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Today’s Revolutionary: Barcodes


 We all are familiar with the Universal Product Code, or UPC - that rectangle of white and black lines that adorn just about every product made and marketed anywhere. 

You might not know where the code came from, how it works, and what it’s impact is.

The present design was the result of a competition sponsored by the US National Association of Food Chains in 1971. Supermarkets had long dreamed of some sort of machine that could replace the laborious work of typing in prices of every item sold in a cash register. Finally, the technology caught up with the dream, and in 1972 bar codes were introduced in one supermarket in Cincinnatti in the US.

A laser swings its beam back and forth in the form of an “X”, and when the light bounces back from the barcode, a computer recognizes the pattern, and converts it to numbers, in binary code. I was surprised to learn that both the white spaces and the black spaces are conveying information: a think black line is “one”, a thicker black line is “one one”, and so on. Similarly, a think white space is “zero”, a thicker one is “zero zero”… The codes don’t carry any information about price or the product. All they do is tell the store’s computer where to look for information about the price and the product in its data base.

Depending on whether you sympathize with management or labor, you could say that bar codes enabled greater efficiency, more accuracy, and shorter waiting times - and all this is true. However, you could also point out that the bar codes put thousands of people out of work and downgraded the skills necessary for the checkers who remained (and thus the salary expectations too) - you could add that barcodes enabled people to consume more, more quickly, with less human interaction. I’ll leave it to you, Dear Reader, to decide if that is good thing or a bad thing.

Finally, before you pull out your credit card or your supermarket loyalty card the next time you buy bread and milk, you should realize that the barcodes allow the supermarket to know exactly what YOU bought, when, and what your buying patterns are over time. Basrcodes make Big Data possible, something else for you, the reader, to judge the merits of.


Catch up on the over 180 previous “Today’s Revolutionaries” here.


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Savings Groups are catching on in Europe and North America.

Follow this movement, and maybe get involved yourself.

Start by reading the Northern Lights page of Savings Revolution.

Then, if you like, contact us below, and we can talk about how you can form your own groups. We’ll put you in touch with someone who can help you do that!

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    Favorite Sites

    Here are some other sites that Kim and Paul read, that we think you might enjoy.

    The SEEP Savings Led Working Group site. Congratulations to SEEP for putting together this comprehensive, easily accessible go-to site on savings groups. Check out their library, their report on outreach by country, and lots of other goodies.

    Making the Road - a blog by Bill Maddocks. “Through honesty, courage and persistent inquiry we learn the way forward as development practitioners and human beings.” Bill brings rich experience not just with development work, but with life, to these discussions. 

    Village Finance Blog. Brett Hudson Matthew’s thoughtful posts are grounded in an understanding of oral cultures, history, and social dynamics. Recommended for anyone trying to understand what’s really happening in savings groups. 

    Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at UC Irvine. “Its mission is to support research on money and technology among the world’s poorest people. We seek to create a community of practice and inquiry into the everyday uses and meanings of money, as well as … technological infrastructures”. ‘Nuff said.

    David Roodman’s Microfinance Open Book Blog. David Roodman combines intelligence, honesty, and a sense of humor. He attempts to bring intellectual rigor to the analysis of the impact of financial services, and isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers in the process.

    Clean Air, Bright Light. This site by Savings Revolution co-founder Paul Rippey contains useful information about lessons learned in using savings groups to promote clean lighting. Still in development but check it out anyway!

    The Evidence Project. Chris Dunford was CEO of Freedom From Hunger for many years and probably more than anyone helped FFH earn a reputation of being willing to look closely at what they were doing, and whether they really were meeting people’s needs. Chris continues that role now as a blogger…

    Center for Financial Inclusion. CFI supports traditional microfinance to become more client friendly, more inclusive, and generally smarter. They have a long-term vision for the sector, and the blog attracts many good writers and thoughtful comments.








    Financial Promise for the Poor 

    Financial Promise for the Poor: How Groups Bulld Microsavings is your go-to book on savings groups. Its contributors are authors you often read in this blog. It covers current innovations in microsavings happening around the world.

    Also, don’t miss…

    Savings Groups at the Frontier, the book inspired by the 2011 Savings Group Summit!

    Buy in UK or US.

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    Over the last twenty years, many people have become interested in helping poor people around the world get good financial services. Mohammed Yunus and the institution he founded, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, won a Noble Prize in 2006 for helping start a movement that has brought financial services to millions around the world. 

    Banks and microfinance institutions are one way to bring financial series to the poor. Savings Groups, managed by the members and based on savings rather than debt, are another solution. In fact, we think they’re such a good solution that they really are revolutionary.

    Savings Groups are self-selected groups of 15 to 30 women and men who get together to save and borrow. Rather than go into debt to an external institution, they manage their own savings through transparent procedures and all the money they earn through interest on loans stays in their village, and in their group.

    This seven-minute video is a great short introduction to savings groups:

    A number of international non-profit organizations work with local partners to train people in villages and cities in how to manage their own savings groups. There are now over five million savings group members in Africa alone, and the movement is also growing in Asia and Latin America. (There are even a few groups in Europe and North America).

    Savings Revolution is designed to help you learn more about Savings Groups, and to get involved with the most exciting new approach to bringing safe financial services to people around the world.


    Report from SaveAct: SGs in South Africa

    SaveAct is pleased to present its annual report, available for download here. Highlights of the year were:
    • Sustained demand for the savings model from rural women, with older groups showing strong sustainability
    • Increasing commitment amongst savings groups to saving larger amounts over time

    Click to read more ...


    IGAs & ILAs

    One of the weirder phenomena that I’ve experienced lately during visits to Savings Groups is IGA frenzy, or the idea that everyone should borrow for an Income Generating Activity, or IGA. Trainers assume that every member is raising chickens, weaving, planting cabbages, selling mangos, or doing some other activity that “needs a loan”, and that all they have to do is borrow from their group, invest in the activity, and then get rich. Sounds good, but it isn’t. Three reasons:

    Click to read more ...


    Report from Bogata Forum on Savings Groups

    The Bogota Forum on Savings Groups, the first event of its kind in Latin America took place in Bogota, Colombia from December 4th to the 6th with the participation of over 200 practitioners eager to share and learn from experiences in Latin America and beyond.  Participants brought great enthusiasm for a methodology that is starting to gain momentum in the region, especially thanks to the government of Colombia’s commitment (through the Banca de las Oportunidades) to expand Savings Groups as a means of reaching vulnerable populations. The 70,000 men and women reached by IED VITAL in Colombia, in partnership with the Banca de las Oportunidades, stand as an inspiration and a point of reference for smaller, yet growing programs in the region.    


    Click to read more ...



    Local innovation is inspiring. Here is another resource - Afrigadget - as a follow up to Honey Bee, brought to my attention by one of our bloggers. I am posting on local innovation because I have seen how creative savings groups and their members can be. How can we encourage more?


    Digitizing the kaleidoscope of informal money management practices

    Lack of traction with formal financial services is often attributed to an insufficiently granular understanding of client needs. I think the bigger failure is in not knowing how to distil the mass of research we continue to produce into compelling products.

    Of course, there is always an element of conceit whenever one proposes any kind of new development intervention, even if it is something as mundane as a new financial service offering. And if the proposed service relates to microsavings, I can imagine how naive one must appear to so many doers and experts who for several decades now have focused on the credit side of things

    Click to read more ...


    Honey Bee

    Here is the most delightful magazine on local innovations I know of: Honey Bee. And do check out their website. 


    Of Davos and Utopia

    Yes, Davos, Utopia and VSLAs are all featured in the same article.

    Read all about it. 


    Modernizing the Share-Out

    A post on SR earlier this year highlights how savings groups in a set of communities rarely considered the timing of their share-outs.  

    Why is it that we organizers cling to the idea of a share-out at all? A stock refrain arrives: “the action audit”; “members join because of the share-out.” Let me challenge both of these rejoinders.  First, using cash to clear the books is an antiquated way of keeping track of money. It is exactly the kind of primitive thinking keeps members from building their funds to a meaningful size to produce meaningful loans. 

    Click to read more ...


    Is it time for us all to be Mary?

    I had the pleasure of meeting these two ladies, Mary and Didaciene, a couple of years ago in a savings group in Rwanda. When the two women shared about why they were in their group, I wrote down their words (as

    Click to read more ...


    "Let's save Africa"

    I came across this clever video on Duncan Green’s excellent Poverty to Power blog. 

    It goes well with the previous post, “Please shut your marketing mouth”.

    Watch this video, and read the previous post. If they make you uncomfortable, then ask yourself if you are using your Savings Group program to raise funds by exploiting stereotypes. If you are doing that, please stop. It just hurts everyone.