Canada’s institutional banking system has been traditionally difficult to navigate for new immigrants to the country, leading many to utilize an informal, women-led savings collective based on the principle of mutual aid. Known as a “partner” in Jamaican culture, a “susu” in the Ghanaian community or a “hagbad” in Somali, a rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA) fosters a sense of community in many immigrant groups and opens doors to funding frequently not available elsewhere.
Bolstered by a gift from Co-operators, a group of Black women cooperators is spearheading the adoption of communal lending systems to bring racialized Canadian immigrants out of poverty by establishing a Banker Ladies Council.
Have you heard of ROSCAs? If you’re an immigrant, chances are you have, perhaps by another name—an Ayuuto, a partner, a Hagbad, a Chit fund, or a Susu. If you haven’t, Prof. Caroline Shenaz Hossein, Associate Professor of Global Development at the University of Toronto Scarborough and Interim-Director of the Institute for Inclusive Economies and Sustainable Livelihoods, is working to change that through her project “Building Inclusive Economies.”
In a ROSCA, or a Rotating Savings and Credit Association, a group of people pool small amounts of money periodically, and each member gets to take the collected pot on a rotating basis. ROSCAs are informal systems based entirely on trust, reciprocity and shared accountability. Members then use these funds to fulfil personal goals, ranging from the down payment of a house or a car to funding their kids’ education. Goals they would otherwise be unable to meet without financial support.
In Toronto, a community of Black women is playing this critical role of facilitating ROSCAs among diasporic communities as a pathway to financial independence. They call themselves the Banker Ladies. The Banker Ladies have first-hand lived experiences with systemic barriers in the Canadian banking system that keep Black and racialized women from fully participating in society.
They are now using their expertise to empower other Black and racialized immigrant women who lack access to formal financial institutions such as banks and credit unions to find financial security and improved quality of life through communal support that relies on mutual cooperation and shared resources.
Prof. Hossein’s project investigates this systematic exclusion of Black populations from the mainstream Canadian narrative of economic progress while documenting the success of ROSCAs that exist around the world. At its core, her project aims to get the Banker Ladies, who often face severe harassment and vilification while working tirelessly to sustain these cooperative business systems in Canada, the credit they deserve for their efforts to bring economic stability to the communities they serve.
“Throughout the pandemic, we heralded women working in minimum wage jobs in our grocery stores and as personal support workers as the “sheroes” of the pandemic. But we don’t recognize when they are pioneers in what inclusive economics could look like,” shares Prof. Hossein.
In her endeavour to get the labour of these women recognized, Prof. Hossein has found a kindred spirit in Co-operators, a multi-line insurance and financial services co-operative, who have supported her research through a significant gift.
“Prof. Hossein’s work is uncovering the ways in which cooperators are working to meet unmet needs in our communities. It is this alignment of values and the commitment to supporting greater economic opportunities that brought us together, and contributes to Co-operators’ purpose of financial security for Canadians and our communities,” says Shawna Peddle, Associate Vice-President, Citizenship, Co-operators.
The donation enabled the Banker Ladies Council to convene two meetings this year to share their experiences of operating ROSCAs in Toronto and to discuss ways to get them the legitimacy they deserve to end the erasure and stigma associated with them in Canada.
“Co-operators has given us the resources to expand knowledge and create spaces to have conversations with women who are often not seen in the economic system, who will now be a co-creator of what a recognized ROSCA system would look like in the Canadian context,” elaborates Prof. Hossein.
The Co-operators gift also funded this one-minute video explainer on the Black Social Economy, for which Prof. Hossein collaborated with Kindea Labs, a Canadian-owned small business. Its purpose is to educate the Canadian public and policymakers on the importance of collectivity in business and society.
When talking about the motivation behind her efforts to bring public awareness to ROSCAs, Prof. Hossein explains, “When people migrate to Canada, along with their food and cultural affinities, they bring their know-how about financial systems that are crucial to people who feel they can’t participate in the formal banking system. So, the Banker Ladies are bringing their own contributions to the cultural mosaic we have here in Canada.”
Through the work they’re doing, the Banker Ladies are setting set an example of what prioritizing people over profit can achieve, especially in the face of adversity. And through their gift, Co-operators is helping to shine a light on the Banker Ladies and the possibility of a system that celebrates their work and allows them to thrive.
Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein is an Associate Professor of Global Development at the University of Toronto Scarborough and cross-appointed to the graduate program of Political Science at the University of Toronto, and Founder of Diverse Solidarity Economies (DISE) Collective. She holds the Canada Research Chair in Africana Development and Feminist Political Economy. Read more about it here
Co-operators is a leading Canadian financial services co-operative, offering multi-line insurance and investment products, services, and personalized advice to help Canadians build their financial strength and security. The company has more than $61.5 billion in assets under administration. Co-operators has been providing trusted guidance to Canadians for the past 76 years. The organization is well known for its community involvement and its commitment to sustainability. Achieving carbon neutral equivalency in 2020, the organization is committed to net-zero emissions in its operations and investments by 2040, and 2050, respectively. Co-operators is also ranked as a Corporate Knights’ Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada and is listed among the Best Employers in Canada by Kincentric. For more information, please visit www.cooperators.ca