NAIROBI, Kenya -- Louisiana Credit Union League CEO Anne Cochran doesn't exactly jet set around the globe like Bono or Angelina Jolie, but through the Strathmore WOCCU African Management Institute, a management certification program she helped create here, she's arguably touched thousands of member-owners on the beleaguered continent.
Cochran first visited Africa 10 years ago through a WOCCU international partnership between her league and South Africa's savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs). She soon began working with additional SACCO groups in Uganda and Kenya and became a regular face and presenter at African industry meetings.
"In interacting with them, I discovered they had a real hunger for education, especially at the manager's level," Cochran said. "We have so much at our fingertips here in the U.S., so many examples and best practices that we can pull from; but in Africa, there just aren't many educational opportunities."
Cochran brought the educational gap to WOCCU's attention. As it turns out, the international league was already discussing a training program with Nairobi's Strathmore University, a business school with an enrollment of 4,000 that attracts both traditional and part-time students.
Together, Cochran and WOCCU developed a curriculum to support a three-semester, tiered accreditation program based loosely on CUNA Management School. Managers and board members attend three intense, on-site training sessions that focus on financial management, products and services, policies and procedures, and governance.
Strathmore provides the location and faculty, and for the most part, facilitates the program with WOCCU oversight. The first class began in November 2004, and the Strathmore Institute, known as SWAMI, has graduated 114 certified SACCO professionals since.
Catherine Ford, who manages the program for WOCCU, said there's considerable need for SACCO manager certification.
"In Africa, credit unions are very much still board dominated, and it's not uncommon to have board members in the credit union every day, very much involved in management decisions," Ford said.
Though SWAMI is geared toward managers, it includes sessions for board members as well, to ensure the concepts taught at Strathmore are accepted and implemented back home.
"With managers and board members attending the training together, it gives them the opportunity to change behavior by role playing; showing them, for example, how managers can participate in the budgeting process," Ford said.
Straight Talk from SWAMI
Duncan Njiri is a 2006 SWAMI graduate from Kenya who manages an 800 member SACCO that has assets of 50 million shillings, the equivalent of $1 million, and serves the employees of a tea plantation. The accounting major found his way to SACCOs as an auditor and took his first credit union management job in 1987.
Njiri traveled to the United States last month to earn his credit union development executive certification from the National Credit Union Foundation. While in Madison, he also stopped by WOCCU's headquarters, where he spoke with Credit Union Times.
Njiri confirmed that African board members have far more influence on day-to-day operations than their U.S. counterparts. In fact, his board was reluctant to pay for more than one semester of the SWAMI program, because they weren't sold on the need to educate him beyond basic data entry and number crunching duties.
His first SWAMI semester was a real eye opener, Njiri said, because he wasn't aware of the need to budget beyond 12 months, nor provide financial education for members.
Regulations are weak on the African continent, Cochran said. There's no deposit insurance, for one thing, and a lack of asset-liability management practices create an environment in which insolvent SACCOs can optimistically continue business as usual until their cash flow dries up and they are forced to close their doors abruptly.
Because of this, Cochran said she was insistent the curriculum include a three-year budget and a business plan with written assumptions.
"I can see that from where we were then to where we are now, it's better, because we have raised the percentage of new members, and we now have a budget of three years, which has improved our financial planning," Njiri said.
However, Njiri said he worries that management changes at the tea plantation, which have delivered a new chair and treasurer to the board, might derail the progress he's made implementing the strategies learned through SWAMI.
WOCCU logs the financials from each student's SACCO in a database, and plans to keep in touch and compare key financials five years after graduation. Because the first graduates are just now reaching their five-year anniversaries, Cochran said it's difficult to quantify the program's effect on the SACCO industry.
"If the people who receive the education leave the credit union, then you could be starting all over again," Cochran said, "but with consistency in place, I'd say it would be virtually impossible to not guarantee there would be some positive results."
SACCOs are important in Africa, she said, because third world conditions are found in rural areas throughout the continent.
"Microfinance companies can go in there with corporate funding at do loans, but we encourage savings and create attractive options to help them save, that's the credit union difference," Cochran said.
Ford said WOCCU partners donate funds to provide scholarships for approximately 20% of students, funding 75% of those who apply for assistance.
"We've had the advantage of having very generous donations the past couple of years," Ford said. "In particular, the Irish league donation allowed us to provide 12 new scholarships."
The United States Agency for International Development's Cooperative Development Program and CUNA Mutual Group Foundation are major U.S. donors, as well as the Canadian Co-operative Association. The African American Credit Union Coalition, Pennsylvania Credit Union Association, American Heritage Federal Credit Union, Southeast Regional Credit Union Schools and the Louisiana Credit Union League also provide financial support.
In addition to Ford and Cochran, volunteers from Louisiana and Pennsylvania leagues attend the SWAMI training both to provide instruction and quality assurance for the program.