Banking on the Unbankable

Say the name Mavis Makukule to former First Lady Zanele Mbeki and her face lights up with pride. “She was our very first client,” says Mbeki. “She is what we like to call the ‘poster girl’ for WDB.” The admiration is mutual. A beaming Makukule has the same reaction when you talk to her about Mbeki. She recalls the time in 1992 when Mbeki and her team first visited the village of Green Valley in Acornhoek, Mpumalanga, to recruit “clients” for the fledgling WDB microfinance programme. After some basic training, Makukule joined forces with a group of women and they received their first basic loans. Group lending forms the basis of the microfinance programmeMakukule sold meat and other goods to the local community. The loan was exactly what was needed to take her small business to the next level. “We managed to repay the loan in three months. This inspired us to work harder,” she says.

Makukule and her group took out more small loans and the business prospered. “She grew the business very quickly and before we knew it, she wanted to rent a room with a partner to start a butchery,” recalls Mbeki. In addition to the butchery, Makukule went on to open a number of other businesses, eventually upgrading her home, putting her children through school and buying herself a car. Mbeki refers to Makukule as a “serial entrepreneur”, as she always has a new business idea on the boil. She hails her as a role model for other women around the country.


With her training as a social worker, Mbeki has always been passionate about the eradication of poverty and the upliftment of women. When she returned to South Africa from exile in the 1990s, she looked around and saw that poor women in SA had no access to finance in order to

start their own businesses. She says that in the early days some work was being done by NGOs to train rural women and equip them with skills, but these women had no financial support to take their skills further. “For instance, you would be taught to sew, but would have no means to buy a sewing machine,” she says. This sad reality encouraged Mbeki and her partners to focus on banking on the “unbankable” women in marginalised South African communities, mostly rural areas, so they could access much-needed funding. The Women’s Development Businesses was born – with a very basic business plan, lots of heart and a big dream. The idea of targeting poverty through creating business opportunities at the most basic level was inspired by the approach adopted by Prof Muhammed Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner and a good friend of Mbeki. “We based our programme on the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh’s philosophy of giving step-up microloans to the poor,” she says. “We had a simple vision: to provide small loans to rural women to help them start small-scale, incomegenerating activities.”


With start-up funds of just R20 000 from businessman Vusi Ngubeni, WDB began a pilot project in 1991 in Acornhoek. Fifty female clients were identified and were lent R300 each. Five of the real “go-getters” from this group, including Makukule, asked for R500 with an option to repay the loan over six months. All Mbeki and her team could do was hope and pray that they would see the money come back in one way or another. They needn’t have worried. The loans were all paid back within the prescribed time, if not sooner In addition to lending small amounts to women, WDB got involved in other areas of development. “We also began various training programmes to assist with basic business and literacy skills,” Mbeki says.

By 1995, WDB opened the second branch of WDB Microfinance in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga. Since then, WDB has helped thousands of women launch their own businesses, enabling them to improve the lives of their families. When WDB celebrated its 25th birthday last year, the figures were pretty astounding, with more than 180 000 rural women having benefited from loans totalling more than R400 million and more than 3 000 women having received computer-based literacy and basic business skills training. “One of the things you learn in microfinance is that if you put development resources directly into the hands of the poor, they can change their own lives,” Mbeki says.


After many learning curves, stumbling blocks, adaptations and modifications, WDB’s Siyakhula Microfinance Programme has had a make-over and is ready to make an even greater impact on the lives of those living in poverty. The programme makes use of the socio-economic assessment (SEP) tool to evaluate a household’s socio-economic status on the basis of “12 dimensions of poverty”. The programme is not a “grant”, she stresses – rather, it is an opportunity for people to move out of poverty due to their involvement in enterprise-based activities.


The WDB team will visit a rural area, meet community leaders and introduce the microfinance programme. Once the leaders have bought into the idea, field workers from the area are trained and then the “client” recruitment process begins.

Field workers from the community go from door to door, looking for clients. Those interested in being part of the programme fill in the SEP form to determine if they qualify for a loan.

The process makes use of digital technology (mobile phones). When a client has been cleared, they are ready for business.

Once the field worker has secured a group of 10-25 clients, they form a “centre”. Siyakhula works with the “power of the group”, but transactions are with individual members of the group and each member is responsible for repaying their loan.

The members of the centre take part in a five-day training session, then fill out forms and follow all the necessary procedures. Clients are vetted before training commences to ensure they qualify for the loan.

Field workers also help first-time borrowers to open a bank account.

Disbursements and repayments are controlled and confirmed at centre meetings, which take place once a month.

Loans begin at R500 and can be repaid over a period of four months. It is emphasised that loans are not for paying for food, but are for enterprise development only.

If a client successfully repays the loan, she can qualify for the next rung of the loan ladder, another R500, R750 or R1 000. Loans can grow up to R3 500.



Visit: for more information on the Siyakhula Programme.

For more information on the Grameen Foundation, visit: