What’s so special about adolescent girls?

Promoting financial inclusion and economic empowerment in Africa

Vumilia Nahimana picture with family

Vumilia Nahimana knows loss. In 2010, she and her sick brother took a bus from their home in Bugurama, in Burundi’s Rumonge province. They were travelling to Bujumbura, the nation’s capital, seeking treatment for his illness. Her brother died on the journey. Vumilia, terrified and devastated, pretended her brother was asleep until they arrived in the city.

During the Burundian civil war, the 27-year-old’s father and eight of her brothers died at Mutabira refugee camp on the Tanzanian border where her family had fled. When Vumilia, her mother, three younger sisters and remaining brother returned to her father’s land in 2009, her grandparents, who had been farming the land, turned them away. To provide for her sisters, she and her mother laboured for local merchants, transporting goods from field to market.

Vumilia also knows gain. She finished secondary school and is studying at university. She established a business with an annual turnover of BIF 1,000,000 (USD $565). Now she has a house, a farm, can afford healthcare for her mother and school fees for her sisters. She said she was able to improve her situation by relying on credit from her village savings and loan association (VLSA). Vumilia’s success built her confidence, agency and voice. She empowered herself and gained the respect of her community. Vumilia raised her voice and was awarded her father’s land by the local government.

VSLAs like Vumilia’s form part of the innovative Promoting Opportunities for Women’s Economic Empowerment in Rural Africa (POWER Africa), a four-year project that began in 2013. It operates in Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Cote d’Ivoire. It was established by CARE Canada, with support from the Mastercard Foundation, and aimed to reach 480,000 people in rural areas. At its conclusion in 2018, the project had reached over 750,000 people.

In Burundi, CARE works with the Great Lakes Development Initiative (GLID), a local NGO, and aims to reach 100,000 women, 75% of them adolescent girls. It aims to promote financial inclusion for adolescent girls and, therefore, improve the opportunities available to them so they play a greater role in their economy and society. To date, the programme has reached 123,714 girls.

What’s so special about working with adolescent girls? In this feature, we highlight the lessons learnt so far in POWER Africa’s experiences in Burundi. Programmes aiming to improve financial inclusion for adolescent girls cannot apply the same techniques as those targeting adults. They must involve stakeholders such as parents, teachers, brothers and male community leaders. They must be flexible and willing to adapt. They need to respect girls’ ability to define their own agency.

Burundi has one of the five lowest gross domestic products per capita in the world. A civil war that began in 1993 and officially ended with elections in 2005 devastated the country. According to a BBC report, Burundi was plunged into an ethnic conflict which claimed some 300,000 lives. In 2015, protests against President Pierre Nkurinziza’s attempt to run for a third term in office saw the country’s divisions and violence re-emerge. According to the UN, more than 400 people were killed and 260,000 fled the country in the year after the violence broke out. The largest industry is agriculture, 90% of which is subsistence farming.

POWER Africa participant Amie Louise Kaneza, a year 10 student in Kayanza province, stood in front of the banana field she bought with money she earned after joining the programme. “At the moment I don’t ask my parents for anything because I can buy everything I need myself. I want to thank VSLA for helping me to beat poverty.”

What is agency for adolescent girls?

Adolescent girls’ agency involves their having confidence; a voice for self determination; the skills to navigate the structural context in which they live while simultaneously pushing for change where they can; and bold aspirations for the future shaped by a wilful disregard for obstructive norms and the status quo.

Community stakeholders and existing norms can present obstacles on Burundian girls’ path to financial inclusion, but girls rely on their own agency to navigate the challenges. Agency is crucial. A key question, however, is: what is agency for adolescent girls?

Over almost four years operating in Burundi, POWER observed that adolescent girls’ agency involves their having the confidence and skills to retain assets in marriage and delay marriage; using their voice to ask for what they need to succeed, for example in asking POWER for more training and opportunities, and challenging land inheritance and child custody laws and customs; using the system to push for change by taking legal action to gain their rights; and having bold aspirations for the future for business growth and development and asset ownership.

Most important, however, is that this definition is not static. Girls are defining what their own agency means in practice by deciding their own futures, making their own choices, and pushing the boundaries to achieve their goals. Respecting girls as agents of change – allowing them to decide what they need, when and how – created a valuable feedback loop. It allowed the project to flexibly respond to girls’ needs and requests.

