ROSCAs Are an Overlooked But Vital Part of the Co-operative Sector

By Kenzie Love

Growing up in Canada as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Andria Barrett was familiar with the Jamaican concept of “partner”. What she only learned later in life was that while it has sometimes been overlooked in Western histories of the co-operative movement, partner is just one name for a Rotating Savings and Credit Association (ROSCA), a type of co-operative that can be found in different cultures globally.

“I learned that this isn’t just unique to Jamaica,” says Barrett. “There are people across the Caribbean and across the continent, Africa and around the world, primarily women who’ve been saving and pooling their monies in this sort of fashion.”

Although the term “ROSCA” was coined in the 1960s, the system it describes has been around much longer, and while the names for it may vary, the concept is largely the same. Each member contributes a predetermined amount to a fund at regularly scheduled meetings. At each meeting, a different member will receive access to the pooled savings, either chosen by lottery or to fill a need they have at that particular moment. By the end, each member has received a one-time lump sum of their total monthly contributions. 

ROSCAs are important because the women who participate in them have often been excluded from mainstream financial institutions. As self-managed co-operatives, ROSCAs provide an easier form of access to money than is typically available through banks.‘These women tend to see the traditional banking system as creating barriers for them,” says Esther Enyolu, a Nigerian-Canadian with extensive experience in the ROSCA sector.

“(That’s) because the banking system requires a lot of terms to qualify you for a loan. And sometimes you need to get a cosigner.”

As Enyolu adds, however, a ROSCA’s significance for its participants goes beyond the money involved. They are important on a broader social level as well.

“It’s about dignity, respect, an inclusive and equitable economy,” she says. “Where everybody participates and feels that they are validated.”

Although ROSCAs have often been overlooked in the past, that may be starting to change. Meridian Credit Union, the Ontario Co-operative Association, and the Banker Ladies Council (an organization to which both Barrett and Enyolu belong), recently announced a collaboration that will focus on raising the profile of ROSCAs in Ontario, with Meridian pledging $100,000 over multiple years in financial support and in-kind resources. 

“They want us to continue to do the work that we’re doing to take care of our governance,” says Barrett, “and to make sure that we are doing the best job possible at reaching and training and supporting other ROSCA users across the province.”

But while Barrett affirms that the Banker Ladies Council is grateful for this support, she hopes that members of the wider co-operative sector will also take the opportunity to educate themselves about ROSCAs.

“I think there’s a lot to learn,” she says. “The seven principles that you find in co-operatives you also find in a ROSCA. We are part of the co-operative sector and the co-operative movement. So the values that the co-operative sector has are the very same values that ROSCAs have.”