The Virtues of Savings Mobilization for Economic Development in Africa

Nov 26, 2010
Hugues Kamewe Tsafack , Financial Sector Advisor, MFW4A
Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has continuously exhibited the lowest savings rate in the developing world. The average gross domestic savings rate1 in SSA was 16% of GDP in 2008 compared to 22% in Latin America and Caribbean and 35% in South East Asia. Although the picture varies significantly across economies with some countries displaying modest domestic savings rates [e.g. Guinea (3%), Burundi (4%), Mozambique and Ghana (7%)] to relatively robust savings rates [e.g. Lesotho (22%), Rwanda (27%) and Mali (28%)]2, the reality is that we need to increase savings rates in Africa to levels consistent with sustainable economic development, which are considered to be above 25% of GDP.

Why have most African countries failed to achieve high savings rates?

The causes of this problem are extensively documented in the economic literature. Savings has long been repressed by controlled low interest rates and high inflation in various countries. Negative real interest rates have really discouraged people from monetizing their savings using formal financial institutions; rather; they favor savings in tangible assets (e.g. livestock, stockpiles, etc.). While we thought these were stories from the past, people have seen their savings completely vanish with hyperinflation as recently occured in Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, we should recognize that financial liberalization measures have helped address the problem in most countries.

However, what has not evolved very much is the scanty regard policy makers in Africa have paid to savings mobilization. And the strong reliance on foreign aid to finance development needs has certainly played a role in this attitude. Initially, aid was supposed to complement domestic financial resources in order to boost development efforts and help countries break away from poverty; instead it has ended up dampening domestic savings and creating dependence in Africa. Despite the pervasive interpretation of the “vicious cycle theory”, no country is indeed too poor to save. Research in microfinance has brought to our attention the variety of savings practices by poor people. These small deposits provided social safety nets to the bottom end of the pyramid during the food and fuel crisis in 2008 since microfinance institutions and savings banks in many African countries experienced serious declines in their deposit balances.

How then to harness this potential and create a dynamic for savings mobilization?

Increasing awareness from policy makers

Greater awareness from policy makers that a low domestic savings rate is a bottleneck to economic growth is essential. Kenya Vision 2030 recognized the need to raise the domestic savings rate above 30% as vital to ensure long-term double digits economic growth. In South Africa, a Savings Institute has been established to promote thrift values and reverse the downward trend, which has seen the domestic savings rate fall from 26% in the 80s to 16% in 2008. In the same vein, the C103 underscores the need to mobilize untapped savings as part of the African countries' efforts to increase domestic resource mobilization4.

Deepening financial sectors

This implies a wide array of transformational changes that positively affect savings rates. Efforts to reduce barriers (e.g. physical distance to banking outlets, high minimum balances, financial illiteracy, disproportionate KYC5 requirements, etc.) certainly deepen financial access. At the institution level, the emergence of non-bank financial intermediaries such as insurance companies and pension firms is instrumental to the development of contractual savings while MFIs and savings banks are vital in canvassing small savings. At the product level, it is important to leverage remittance flows and e-money stores in cellphones for the purpose of increasing savings. Upgrading regulatory and supervisory frameworks shall also instill and preserve confidence in the financial system, which is favorable to savings. Some countries have plans to introduce deposit guarantee schemes, which are often viewed as genuine mechanisms for protecting depositors. Finally, financial market infrastructure should be improved to facilitate financial intermediation.

Would demand-side drive supply-side policy reforms?

Sir John Hicks (Nobel in Economics, 1972) argued that the real challenge is to create the link between potential savings and effective investment. Unlocking the potential of savings is not an end in itself. Most important is to create the conditions for proper financial intermediation. If the environment is conducive for banks to increase lending to individuals and enterprises, they will certainly deploy aggressive strategies for mobilizing savings. Likewise, governments stimulate the mobilization of savings by resorting to domestic markets for the financing of their own needs. Allow me to skip the debate about potential “crowding out effects” on private investment and “budget deficits”. The case is made here against external debt as the alternative. It is well known that African economies are particularly vulnerable to external shocks, which can rapidly render the debt service burden in hard currencies unsustainable.

To conclude, the virtues of savings for economic development are unquestionable. Africa should try to follow the same route taken by industrialized and emerging economies.
[1] Gross domestic savings (GDS) is defined here as gross national income (GNI) less total consumption (C) + net transfers (NT).

[2] World Development Indicators (WDI) 2010, World Bank.

[3] The Committee of Ten African Ministers of Finance and Central Bank Governors (The C-10) was created in Tunis in November 2008. The members of the C-10 are the following countries and institutions: Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, the Central Bank of West African States (CBWAS), and the Central Bank of Central African States (CBCAS). At its creation the C-10 was charged among other responsibilities to identify strategic economic priorities for Africa and develop a clear strategy for Africa’s engagement with the G-20 through South Africa, the only African representative in this Group. For more information -

[4] See Communiqué of the Meeting of the Committee of African Ministers of Finance and Governors of Central Banks (C 10), October 6, 2010, Washington, D.C, pp. 2-3 (§8).

[5] Know Your Customer (KYC).

Dr. Hugues Kamewe Tsafack is currently the Stakeholder Relationship Officer at the MFW4A Secretariat . Before joining the Secretariat, he worked for 10 years with the World Savings Banks Institute (WSBI) as Financial Sector Development Advisor in charge of the Africa region. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent Making Finance Work for Africa.

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