What makes adolescent girls special is that in defining their own agency they are not confined by boundaries or restricted in their aspirations – like teenagers the world over – and will push to change the status quo.

Confidence to change social norms

Marriage poses many risks for Burundian girls. At the start of the project, girls’ feared boys forcing them into marriage or sex. Parents aspired legal marriages for their daughters, as marriages that are not recognised by the commune increase girls’ risk for mistreatment and losing their assets.

CARE Burundi has been actively tracking the marriage rates of VSLA and non-VSLA members through both qualitative and quantitative data. It was found that VSLA members are more sought after and seen as more valuable partners because of the financial capacity and assets they’ve developed through POWER.
Clothilde Mpawenimana, a 25-year-old living with her son in Ngozi, said that many boys approached her proposing marriage, but Clothilde said that her business and making money is her priority right now, as it’s never too late to be married.

Before Emelyne Irankunda, 20-years-old from Gitega, agreed to marry her husband, she first explained to her then-fiancé the advantages of being a member of her VSLA group. He quickly understood, and supported her ongoing membership. He said he wanted to marry her because he knew she was a courageous girl in seeing her go selling her tomatoes and sugar cane, and that this gave him the courage to propose.

Adolescent girls that participated in the POWER Africa programme, like Clothilde and Emelyne, were willing to create their own agency. They broke social norms to pursue their own economic empowerment even when their parents or community told them otherwise. Clothilde refused marriage and Emelyne made requests to a future husband. Both displayed a strong level of confidence for adolescent girls in Burundi.

Girls using their voice

Client-centric programming and feedback loops were crucial to the success of the POWER Africa programme. In engaging with GLID and CARE, adolescent girls used opportunities for feedback and discussion to ask for what they needed – more training, advanced business management skills, and linkage to formal financial institutions to both enhance their businesses’ potential and provide security for their savings.

Respecting girls as agents of change – allowing them to decide what they need, when and how – created a valuable feedback loop as girls were confident in voicing their needs. This allowed the project to flexibly respond to girls’ needs and requests. CARE and GLID worked not only to create that space within the programme, but within girls’ communities.

Like Vumilia, who was awarded her father’s land by the local government, another VSLA member, Daphrose Subushimike, 23-years-old, from Ngozi, also used her agency and took a risk. She used her voice to fight for what was rightfully hers. After her older sister passed away, leaving four children behind, Daphrose’s parents asked her to come home to help care for the children.

Then, her father left to be with another woman and tried to sell the family’s property. Daphrose appealed to the local government to stop him and applied to adopt her nieces and nephews while they were still in school. She was successful and now Daphrose provides for her sister’s four children as well as her own son with her financial management skills and earnings from the businesses she launched through the POWER Africa Programme.

Aspirations for the future

Daphrose has big plans, but has been through a difficult struggle. Her parents and the father of her baby abandoned and vilified Daphrose after she became pregnant. While she lived with her family after her son was born, she had to rely on herself to survive and provide for her child. She became a beggar.

In 2014 she joined the POWER Africa programme. Her savings and access TO credit allowed her to buy a sewing machine, then a goat. She used the money from the businesses she established to buy food and clothes for her son. As her businesses expanded she was able to send her deceased sister’s four children to school. She wants to continue to build her businesses and build a house on the plot that, like Vumilia,  she also won after challenging the local government.

Girls’ sense of their own agency is apparent in their bold aspirations for the future. From a participatory video process conducted by the POWER team in 2015, adolescent girls’ aspirations were varied, but centred around mobility, productive asset accrual, and finishing their studies.

Adults struggle to push the same boundaries and, comparing the responses of girls and their parents, girls’ ambitions were far more ambitious and bold. Parents wanted their daughters to finish school and have a shop in the village. Girls talked about expanding their businesses to the provincial or national level. They thought, systematically, through the steps they would need to take to get there, such as more training, increased mobility and better modes of transportation.

Girls cannot buy their own land and construct a house, but Daphrose surpassed the limitations imposed on her by society. That girls who are members of VSLAs are accruing assets and renting, even occasionally purchasing, land is indicative of progress in girls’ agency and growing support from parents and the wider community, including in a desire to protect girls’ assets from their brothers.
Allowing adolescent girls to determine their own agency has its own rewards. The profitability and status that comes with controlling a plot of land is a strong factor in girls’ growing independence and control over their own resources.

