Intense and Dazzling Trek to Dakar Teaches History, Culture and CU Ways
Let me introduce myself. I am Brian Gately, director of technical assistance for the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions in New York. While at the federation, I have added credit union development educator to my title. Part of being a DE, a National Credit Union Foundation program, is committing to your own personally designed program whereby you will further credit union community development. I committed to working with a credit union in West Africa since I speak French.
In 2003, I met Abou Ndiaye, the manager of MECZY, Mutuelle d'Epargne et de Cr?dit de la Zone de Yoff. He had visited us at the federation after interning for two months at one of our member credit unions, Alternatives FCU, Ithaca, N.Y. We remained in contact ever since and a couple of years ago, I let him know my plan to work with a West African credit union, and he invited me to his just outside of Dakar, Senegal.
My plan was to conduct a teller, management and loan officer workshops and as facilitator, assist in the development of a business and strategic plan, including financial projections. This would include meeting with the board and staff. MECZY, founded in 1997 by fishermen in the village of Yoff (population 100,000), had never had a strategic planning session even though it had grown to three (soon to be four) branches, over 10,000 members and 1 billion francs in assets ($2 million).
MECZY was founded on the same system as U.S. and Canadian credit unions with a board and supervisory and credit committees. There is an annual membership meeting. Loans are given at 14% annual rate and dividends are paid on term shares at 5%. The rate of inflation in Senegal is low, below 2%.
One might ask about Islam and interest, but it doesn't matter in Senegal, they charge interest and pay dividends, like our CUs do. The credit union is very well-capitalized at over 50%. They have very good loan demand. The longest loan maturity is 36 months, and average turnover is 12 months. Most of the loans are for microfinance. The one-on-one credit union system is used (as opposed to solidarity or village banking systems). The distribution between men and women borrowers is higher for men in number of loans, higher for women in total amount of loans.
The officials were so grateful because they had been flying blind, not knowing exactly how to continue to grow the credit union. The meetings we had were lively and very productive, and the joint report we completed will be very helpful to them since it lists timelines, responsibilities and people responsible.
So, what similarities did I find? Credit unions are credit unions no matter where you go. I found the same wonderful spirit among the board and staff and the same helpful approach toward the members. Also the software and hardware is the same-Bill Gates rules. Electricity is reliable. The country is healthy.
After arriving, I hung out with Abou and his family, at one point we went for a long walk along the beautiful beach, the main feature of the town. I had scheduled an extra day to give myself time to get immersed in French. That was good, because I would really need it. I met most of the 15 staff members on Monday, getting up to speed on how the credit union is doing, its financials and other items. And then on Tuesday afternoon, we started the strategic planning session with over 20 people including the board. We broke up into two teams that came up with many ideas and follow-up needs and then reconciled the two groups' work.
Music is big in Senegal and so is nightlife. Things don't even start until around 1 a.m. They have salsa and their own mbalax, a racy beat. Percussion is big. One Saturday night, Abou and a friend took me out in Dakar, and we listened to the renowned Afro-Cuban band Baobab, founded by the famous Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. Abou introduced me to one of the founding members of the band, Rudy Gomis.
Draft animals are still used a lot. I saw more horse carts than cars in Yoff, the village where the credit union is located. Yoff is about 45 minutes north of Dakar and is where the international airport is located, but it still is a small fishing village. As mentioned, the credit union was founded by fishermen. One of those fishermen, Ibrahim Dieye ("Ibra"), is still on the board. One morning, Ibra took me out in the Atlantic in his pirogue, a wooden boat. He explained about the "masculine" and "feminine" seas meeting at the peninsula of Dakar, making for great fishing. (These are two different currents.)
I was in Senegal a total of two weeks. The first week was intense, working 10-hour days, including part of Saturday. But the second week was vacation, and Abou and his childhood friend Alboury joined me.
The famous island of Gor?e is near Dakar, where Africans who had been enslaved were sent off to the New World. We visited the island and La Maison des Esclaves, the House of Slaves, where they were kept before being shipped out. It was an extremely moving experience.
In an old Mercedes that Alboury had borrowed, we started off on our adventure, first to the north to the colonial town of Saint Louis and then up to the border of Mauritania to visit the Djoudj bird sanctuary. In Saint Louis we visited a museum to the A?ropostale pilots and had lunch at the hotel where they would stay the night.
We then continued south all the way to near the Gambian border, seeing Senegal's oldest, biggest baobab tree, over 800 years old. The baobab is a symbol for Senegal. Finally we went to the village of Bonaba (Keur Assane) on the former Paris-Dakar auto rally run where MECZY is looking to do mobile phone microfinance with the villagers. What the villagers really need is a place to save. There is no financial institution nearby. They have excellent cell phone service, so by buying cell phone cards and transferring part of the value to MECZY to their account there, that would be a way to save. This is in the idea stage-we just had the idea while visiting the village.