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By Kalevera E. Imungu, Project Associate Women@Work Campaign for Hivos East Africa.

One of the most glaring inequalities that plagues humanity continues to be economic inequality. Even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic, the gap between the rich and the poor has been stretched tenfold and the most economically vulnerable in society have borne the brunt of massive layoffs, salary reductions and inflation.

The effects of the pandemic on the financial lives of women workers in Eastern Africa’s horticulture sector are well documented through a rapid assessment report commissioned by the Hivos Women@Work program in three countries in Eastern Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) and three Southern Africa countries (Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe). These rapid assessments highlighted the financial toll the pandemic has had on the workers, forcing many of them to seek alternative means of income generation and applying austerity measures. However, some farm workers were able to slightly weather the worst of the financial storm through tapping into emergency savings they had accumulated. This was shared through monitoring interviews and visits by UWEA (Uganda Workers Education Association) built on trainings they have conducted jointly with Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA) on women’s leadership with a component of financial literacy. These trainings were initially conducted with staff from three farms in April 2019 by AMwA and later another seven (total of 10 farms).

These financial literacy trainings addressed several issues in personal finance and small scale entrepreneurship. They were developed to help the workers and especially women workers develop a savings culture and where possible set up small businesses to supplement their income. Money and its management has often been seen as a preserve for men and while the gap in financial literacy is felt across the working poor communities, it is doubly felt by women as a result of patriarchal beliefs around wealth only as a tool wielded by men. Through these trainings on leadership and financial literacy, women are not only able to manage their own finances but build on this knowledge and confidence to engage in financial discussions and decisions amongst each other, with farm management in demanding for better wages and ultimately, at home.

The uptake of this training aspect was very high and it took on like a wildfire, showing the need for this and even more financially focused training. Farm management as well took to these conversations, having noticed that after the trainings and subsequent conversations amongst workers, there were less incidences of workers asking for salary advances. Prior to these trainings, management reported that many workers would seek salary advances before the end of the month and after statutory deductions and loan payments, many would be left with negative pay slips. This would then further perpetuate the cycle of debt and working poverty. The workers themselves reported that prior to the trainings it was commonplace for them to exhaust any money they were given and save little to nothing. Workers reported struggling with impulse buying and not being able to plan their spending that needing to take items on credit from shopkeepers to pay at the end of the month. Many workers would shun the idea of saving because they felt they do not earn enough to save anything. While it is true that the sector is plagued with notoriously low wages, the situation is improving gradually and with that, it’s important to empower the workers with knowledge to secure their financial futures. The financial literacy sessions successfully engaged workers to challenge their money beliefs, patterns and behaviors with astonishing results.

In addition to workers embracing a savings culture and reigning in their spending, they also begun to form saccos comprising of both men and women and some for women exclusively. Within the women only saccos they developed a merry go round system where every so often the contributions from every woman would be pooled together to buy household goods or food for one of the members of the sacco. This would then be repeated in a cycle and has enabled workers improve their standard of living. Some workers have even been able to start small businesses and in an encouraging story, a woman who had greatly benefitted from the sessions is now extending this knowledge to children on building a saving culture.

While these results are more than encouraging, they point to a huge gap in financial literacy. Only ten farms benefitted from the sessions which is not nearly enough to meet the demand for this knowledge.  The work of AMwA and UWEA needs to go further and be taken up by other labor institutions, management of farms and trade unions. Additionally, there is need to infuse these sessions with more content on the in depth fundamentals of entrepreneurship, including how to grow businesses and manage businesses alongside possible employment. Trainings on financial resilience should be incorporated, especially in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic that has exposed weaknesses in the informal and formal sector.

In the world we live in, money is seen as power and the knowledge to manage and acquire money is a pivotal tool that can be leveraged in the fight for gender equality. While some of the women workers in Uganda’s flower farms are now able to better manage their money and speak on matters financial, it should not be lost to us that the sector still grapples with low wages. The right to a living wage is fundamental to improving quality of life and a key pillar of decent work. Capitalist thinking forged on accumulation of wealth and resources now must be replaced with rights’ centered economic systems that seek to redistribute wealth equitably for collective development. Armed with the knowledge to manage their personal finances, it is now imperative that the workers, men and women alike are able to live free from the fear of poverty through accessing a living and not just minimum wage.