Agency in motion: Tensions between girls’ financial inclusion and education

The POWER Africa project offered client-centric programming and made room for feedback loops, but what happened when the girls decided they wanted to go against the aspirations of the programme?

With girls’ increasingly defined sense of agency in terms of self-determination and continuing business growth and success, there was an inherent tension between girls’ growing their businesses and finishing their studies. Many girls felt that if their business is going well, school provided no benefits. Why should they return to school if they had found success despite their lack of education? What does that mean for participants who have children?

The current data from surveys indicates an 8% decrease in school attendance among VSLA members. They are more likely to attend school than non-VSLA members, but as the POWER Africa project has continued that likelihood has continued to decrease. One explanation is that VSLA participants are getting older and either finishing their schooling or more likely to dropout.

But that does not explain the full picture. There is a growing trend throughout POWER Africa for girls, particularly those who have their own children, to choose not to attend school in order to dedicate their time to their businesses. This is in direct contrast to the goals and aspirations of parents, teachers, local and international NGOs, and government policies and development plans. Some girls plan to return to school, but the trend coexists with those relating to dropout rates. Interestingly, while girls may not invest in their own education, POWER participants are more likely to send their siblings to school.

Agency in perspective

POWER Africa does not intend to offer a definitive response or solution. The programme’s intention is to be transparent in highlighting the inherit tension in girls claiming their own agency.

If girls are to be respected as being able to define their own agency, then do we accept their assessment that building their businesses and earning money to provide for their and their family’s futures could be better for them than going to school? Or, do we place a limit on how far that agency should go?

Because POWER let girls progress at their own pace with their income generating activities (IGAs) and businesses, and encouraged their ideas, adolescent girls are essentially treated as adults and provided with the space to develop their own definition of agency.

“It takes a village”

Engaging stakeholders to promote financial inclusion for adolescent girls

“When my parents learned that I was pregnant, they kicked me out of the house under the pretext that I couldn't give birth in their home,” said Daphrose. Daphrose's family isolated her, and her community vilified her and questioned her ambitions. If she was to achieve economic empowerment through POWER Africa, the programme needed to engage those around her.

In all aspects of life, adolescent girls in Burundi are at the mercy of inequitable rules and norms that favour boys and men. They face entrenched gender inequalities that prevent their achieving financial independence and business success. Typically, Burundian society does not accept girls supporting themselves and gaining independence, as this pushes the envelope of acceptable gender norms and makes girls undesirable for marriage.

They are excluded from accessing sustainable financial services as they are considered a high-risk group by both communities and formal financial sectors. In Burundian communes, the law does not recognise girls owning assets, meaning that if there is ever an ownership dispute, they remain vulnerable as their assets will not be regarded as their own.

They are limited by a lack of access to land and other productive resources by parents who often prefer to favour boys with such privileges. If a teenage girl falls pregnant, her parents will often chase her from the family home and she may suffer abuse and stigma by the child’s father and other members of the community. From a young age, boys are taught about the importance of respect within a ‘model’ household, a crucial part of which is girls’
submission to their husbands.

Through its client-centric programming and feedback loops that are at the heart of the programme, CARE was able to identify who and how important the different stakeholders were to overcome these obstacles.For girls to lead themselves out of poverty, they needed the support of their teachers, parents, brothers and male community leaders to ensure the stability and safety necessary to start businesses and invest their profits.

Sierra Bigirimana, 21-years-old from Gitega, got pregnant in primary school. It was the beginning of her “long ordeal”. Her parents, siblings and community regarded her “as a prostitute”.
“They insulted me day and night. This was humiliating enough. My personality and my family did not remain indifferent because I have not stopped being blamed.”

Men in her community harassed Sierra Bigirimana for sex, believing single mothers are promiscuous. She said it was traumatising and aggravated her psychological struggles, especially when she saw how her peers were progressing with their educations. Her child’s father rarely offered support, but, through her VSLA, Bigirimana hopes to get a loan and one day buy land, which would be a major achievement for an adolescent girl from Burundi.

