FINANCIAL Sector Deepening Zambia Limited (FSD Zambia) has advised savings groups to consider holding digitized meetings where members send savings, loans and social funds through Mobile Money platforms or other virtual means to avoid spreading the deadly Coronavirus.

FSD Zambia has launched COVID-19 guidelines for Savings Groups with an aim to help group members stay safe and continue with their savings operations, while protecting their health, social and economic welfare.

Savings groups are a reliable and sustainable tool for community empowerment programmes, with over 800,000 members in Zambia, and are increasingly becoming the cornerstone for the expansion of financial inclusion, especially among rural, unserved, and underserved populations.

In a statement, Thursday, FSD Zambia communications manager Eneya Phiri explained that the guidelines were necessary as most groups conducted in-person meetings comprising of members coming from different environments and may have been exposed to the virus.

“Most savings groups conduct in-person meetings comprising of members coming from different environments and may have been exposed to COVID-19. There is a risk if members shake hands/or hug others, who have been exposed to COVID-19, and touch surfaces that have been contaminated (including cash, cash box, locks, keys, money counting bowls, money bags, calculator or record books). Furthermore, savings group members may experience financial difficulties during this period due to loss of income. Restrictions on movements during this period might mean that some group members will not freely go to the market to trade, (similarly, buyers will stay at home and not buy goods and services), companies may close and lay off workers and some members may stay at home sick or will be nursing sick family members,” Phiri stated.

“This has the potential to impact savings groups through: group members saving less than usual, reduced capacity to pay back loans on time; loan fund will be low due to less savings and less or late loan repayments; increased demand for loans from members wishing to borrow to smoothen consumption and increased demand for the social fund if group members are ill, and in case of deaths.”

He advised savers that following the stipulated guidelines would help them sustain their respective savings groups.

“The guidelines will support the sustainability of savings groups in different communities during these difficult times. The guidelines include: reducing meeting times (for example, instead of weekly, savings groups can meet once a month) and encourage only a few members to attend meetings to avoid overcrowding, especially if meetings are held in a small room, practice social distancing – sit at least one metre from each other. Remember not to shake hands or hug, Members in high-risk categories like the elderly, pregnant, sick or have pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, bronchitis, cancer and HIV, should appoint a relative or friend they trust to participate on their behalf. Members should also avoid coming to the meeting with children; enforce hand-washing; provide a hand-washing bucket or container with soap/sanitizers for members coming to the meeting. Ensure gloves are available for money counters and persons holding keys to the cash box. If gloves are not available, use hand sanitizers before and after the meeting,” he advised.

“Members, especially money counters, should not touch their faces when counting money. If all members have cell phones, consider having a digitized meeting where members send savings, loans and social fund through Mobile Money or other virtual means. This could be safe, but requires that all members learn how to do this properly. The guidelines also give an insight into how Financial Service Providers (FSPs) and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) can use this as an opportunity to leverage formal linkage and develop products that are convenient and meet the security needs of the SG (Savings Group) members during this period and beyond.”

Phiri added that FSD Zambia will work in collaboration with ZICTA and MNOs to promote digital financial transactions to avoid handling of cash because it remained a conduit to transmit the virus.

“FSD Zambia will continue supporting the efforts to expand savings groups and encourage women participation to provide more women access to financial services offered by savings groups. Furthermore, FSD Zambia will collaborate with ZICTA and MNOs to promote digital financial transactions to avoid members handling cash, which could be a conduit for the coronavirus. FSD Zambia recognizes some of the infrastructural (network signal, electricity and cell phones) challenges members face in accessing digital financial services. To address this, FSD Zambia will work with partners to explore ways to increase digital financial services by distributing cell phones and solar chargers to savings groups members in rural areas,” stated Phiri.