Life can offer you a lot of opportunities, especially if you are an upwardly mobile 20-30-something year old living in Nairobi, listed as one of the top 20 most dynamic cities in the world.
You want to live the good life, be seen at the coolest events, hang around the right people, and live in a good neighbourhood, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But once in a while, you wonder what would happen if you lost your job, or your business. How would you pay off that car loan, or afford the lifestyle you’re used to? Then you wonder whether your savings alone would support you, and you chicken out of saving because you think it’s impossible to save and have fun. After all, you only live once right?
These are some of the observations Felista Wangari has made from looking at what members of her Facebook group, the 52-week Savings Challenge Kenya, discuss on their page.
“They are conflicted,” she says of a typical member of the 385,000-strong group. Their conflicts are familiar to her.
“Should I only live once and not care about tomorrow, or should I care only about tomorrow and not live like I want to today? That’s one of the conflicts I see in the group,” she says.
In a culture that glorifies consumerism and flashy lifestyles, it’s no wonder that many young people are struggling to set some money aside. After all, ours is a culture that often appears to encourage instant gratification over long-term gains.
“You find that you don’t have the support structures to get you to the line that you want. On one hand you have a goal, but because of the way you are using the money and the kind of people you surround yourself with, then it becomes difficult to stick to the book,” says Felista.
A reserved, unassuming journalist, Felista set up the Facebook page in January 2016, beginning with a small group of female friends. She was inspired by BankRate, an American financial services comparison service that has popularized the idea of building savings by starting slow. The idea is simple: begin by putting away a small amount of money in the first week, and then increase this amount every every week for a whole year.
After some research, Felista designed a Kenyan version of the challenge, one whose success has been pegged on its simplicity. Through her 52-Week Savings Challenge, Felista advises people to begin by putting away KES 50 in the first week of the year and then increasing their savings by KES 50 every week after that for a full year. This means that on the second week they save KES 100, KES 150 in the third week and so on up to the 52nd week, where they put away KES 2,600, bringing the cumulative savings for a year to KES 68,900.
The small amount at the beginning made the challenge look easy, and Felista was hoping that it would show her small group of friends that saving really wasn’t that hard.
“I had heard a lot of my friends say they didn’t save because of various reasons, like ‘I don’t have enough money, I don’t earn much, I don’t have a business.’ So I thought: What if I could get a few people together to encourage them to save and then if it actually works, then it will prove to them that we can actually save?” she recalls.
As they encouraged each other, the conversations would turn to personal finance and a lot of the group members would find the information shared useful.
“Every time we had a discussion on financial literacy and personal finance issues then more people would come in to join (us),” she says.
The group grew organically, as the initial 20 women invited their friends, brothers, husbands, and boyfriends, and what was initially a women’s savings challenge became a challenge for everyone who wanted to participate – whether they could afford KES 50 a week, KES 20 or KES 100 a week.
Despite receiving no formal training in finance, Felista has always had a keen interest in budgeting, having grown up with a mother who taught her children to be careful about money. “Money doesn’t grow on trees” was an often used phrased in their home, and Felista and her siblings learned early in life how to stretch a shilling after watching their mother do a lot with the little she had.
“I believe personal finance and financial literacy are life skills that many of us don’t learn at home or even in school. So I took the initiative to learn a life skill and assumed that everyone knew what I knew,” she says.
She realised her assumption was wrong when people in the group would ask what she thought were basic questions about personal finance.
“I would answer these questions, and that’s partly how the group grew. People would call their friends to come and see,” she says.
She could tell from the discussions they were having on the page that people were hungry for knowledge, but many of them didn’t know where to get the information they needed and couldn’t afford to pay a professional to help them.
“You can come to the group with whatever question you have. There always seems to be someone who has an answer,” says Felista, adding that the most common questions are about the meaning of real wealth, what to do in the event you lose your job, and how to balance pleasure in the now and future financial needs.
Things took a turn in December 2016, when the first round of the savings challenge ended and it was time to compare notes.
Some people had been saving in piggy banks and had broken them, poured all the money on tables and taken photographs, which they then posted to the group. These photos were widely shared on WhatsApp, and as word spread, the group grew to about 70,000 people.
“A lot of people wanted to come see where this money was coming from: ‘Is this Illuminati, is this a piggybank challenge?’ A lot of people thought it was a piggybank challenge, where you get a tin and put money in it, and they wanted to join the group,” says Felista.
But piggy banks are not a very good place to put away money. They can be carried away, the money can easily be withdrawn, and it’s generally more difficult to keep track of the amount of money in the piggybank.
And as the number of people swelled, the administrators also realized that it was likely to lose direction.
“You get all sorts (of people), because some are just there to make fun (of others). They really don’t have the purpose or the mission of the group in mind so some of them are just there to troll and make fun of others. At that point we closed the group and introduced a vetting process so that we only accepted those who were serious,” she says.
New applicants are now required to answer a couple of questions before they are allowed to join.
“Most people are just desperate, like, ‘I’m not able to control my finances, I’m not able to save and I need to join a community where I can get the support,’” says Felista.
When she asked around, the majority of members of the group said they were happy with M-PESA and M-SHWARI because it was possible to lock savings and transfer money from M-PESA, so it was both convenient and safe.
In January 2017, Safaricom partnered with Felista to encourage people to save through the 52-Week Savings Challenge and M-Shwari – a mobile-based savings and loans service launched in 2012 in partnership with CBA.
“They (put up) a post on their Safaricom pages. I would say that by partnering with M-Shwari, more people got to know about the 52-Week Savings Challenge,” she says.
Safaricom also sent out messages to its customers and that helped get more people to join the challenge, and the numbers continued to swell.
Then sometime in 2018, Felista learned about Facebook’s Community Leadership Program, an initiative to support people from around the world using the social networking service to do positive things in their communities.
She was encouraged to apply but was hesitant at first, thinking there were so many other people doing more incredible things on Facebook, like reuniting families that had been separated for decades.
Members of the group she had began were unrelenting though, so she applied. Today, Felista is one of six Kenyans in the first cohort of the Facebook Community Leadership Program. These six Kenyans are among 100 community leaders picked by Facebook from around the world.
“It was an affirmation of what I do,” she says.
Late last year, Felista traveled to the Facebook headquarters in San Francisco for an introduction to the programme, which awarded her 50,000 USD (approximately KES 5 million) to advance her cause.
Through the programme, Facebook provides leadership training, helping the community leaders formalize their communities and run them better so that they can function just as well offline.
That award has given Felista a few more ideas about what to do with her 52-Week Savings Challenge. For now, she says the group plans to have more meetings offline and have events and training about personal finance to extend their reach and ingrain a saving culture in young people.
“In future we want to support people in terms of helping them make money. There’s a lot of people who have ideas but they don’t have the capital. We’ll look at ways to support them,” she says.
Interested in participating in the 52-Week Savings Challenge? Read more about it here.