Recognising stakeholders

Adolescent girls in rural Burundi are defining their own agency, but they still face the pressures of their situations and society. They cannot be treated as children who lack the ambition and maturity to decide their own futures. Nor can they be treated as adults who may be unfamiliar with new technologies and more cautious in their businesses. They may be in or out of school. Many still live at home. All of them live within a community.

POWER had to engage not just VSLA participants like Sierra or Vumilia, but also the stakeholders around them. Parents, teachers, brothers, men, business owners, and all levels of government needed to be involved in enabling and activating all aspects of agency, relations and structure.


Parents can make life difficult for girls in rural Burundi. They typically place more strain on their daughters than their sons in terms of household chores. Girls within the programme had to balance school, homework, and household chores, with managing the businesses they had established though the POWER programme. Some girls had to abandon their VSLA groups due to the strain on their time. POWER Africa had to adapt.

The girls’ themselves directly expressed to field officers the need to sensitise parents, who offered the initial savings needed to join VSLA groups and were supporting their businesses. Parental encouragement was seen as critical in allowing girls to manage their time between balancing these tasks, as parents can provide support in terms of reducing their household activities or assisting their daughter’s business. Further, parents play a crucial role in helping girls to secure their assets and protecting them from unwanted marriage offers.

POWER directly engaged parents and used their feedback to help improve the programme. Constance Minani, from Mika, said she was taught about POWER Africa when it started working in her community. She allowed her daughter to join and her daughter started selling vegetables. “At the moment she doesn’t ask me for anything. She can buy everything she needs for herself,” said Constance. “The girls who are not in [a] VSLA are missing out on an opportunity to develop themselves.”

Men in the community

Sylvester Coyitungiye, 39-years-old, didn’t want his wife to be involved with any type of group or associations because he believed she would spend less time working at home and become lazy and disrespectful towards him. However, he had heard positive things about projects like POWER Africa and decided to let his wife join a VSLA. Now the family has been able to save money from his wife’s business.

During interviews with participants, the issue of girls’ brothers and the attitudes of males more generally repeatedly came up. The engagement of men and boys in the target communities was identified as an essential component early on in the project. During POWER’s monitoring process, girls specifically identified older brothers as posing a serious risks to asset security, as they are known to seize girls’ livestock, products and valuable assets.

It was a revelation when the POWER team realised this was occurring as they did not initially know the girls’ brothers were seizing their assets. POWER learned that brothers were jealous of their sisters’ success. Girls’ assets are seen as the family’s assets as opposed to their own, and men and boys want to maintain the status quo of gender norms.

Gender inequality was a major impediment to the success of the saving groups and after only two months of group activities in Burundi, POWER Africa realised it needed to organise community meetings to address the issue. It was another example of focusing on clients and implementing a feedback loop that saw the project listen and act on what participants said.

POWER realised there were men who were willing to help, like the Abatangamucho. Abatangamucho, an initiative established by CARE Burundi that works in conjunction with POWER Africa, are community-embedded male change agents. They are male leaders who are ready to listen and support the girls’ efforts. They acted as champions for the girls’ rights and were crucial to their success.

CARE data showed that if there was a strong male change agent in the community, it led to increased parental support for the adolescent girls, increased mobility rates, and helped girls to be able to sell their products outside of their homes. Of those surveyed, 33% of parents cited the Abatangamucho as a facilitating factor for the girls’ success in the POWER programme.

In community meetings, the Abatangamucho spoke about equality between the sexes, the sharing of roles and responsibilities between couples and brothers and sisters, and emphasised there is no work reserved for one sex. However, despite the Abatangamucho presence, many older brothers continued to seize girls' assets, highlighting the need for ongoing gender equality work within communities.


Engaging teachers was also crucial to the POWER project. Initially, teachers were wary due to fears that girls would ignore their studies as they focused on their businesses. VSLA participants, however, said that teachers must be involved after POWER had not engaged them directly. Project leaders met with teachers in the various communities and changed their programmes.

To fit with girls’ schedules and school hours, trainings and meetings were only held after hours, on weekends or in the holidays. GLID field officers changed their work hours and renegotiated the administrative restrictions on motorbike usage during these times. Training modules were condensed and delivered during school holidays, meaning that the team was able to move through content rapidly, in line with the girls’ learning pace.


