Lillian Liberman Shkolnikoff

Growing up as a black South African during apartheid, Lillian recognized from a young age that economic freedom was a cornerstone of political freedom. She went on to manage the community development department of one of the largest companies in South Africa, and it was in part her own experience that led her to recognize that change depended on disadvantaged individuals’ ability to self-identify as entrepreneurs, rather than as mere consumers and laborers. Aware that her education and employment opportunities were the exception, not the rule, she thus grew determined to provide others with the essential tools they needed to take ownership over their own livelihoods, including access to networks and relevant knowledge.

Having always held a deep respect for the region’s traditional systems, Lillian realized over time that the collective savings scheme, thanks to the respect and trust afforded it could be an effective foundation through which to create new opportunities for income generation. Based on her unique combination of skills, education, and life experiences, Lillian ultimately chose to take early retirement in order to devote herself full-time to the pursuit of her mission, ploughing back to the communities by sharing her academic training of marketing, communication and financial management as well as the experience of over the years and the good networks that she has been in touch with over the years.

Lillian established a network initially comprised of 300 members in the provinces of the Western Cape, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo. Her training program targets five main areas: Basic business skills, marketing and communication, human resources and office administration, advanced business development, and leadership skills including issues of nutrition and healthy eating, seeing that these people are self-employed and cannot afford to be sick and not work. Lillian supplements these training courses with a mentorship program while involving some of her network-associates to provide relevant technical skills to these groups, which provides both support and further business development to each member of the stokvel. The mentorship program is specifically designed to address the needs of the community’s most vulnerable groups: Vulnerable children are introduced to relevant networks who offer life-skills and other relevant support where possible, as well as placed with explicitly providing both economic guidance and social support.

The program hinges on accessing the power of the collective, be it skills, financial or knowledge and experience, through networking and tailor-made skills training, designed specifically for each particular local context. And thanks to the stokvels’ inherent legitimacy and collective power, members have gained access to business deals that are beyond the reach of individual, disadvantaged entrepreneurs.

The Mhani Gingi’s successes include the Londolozani, a group consisting mostly of women who have mobilized to plant and sell indigenous orchids at the Cape Town International Orchid festival and other plant shows and exhibitions. Londolozani is started by a group of ordinary women who came from townships in the Cape Town areas, South Africa, Through skills training on indigenous plants, they now have ability to take these skills further to use in improving their livelihoods and of their families and community. They have been producing orchids for the collecting market in Cape Town, enjoying for the first time the fruits of their own labor. Anelisa Textile Designing, another business launched through a stokvel, has acquired US$10,000 in sponsorship to purchase new sewing machines, with which they design and produce traditional dresses. Lillian helped the group to connect with buyers at the Vineyard, a prestigious hotel in Cape Town, who now provide a market for their goods. And Sikhona, a stokvel involved in construction, fencing and cleaning, was due to recently sign a deal to work on the construction site of twelve apartments, beginning in August 2008. This development was postponed. However the group got an opportunity to stage a successful cultural catering a group of Entrepreneurial visiting students from University of Northeastern in July 2008. This event was another example of the Mhani Gingi’s Cross Selling—the vulnerable children from the Priceless Honor entertained the guests with their traditional dancing gabbed in traditional attire, while Yizo-Yizo Tour group provided transport.

As these successes reveal, the stokvels—once merely an indigenous tool for saving—now operate as viable business units. Moreover, by creatively using existing community structures, Lillian ensures that the resulting sustainable small businesses already have the community buy-in and support needed for long-term success. This trust is furthermore reinforced by the stokvels’ countrywide use, enabling members of different units to freely conduct business with one another, as well as with the many other individuals and businesses familiar with the concept. The first such initiative of its kind, the Mhani Gingi has already been well-received throughout four states in South Africa, both in rural and urban settings. Lillian is currently collecting the best practices emerging from this pilot phase, and ultimately plans to spread the concept throughout the country.

In view of food shortage, Lillian is working tirelessly to attract funding for Greenhouse farming for ten women at a time, an extension of the Mhani Gingi model which has the potential to mushroom. The opportunity exists for these women to be trained on how to use these techniques which will allow them to produce food for sophisticated markets including exports 365 days of the year!