts an extensive Impact Evaluation to monitor program impact. Data is collected through household surveys allowing Plant With Purpose to compare participating and nonparticipating households.

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