Group Helps Bring Technology To Ghana's CUs

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While credit unions have been in existence for some 50 years in Ghana, only recently have they begun looking at technology to give their members improved services. And, thanks to a group of CU leaders in Canada, the transition will be a lot smoother.

Gene Creelman, VP of Marketing at Prospera Credit Union and Insurance Agencies, was among 10 industry leaders who spent 19 days in Ghana recently to help CU leaders in that country deal with recent growth. The trip was part of a program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and managed by the Canadian Cooperative Association.

"The concept of community is so much larger than one's own city, province or country," Creelman said.

In the past few years in particular, he said, the economy has strengthened itself as more people begin to understand the benefits of financial assistance.

The common village people have realized the only way they are going to improve the situation for their families is to borrow money, observed Creelman, explaining that items as inexpensive as a sewing machine can make a huge difference for a family that struggles to make ends meet. But with banks unwilling to loan them even small amounts of money-so-called microcredit - they are turning to credit unions.

"The mom and children at home can do some work while dad and the boys go off to hunt, gather and farm," he said.

The challenge for financial institutions, he said, is that they have been single bond entities for the last 50 years with little growth both financially and technologically. "Many are still manual based," Creelman said. "They record everything on paper ledgers."

Even those that are purchasing computers, the systems provide only in-house capabilities because Internet access is not available.

While he suspects these credit unions-most of them small in both assets and members-will need to merge as more and more open their charters. Most are only interested in expanding their own operations right now.

"Most of them did start out as closed-bond credit unions," he said. "Hospital workers, teachers or church groups. And I know they have talked about mergers, but I think, they want to see what they can do on their own first."

Creelman said his role was to provide insight into how they could better improve their services.

"We were put into teams of two, with each team visiting three credit unions," he said. "My team went to Techiman, a small city with very little infrastructure."

Leaving Suggestions Behind

While there, he met with leaders of three credit unions-all paper-based with two in the processing of switching to in-house data processing systems. He said the largest CU he saw had only $300,000 in assets and 1,200 members.

"We left them with some suggestions to help make those changes," he said. Other discussions included how to help one credit union pave the way for a smoother move from its original sponsor's site in the local hospital to an area less convenient to its majority.

"They hadn't contemplated staffing issues, training issues or how such a move would impact the membership," he said.

Credit union members in Ghana, for the most part, are hard-working families with little means, Creelman said. While the main portion of the city does have modern services, such as taxis and hotels, most people live outside its perimeter where they hunt for food and raise it on farms. Most do not own cars and have no modern conveniences such as electricity or plumbing.

"They cook over wood and briquette fires," Creelman said. At night, residents use coal lamps and flashlights.

Those lucky enough to get educated make about $350 to $400 a month, he said.

For families who want to build their own homes, he said, the process can take as long as seven years. Because the land is still under tribal ownership, they must first get permission from its leaders. And, without opportunities for typical mortgages, they have to save so they can purchase construction supplies. Typically, they do it in phases, he said, describing a tour during which he saw homes in various stages of construction.

"They looked abandoned, but they're not," he said. "They just waiting for the family to be able to afford the next round of supplies."

Creelman, whose group will return to Ghana next February to assess their progress and make new contacts, said the experience was worthwhile.

"The people there were tremendous," he said. "There were never any strangers. Only friends you've never met before. We were made to feel completely at home and very safe."

He said CU leaders gave them a similar reception. "One really positive piece of going there is that they were so eager to learn from us," Creelman said. "They know we've been down this road before them."

He said Prospera's participation in the program is part of its effort to perform its Corporate Social Responsibility. This new Canadian initiative, much like CRA in the United States, challenges financial and other industries to help make a difference.

The $2.16-billion CU is community-based and has 17 branches and 11 insurance offices.

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