Dieudonné Miburo, chief of Mika colline, said he was interested when POWER Africa began to operate in his community and he encouraged girls to join. “We as administrative staff appreciate this a lot. Before the POWER Africa project, there were a lot of girls without work or schooling who were misled by boys in the community. Because of this there were many cases of unplanned pregnancies.”

Vumilia found an ally in government when she wanted to reclaim her father’s land. After her grandparents forced her family off the land, she decided she would take it back by force and build a house. She and two of her sisters returned at night and started building a new house. The neighbours encouraged them to appeal to the local chief, who supported their taking the land, but her uncles refused to acknowledge their rights. Vumilia eventually escalated the conflict to the local government, who supported her claim and awarded Vumilia her father’s plot. Her uncles returned and destroyed the house the girls had started building, but, again, the VSLA group supported and encouraged Vumilia to keep going.

Government can play a key role as girls navigate the obstacles on the path to financial inclusion. Vumulia showed a level of confidence by approaching the local chief and trusting that he might be able to help her. The local leader supported her as she confronted the patriarchal systems wanting to deny her the right to her father’s land. The government was also instrumental in the POWER programmes success as leaders encouraged girls to participate in the initiative.

Local and national government were also supportive in finding a solution when CARE raised the challenge that youth often have difficulty obtaining government ID cards, which are needed in order to open an account with financial service providers.

Action learning – Starting with ourselves 

For the POWER programme to be successful, it had to use its client-centric approach and feedback loops to improve its internal operations. One of the biggest challenges to POWER’s ambitions was the high number of VSLA groups assigned to each field officer.

At the beginning of the project, there were 4,000 savings groups with roughly 150,000 members, all of which were being supervised by approximately 20 GLID staff members. Each field officer was assigned approximately 145 groups per commune. Field officers struggled to reach all groups and offer adequate training and support, limiting the progress of the project and its long-term sustainability.

Again, POWER adapted. It established the Village Agent Network (VAN), which improved direct support to groups and the quality of training. GLID facilitated the election of members from VSLA groups to attend a session for girls to become Village Agents (VAs). They were taught to train other girls in VSLAs.

The creation of the VAN helped improve the training and support offered to VSLA participants and had the added benefit of offering girls elected as VAs the opportunity to expand their knowledge, skills, and responsibilities within the community.

Business as a gateway to financial inclusion and economic independence


Charlotte Dushimirimana’s community thought she was crazy when she started her transportation and taxi business. The 24-year-old from Kayanza struggled after her father died. Her mother could not earn enough to pay school fees or feed Charlotte and her brothers.

In 2014 Charlotte joined her local VSLA group. A few months later, the Abatangamucho ran a gender equality training session for the men in the community. They spoke about the sharing of gender-specific roles and responsibilities. This gave Charlotte an idea: she could become a bicycle-taxi driver, a job typically reserved for boys and men.

Adolescent girls in POWER have been shown to be innovative, to move quickly, and are willing to take calculated risks in taking loans and venturing into non-traditional businesses. In a word, they are dynamic. They have a growing capacity for financial education, as well as business and money management, and apply these skills to undertake higher value business activities. These skills enable them to invest in land, building or buying houses, cows, small animals, bicycles, motorcycles, sewing machines and their own or their children’s education. Many of these investments are traditionally reserved for men’s control and ownership.

Before Charlotte could buy a bicycle and begin her transportation business, she took a loan from her VSLA to buy and sell bananas. Once she earned BIF 70,000 (USD $40), she bought a bike and started transporting passengers and goods. Boys in the industry thought that as a girl she would soon abandon the business. Girls in her community told her to quit, that she would not be able to find a husband if she spent so much time with bicycle taxi boys.

Markets in Burundi are relatively ‘thin’, so most new businesses that are started are novel and lack competitors. Girls in the POWER programme used their market assessment skills to their advantage and tended to diversify their businesses as opposed to expanding them. They leverage success in one market to pursue success in another. For example, they might take a loan to buy tomatoes to sell, which they make a profit on; then they would use the profits to buy piglets; they could then sell the sow (the female), and use the profits to buy land.

Charlotte is still studying and operates her taxi business outside of school hours. She also owns seven goats and continues to run her banana business. She has been able to attain all her assets as a result of being a participant in POWER and making a profit from her own businesses.

