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Transforming lives

A case study about a project based in Ethiopian cities Nazareth, Awassa, Addis Ababa and Jimma aimed at lifting people out of poverty

2006 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Urban renewal – Footsteps 67

How slum dwellers are transforming their own communities

Mesfin Shuge leads a team of ten staff within the Kale Heywet Church (KHC) in Ethiopia. Their department is known as the Integrated Urban Development Department. Their work targets urban poor people and they work in four cities at present – Nazareth, Awassa, Addis Ababa and Jimma.

The Integrated Urban Development Department’s approach was piloted in Nazareth, a city north of Addis Ababa, with many unemployed people and street children. Two social workers began work there in 2002 to improve the situation of unemployed women. They began with house-to-house visits to understand the nature and level of poverty, average family size and the number of widows. Then they used participatory exercises to raise people’s awareness of the situation. These included role-plays which gathered the community together.

In the first year 34 self-help women’s groups were formed. Five facilitators were selected from the groups and trained to lead discussion on important issues such as income generation, family planning, managing small businesses, household management, supporting people with HIV and AIDS, healthcare, and harmful traditional practices. They were trained with short, half-day training inputs.

At first many women were reluctant to join. They feared they would have to join the Kale Heywet Church (KHC). However, in time they realised this was not the case. Membership of the groups is open to all, regardless of ethnic back ground and religion. Most women in the groups are members of the Orthodox Church or Muslims. There are now 98 self-help groups in the town with about 20 members in each group. The groups are networked into clusters. Eight cluster-level associations each work with up to 20 self-help groups.

The main aim of the work is to empower the community, targeting the poorest of the poor. Objectives include:

  • improving living conditions
  • providing educational opportunities, for children in particular
  • building the capacity of women in decision-making
  • encouraging healthy attitudes towards work
  • avoiding harmful traditional practices.

Revolving loan funds

No outside funding is available, so the groups depend entirely on funding raised by the members, despite their poverty. The self-help groups encourage members to save a tiny amount of money – just 50 US cents each week. This money is used to build up a loan fund for them. Each group has its own bank account. Initially this caused problems as every group had to be registered as an organisation. To overcome this problem, the Kale Heywet Church name was used, together with the name of each small group. However, a private bank has now agreed to open hundreds of accounts for the groups. The funds keep growing from tiny regular deposits and benefit from bank interest. Each member has a passbook and careful records are kept.

The women’s groups in Nazareth have saved an overall total of 280,000 birr (about US $33,000) which is used to provide a revolving fund. Women are allowed to take out loans of between 30 to 3,000 birr on a regular basis. The repayment period is short, usually just four months, so that more women can benefit in a given time. The loan amount they can take is linked to the amount they have saved. They can usually take out between two or three times their savings. Cluster associations manage and provide the loan money.

The groups are very strict about members who miss meetings or do not pay contributions. Members are very committed about repaying their loans. They know that if they default their friends will suffer. Close social ties are also reflected in the social insurance system that groups have set up. In addition to their weekly contribution to loan funds, members in Nazareth also pay 25 US cents to a social insurance system. This is used to help any members who are sick, injured or in any other kind of trouble. Help given from the social insurance fund does not have to be repaid.

Regular evaluation

The cluster-level associations evaluate the self-help groups every six months. They use a simple scoring method where group members rank themselves out of five on their performance. They ask questions such as:

  • Do members attend regularly?
  • Do members save regularly?
  • How are the co-operative action programmes working?
  • How well is the loan provision working?

Members do not vote but agree their answers together.

Women in the Nazareth groups have found new confidence in their own abilities to improve their lives, and the lives of their families. Many have become empowered and confident community members. Various income generating activities have been started, including fattening cattle, rearing sheep, making bread, spinning cotton, running small stalls and cafes.

Improved housing

From small beginnings, the groups continue to develop. Each group is encouraged to develop a five-year plan. Some groups have highlighted the need to improve housing. An ambitious plan, the ‘New Holy Land’, has been developed on a piece of leasefree land which KHC has been given in Nazareth. A volunteer architect has drawn up plans for 750 low-cost brick homes, with a primary and secondary school, market place, kindergarten, health centre and community meeting area. Residential blocks are planned with communal kitchens, washing areas and latrines. Each low-cost home has two rooms. Group members will pay for their new homes over five years. Donor funding is being requested for the community facilities. Money repaid for the homes would enable another building project to begin in a different area, based on a similar design.

Multiplying the work

This approach has been used in three other cities in Ethiopia – Awassa, Jimma and Addis Ababa. Newly formed self-help groups are taken to awareness-raising meetings to meet members of well-established self-help groups. This often results in astonishing and rapid transformation. When work began in Jimma, KHC met with a great response. After two days they had encouraged the formation of 25 self-help groups. However, the mayor became very worried that they wanted to take over the leadership of the city. He came to them saying, ‘Get out of my city and extinguish the fire you have lit.’ Staff were threatened with prison. Since then, having seen the impact of their work elsewhere, the mayor has understood that they were not threatening his position. He has invited them back and given KHC large areas of land for their work.

Once groups are formed, care is taken to establish good links with government organisations, NGOs, cooperatives and churches. This is important to ensure sustainable and effective development. It also avoids duplication of effort and brings unity. This networking has resulted in technical support from government organisations. Other church denominations have also begun to play an active part in community development.

Mesfin Shuge leads the IUDD and is studying for a PhD in Social Development.
His address is: KHC, PO Box 5829, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
[email protected] 

Case studies

Yezeshewal fled her home because of ethnic conflict. She lost all her belongings and fled to Nazareth. She offered her son as a labourer to a family so at least he would be fed. She and her other son suffered severe hunger. She developed a serious eye problem but could not afford the doctor’s fees. Then she heard about the self-help groups. She felt it was a miracle to be counted worthy to join the group. She began to save tiny amounts. Today she owns six cattle for fattening. Her eyesight has been saved and she belongs to a group that cares for her. She says, ‘I am a privileged woman because my social bonds are strong and I have a place to share my feelings – including my sorrow and grief.’


Emebet left her home area with her husband and three children due to conflict. One child died while they stayed in a refugee shelter. She and her husband worked as daily labourers in Nazareth. Later Emebet found work as a maid and joined one of the selfhelp groups. She discussed with her husband how to use her first loan. They decided to start making enjera (local bread). With her next loan she bought sheep to fatten.

Her husband saw this as a turning point in their lives. ‘From kneeling before poverty, we are now able to overcome poverty,’ he said. Their children can go to school and Emebet joined evening classes. ‘Now I can read and am educated,’ she says. ‘I can talk to my husband and feel he respects me as an equal.’ Emebet has real hope for the future. 

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