Two cool Ghanaian women wearing traditional, adinkra-themed jewelry. One woman is leaning on the other as they look into the camera with relaxed expressions.
Image credit: Z Sarpong on

In Ghana, a centuries-old savings system called susu provides a means for people with limited access to formal financial support to solve economic problems in their communities. Meaning “little by little” and also “to plan” in Ghana’s Twi language, susu is a type of what is sometimes more broadly labeled a “rotating savings and credit association” (ROSCA), in which a set amount of money is collected regularly from each member of a group, with the total then distributed to each individual within the group at regular intervals, typically either weekly or monthly.

The system uses a peer group structure to encourage savings—with disbursements of cash to individual members occurring on a set schedule, resulting in lump sums that can be used to embark on business ventures; make large purchases; pay for school fees, weddings, or funerals; and fulfill other needs that require large cash outlays. 

Often organized by women who have largely been excluded from formal banking in Ghana, susu strengthens social cohesion and community resilience by fostering enduring ties between members. The resulting sense of solidarity and mutual support is, for many members, at least as important as the savings element itself.

Frequently, susu (and similar ROSCA practices) are seen as temporary practices that serve as a bridge to formal financial structures. But I would argue they also have broader implications that, if heeded, could affect the overall economy.

Stories from Susu Members

Caroline Shenaz Hossein, a professor of global development at the University of Toronto, and Samuel Kwaku Bonsu, rector (president) of the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration, teamed up to conduct interviews with susu members in Ghanaian urban centers to better understand the system’s role in helping to develop a solidarity economy rooted in longstanding community practices and traditions. Their research, published in 2023, highlights the close connection between the economic and communal aspects of the susu.

Susu strengthens social cohesion and community resilience by fostering enduring ties between members.

For example, one woman interviewed by Hossein and Bonsu works as a porter, helping people carry their purchases in the market. She’s part of a susu with 12 members, most of whom migrated from northern Ghana, are self-employed as laborers in the informal economy, and have no immediate family in the south. For this woman porter, joining a susu helped her to save enough money to meet some pressing immediate needs and begin to make investments in her future, while getting the social support she needed to survive in an unfamiliar and often challenging urban environment.

Susu members are often invested in each other’s lives and come to think of each other as family. Another susu member in the city of Kumasi explained to Hossein and Bonsu that the members of her group “are good friends….They come to my house, and I visit theirs. If I need anything, I will call one of them first. I have no other family here in Kumasi, and they are my family.”

Just like family, susu members support each other both socially and in business. A third woman interviewed as part of the study was a member of a wealthier group in Kumasi. She attends the weddings and funerals of the families of all 15 members of her susu. What’s more, she adds, “If I hear of an opportunity that is not in my line of business, I will tell one of my group members. And if we need money for her, we will make the necessary contribution.”

The combination of cultural grounding and modern financial monitoring helps prevent corrupt practices and maintains the integrity of the group.

As Hossein and Bonsu conclude from their extensive interviews, “while members value their group for its ability to help them mobilize financial resources, the most important driver seems to be the extra benefit of building community.”

Trust and Accountability

While each susu group operates with its own rules based on the needs and preferences of its members, in general, those who receive money earlier in the cycle can be seen as borrowers, and those who are paid later are lenders and savers. This all takes place without interest accruing, and no one makes a profit.

The susu system operates on principles of trust and accountability. It’s governed by cultural norms alongside some form of due diligence. Despite their origins many generations ago, modern urban susu are influenced by and have learned from contemporary financial sector practices. The combination of cultural grounding and modern financial monitoring helps prevent corrupt practices and maintains the integrity of the group.

Prospective members undergo a careful selection process to ensure they are aligned with the particular group’s objectives and values. A susu member from Accra, the nation’s capital, emphasized the importance of integrity and commitment when considering the admission of new members. “We don’t just allow anyone to join our group. We make sure you’re someone who can live up to your word and fulfill all payments. But people still want to join our group because they see that it is working for us.”

The informal and self-regulating nature of susu still poses challenges. Instances of misconduct, such as rogue collectors running off with deposits, though relatively rare, can erode trust. Disputes can emerge about issues such as approaches to bookkeeping, accusations of favoritism, and the order of payouts. In such cases, the group comes together to find solutions and uphold the integrity of the system through consensus.

The strong foundation forged by personal ties and relationships of mutual trust means that the susu can remain resilient. For most members, abusing the system is unthinkable, due to the high social and reputational costs of doing so. As an interviewee at Kumasi market put it: “That you would hear I have stolen money from my sisters. God forbid. Then what is the point of coming together to help each other? What am I going to tell my children? Can I ever go back to my village? They will all shun me. I could never live with myself.”

Susu and Banking

In Ghana, 88 percent of the economy is classified as informal. Yet, according to Hossein and Bonsu, “Susu have received little attention in terms of their origins in economic alternatives or as a development solution.”

The system’s success and potential emerges from the enduring bonds of solidarity formed by members as they address each other’s economic needs.

The system has, however, caught the interest of commercial banks, which have been trying to build links with this informal economy for more than 30 years. One former bank client turned susu collector explained that “banks are playing catch up because susu are about trust, and the banks have failed to create opportunities to be seen as trustworthy.”

Many susu members are suspicious of commercial banks, which are “strangers” to their customers, preferring the trust-based nature of their own informal system. Unlike banks, susu serve the financial needs of vulnerable people and help connect and protect those who are excluded from formal finance. And while some members would prefer the added privacy of formal banking, they are aware that banks are ultimately not interested in the wellbeing of their customers. “When I was in need, they [the banks] will only look at my ability to pay without [thinking of] my survival or whether I was getting more into debt,” said one susu member in her interview.

An Ancestral Technology

Hailed by one member as “a very African invention,” susu embodies not only a financial mechanism but also a cultural tradition deeply ingrained in Ghanaian society. The system’s success and potential emerges from the enduring bonds of solidarity formed by members as they address each other’s economic needs. It is, to borrow a phrase, a form of ancestral technology.

Of course, Ghana isn’t the only country to widely employ ROSCA groups. Similar approaches can be found in many places across the Global South, with immigrants often bringing their practices with them even as they migrate to the United States. For instance, in Lynn, MA, Guatemalan immigrants operate cuchubales based on similar principles. Writing in NPQ, Jeffrey Ashe and Hugo Carvajal note more broadly that, “Mexicans call these groups tandas, Kenyans chamas, Eritreans Iquibs, Bangladeshis samites, Cambodians tontines, and Nepalis dhikutis.”

The ubiquity of these community-based savings groups and practices speaks powerfully to the possibility of realizing an economy that is more firmly grounded in values of mutual aid and support.

With roots going back to precolonial times, the susu provides a viable model for non-extractive finance, with significant potential to expand. “Susu members move us away from the capitalist-socialist binary, instead showing that communities can take part in non-for-profit economic activities—a sharing and commoning that can be classed as postcapitalist,” says Hossein. For Ghanaians, against a backdrop of rampant commercialization, participation in susu today goes beyond financial and social solidarity. It is also an act of resistance against the dominant economic system and a powerful response to the deepening inequalities that have been left in its wake.