Many other participants in the POWER programme manage multiple business ventures. They begin by running a small business while building capital, expand into a more lucrative sector while continuing to run their original business, and collect assets, like livestock, along the way.

Accruing land and assets is a form of security for girls against theft – resilience in the face of instability. POWER data showed more VSLA members reported investing in assets than non-VSLA members – 85.8% compared to 61.8%, respectively. Land is harder to come by, with only 6.8% of members reporting purchasing land in the past 12 months, yet it confers more benefits in terms of legally being in girls’ names and unable to be seized.

As adolescent girls in Burundi establish and expand their businesses, they add value to their communities through job creation. The benefits of this are multifaceted - by hiring employees, girls benefit in business growth, as this enables them to manage their time between multiple businesses, and to increase their productivity. It also shifts gender norms, demonstrating women’s capacity for leadership and business acumen. In some cases those norms are flipped as girls are hiring boys as assistants, which is becoming more common.

Going to the bank

What is the impact of formal financial inclusion?

The success of girls’ businesses posed a dilemma for the POWER Africa project. As their businesses grew and flourished, girls were unable to access enough credit through their VSLA groups to cover their loan needs for continued business growth. Some members were joining two or three groups to obtain multiple loans. They wanted to be linked into the formal banking system for greater security and access to higher loans and credit.

The key question for CARE remains: how do you know when it’s time to link? The challenge is in balancing the programme’s client-centric approach against the ‘do no harm’ principles inherent to working with adolescent girls. With access to higher value loans, there was a risk the girls would take on too much debt and default on their loans. CARE trod cautiously and learned valuable lessons on when and how to incorporate linkage into its POWER programme.

Muhorakeye Bénigne, 23-years-old and from Ngozi, used the profits she made from a loan from her VSLA group to trade bananas and goats to purchase a farm. She hopes to buy a motorcycle to use as a taxi, then expand the business with a car. She also hopes to build a store. She said it will be easy for her to access enough credit to fund her ambitions because her VSLA group is connected to a bank.

It was not always so straightforward for VSLA members to get credit from a bank. CARE was slow to react to the demand, cautious of which bank the groups could link with and what impact it would have. Even now, linkage is still in a pilot phase and girls are saving money at the bank but cannot yet contract loans through the programme.

Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) approached CARE during the first year of the project looking to link with VSLA groups and consistently pursued CARE to form a partnership and connect them with groups. However, this supply-driven approach is in direct contradiction to POWER’s client-driven approach in best meeting the needs of adolescent girls. CARE slowed down the process with KCB to better focus on quality and its ‘do no harm’ approach.

As Abatangamucho increased their presence in communities and amplified the girls’ demand to access the formal banking system, CARE decided it must further research linking the girls to the formal banking systems.

Choosing the right bank

CARE’s research determined the best financial institutions for linkage in the Burundian context and provided guidelines on preparing VSLA groups, individual members, banks, and other regulators for linkage. Ultimately, KCB was chosen as the best partner according to fees, transfers, access to bank accounts, and transfer costs.

It was also important to consider the stability of the institution. Financial services providers (FSPs), particularly microfinance institutions (MFIs), have a history of instability in Burundi that has left many Burundians wary of linkage. KCB’s products were sound and they took the initiative to go to the villages with CARE to train and speak to girls.

KCB works through a network of agents that earn commission from the bank and are mobile throughout their areas, providing adequate access to the different target communities. Further, KCB had a mobile money option available, again increasing girls’ access to products and services.

As CARE negotiated with KCB, it was essential to engage the girls and act on their feedback on the linkage process. The client-centric approach and feedback loops at the centre of the POWER programme once again came into play.

A pilot for savings-only bank accounts for 20 groups was launched. GLID mobilised and sensitised groups on the possibilities and potential benefits of linkage, and asked if they wanted to link. Girls were given time to think and were told to approach their field officers if they were interested, after which field officers would set up a meeting with KCB.

Mobilising and speaking with groups helped to mitigate the problem of gaining consensus among group members to link. In these joint meetings between KCB and the groups, KCB explained their products and services to the girls, and girls provided feedback and asked questions. CARE wanted to make sure that girls’ opinions, concerns, and ideas were included in the bank’s product design process and ensure this feedback was incorporated into their negotiations.

