With training and financial access, women refugees achieve a lot with a little.

Posted on 06/16/2021

In this week of World Refugee Day, I share with you the story of Mary Sadia.

Mary is a successful young entrepreneur. Six years ago, at age 27, she opened a small store, selling mixed goods - canned foods, rice and produce. Last year, after completing a business training course and securing a small loan, she expanded her enterprise to include a restaurant.

Mary is also a widow with eight children. Her husband died in the South Sudan civil war. Her family’s current address is Village 10, Zone 2, Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement, Uganda.

Last, but far from least, Mary is an example. When refugees – like the more than 220,000 Mary lives with in Bidi Bidi – are given opportunity, they will do all they can to become self-sufficient.

Bidi Bidi is the second-largest refugee settlement in the world. Most of the adult refugees are women fleeing the protracted war in South Sudan; most households are female-headed. The women in Bidi Bidi left their homelands with little more than the clothes they were wearing, not knowing when, or if, they would ever return.

The Reality of Refugee Settlements

Many people mistakenly believe refugees are temporarily held and then returned to their country of origin as swiftly as possible. But, on average, and depending on the crisis, refugees stay in exile for more than 10 years, according to World Bank. Fortunately, the Ugandan government knows this and promotes one of the most progressive refugee policies in the world, allowing refugees to live, farm and work freely together.

Each refugee receives basic staples like oil and corn each month, but it’s barely enough for a family to survive. Each also receives a small plot of land to grow their own food. The families are then able to sell the extra crops, or products they create from the food. Consequently, agriculture jobs are created, and an informal economy emerges.

But informal economies advance livelihoods only so far. And, though refugees are often eager to expand or start new businesses, they face enormous roadblocks when it comes to financial services. To overcome these barriers, many women join Village Savings & Loans Associations (VSLAs), which are self-managed groups who meet regularly to collectively save their money and access small loans.

Membership in a VSLA can be enormously positive for a female refugee. Members create a community in which women encourage, support, and hold one another accountable. It can be challenging, however, to ensure the safety of money hidden in a box or to keep accurate group records, and conflicts often arise. What’s more, with no access to formal financial services, women are unable to build credit histories – one more thing they were forced to leave behind when they fled.

Grameen’s Work in Bidi Bidi

I am very proud to share that, thanks to our donors and partners, Grameen Foundation, over the past two years, has worked with over 300 VSLAs to expand formal digital financial services (DFS) in the form of savings accounts, digital bill pay, and small loans to more than 8,500 mostly female members. One key to our success is that we recruit, train and enable local women and youth to serve as Community DFS Agents to provide hands-on support to their neighbors. We also provide financial literacy and business skill training to help refugees build successful livelihoods and invest in their families.

Additionally, we have digitized the savings and loan records and day-to-day operations of 249 savings groups using our LedgerLink digital savings group platform. Digitizing savings and loan records enables our microfinance partner RUFI to develop alternative credit histories for the savings groups and link them to formal loans. Digitizing day-to-day operations enables savings groups to keep their records more accurately, reduce conflicts and move into the digital economy.

Learn more about RUFI

"I will never forget the great change I achieved from this training."  
— Mary Sadia, Bidi Bidi refugee

Which brings me back to Mary Sadia. In 2020, when not operating her small store, Mary participated in business skill training developed by Grameen Foundation and conducted by RUFI. She learned cash management, planning, and recordkeeping, and how to identify new customers. I know it will be as gratifying to our supporters as it was to me to read that Mary said, “I will never forget the great change I achieved from the training.”

Then, through her VSLA, Mary accessed a loan from RUFI for 1,000,000shs ($283.74 USD) and opened her restaurant, setting her on the path to creating a better life for her family.

This World Refugee Day, I hope you will remember the story of Mary, who is able to do so much with so little, and be inspired to give whatever you are able to help these families build their homes away from home.


Empower smallholder farmers to lift themselves out of poverty.
Give Now