When the pilot phase is completed, CARE will use the community scorecard to evaluate the process, services and products so that KCB, CARE, GLID and the girls can provide feedback and engage in discussion to continue improving the process and available products.

A key issue that often obstructs linkage can be the ‘Know Your Customer’ requirements to prevent fraudulent behaviour, which often requires group members to have ID cards and proof of group status. CARE advocated to the government for support, arguing that youth should not be blocked from financial inclusion by an administrative factor, as it can be difficult for youth to obtain ID cards.

With the support and involvement of both the local and national government, CARE was able to present a list of all groups and their members to the government and the administrators to confirm that the girls are in groups and to issue them with a pass that CARE provides directly to KCB.

Linkage in numbers

At the end of 2016, 6.6% of groups are linked to KCB and 60.5% of VSLA members would like to open an account, compared to 54.9% of non-members. This highlights the progressive nature and improved financial knowledge of VSLA members. Already, 13.1% of members have accounts, meaning a total of 73.6% are either active financially or would like to engage with formal services.

The data shows CARE needed to be nimbler and progress faster to better respond to girls’ demands. The lapse between the initial demands from the girls’ for linkage, for valid reasons of security, business growth, and the need for higher value loans, and the actual commencement of linkage was not responsive.

However, ongoing monitoring has revealed some unanticipated challenges that reiterate the importance of assessing the viability of linkage. Data from VSLA participants with bank accounts shows 5% use their accounts only once a year and 27% only twice a year. This low usage rate implies that some members are either too far from the bank branch and do not have easy access to deposit or withdrawal services in the absence of mobile banking, or that they simply are not making use of their accounts.

Linking the pieces of the puzzle

In responding to the earlier question of when is the right time to link, in Burundi, the POWER Africa programme realised it is necessary but not sufficient to start the process with high demand from the beneficiaries and for valid reasons such as asset security and business growth. A supply-driven approach removes the focus from the target beneficiaries and the communities, whose well-being should be the highest priority.

Any organisation pursuing linkage must ensure that the other pieces of the puzzle come together to create a positive enabling environment. These pieces include ongoing engagement with the bank to ensure that their products, services, and coverage are suitable for the target group, including with regard to fees and ease of use; and that the groups have been given adequate information to make an informed choice on whether to link or not and, if they are willing, what products and services, or even which financial institution, suits their needs best.

There must also be widespread support from the community, the government, and the donor. Building broad support is particularly important for adolescent girls, who often seek advice and influence from their families, teachers and the wider community.

Lessons in financial inclusion

What’s so special about working with adolescent girls? After almost four years working in Burundi, the POWER Africa programme learned valuable lessons about promoting financial inclusion and economic empowerment.

In Burundi, adolescent girls are among the most vulnerable members of their communities. Despite this, POWER Africa data and the narrative accounts from VSLA participants are evidence of the potential of girls to break the poverty cycle and change entrenched social norms within their communities through access to financial services and products, targeted trainings, and family and community support. With this support, girls’ sense of agency increased and girls empowered themselves.

But as the POWER story shows, financial inclusion programmes targeting adolescent girls need to be significantly adapted. They should be rooted in a comprehensive knowledge and awareness of the context and realities of girls' lives and be centred on client-centric approaches and feedback loops that allow for flexibility.

CARE was able to define three key lessons that were key to POWER Africa’s success:

Understand who needs to be involved. Adolescent girls cannot progress in isolation.
Parental support is crucial. Without this, girls will not be able to participate in VSLA and access the services that will allow them to develop income generation streams and the confidence to advocate and push for their rights.


Work to make programming fit for purpose. Girls move through training modules and grasp ideas and concepts quickly. More importantly, girls are quick to apply concepts to their contexts. Programming should support this rapid growth. Flexibility is central to this: training needs to be shorter and more focused; girls need access to formal financial service providers quickly; and entrepreneurship and business support needs to be tailored to meet girls’ needs.


Respect girls’ ability to define their own agency. This allows them to develop the confidence and skills to overturn existing social norms and actualise their ambitions. With space and support to drive their own income generation, girls are able to think beyond society’s expectations of them: purchasing land, employing men, attending university, and delaying marriage are significant achievements.

© Created by Tito Zwane, written and edited by Greg Nicolson - All Rights Reserved