By Alex Blau

Since her husband passed away a few years ago, Marwah has taken care of her family’s cocoa farm all by herself. She is motivated by a promise she and her husband made to help finance their youngest son’s college education. But like many who manage small cocoa farms in Indonesia, Marwah struggles to save money. “Many of us live with no savings,” she laments, making it hard for farmers to improve their livelihoods and achieve goals such as supporting their kids through college.

In our initial work, ideas42 found that of 70,000 Indonesian farmers surveyed, 98% wanted to save money, yet only 50% were actually saving (often very little). What is it that makes it hard for farmers to save? We partnered with the development agency Swisscontact to find out—and develop an intervention to help farmers overcome the obstacles.

We started in July 2016. Between a poor rainy season and a predictable spike in spending around the Ramadan holiday, finding money to put away should have been more challenging than ever. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions for saving money, the farmers we worked with—including Marwah—were surprised to see their savings accounts grow. For some, it was their first experience using a bank or even their first time saving money.

So how does it work?

First, with our intervention, the farmers set concrete goals upon opening their savings accounts. We know from behavioral science that people are much more likely to save money for tomorrow when they have a specific goal in mind and a plan to achieve it, and less likely to spend money on small incidental expenses. Indeed, one key inhibitor to saving we identified was that much of the farmers’ “overspending” was a series of small, incremental purchases such as the odd pack of cigarettes, coffee outside the home, and snacks for children on market days. These expenses felt insignificant to farmers at the time of purchase, but added up over months and years to meaningful amounts. When we asked some farmers to add up how much they spent on cigarettes in an entire year, they would often start laughing at themselves, astonished by how much money they actually spent on cigarettes alone. Setting goals is an integral step to forgoing spending today for the sake of tomorrow.

Second, our intervention includes an opportunity for farmers to make a deposit every time they sell cocoa beans to traders – the point when they have the most cash on hand. Behavioral science tells us that people are more likely to save at times when they feel financially flush, so making it easy to save at the right time in their financial cycle can encourage saving.

We found that another factor standing in the way of savings was farmers “saving after spending,” meaning they would save whatever was left after all expenses were paid (often little or nothing). Saving first is hard because it feels like “the money is not working for [them]” – literally that it wasn’t doing anything, but sitting there, unused – which can be particularly painful when farmers have immediate needs. But as investor Warren Buffet famously put it, “Don’t save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving.” Having the option to immediately set aside funds allows farmers to do just that.

The intervention in Indonesia is now three months in and farmers are already reporting their progress. One farmer, Sariati, initially set a goal to save roughly $150 USD for new cocoa seedlings, and has already reported putting away $30 USD towards her investment. Another farmer, Hatija, had a similar goal to replant her cocoa plot, and has managed to save $45 USD. These farmers and others have noted that this intervention has helped reduce their spending on “unnecessary items,” and increased their confidence in their own ability to save—especially since they did so during poor seasonal conditions and a holiday month.

As for Marwah, her cocoa production has been relatively stable, and she anticipates meeting her goal of saving enough money for her son’s education by the end of the season. She says the program “really makes sense.” It has helped her take one concrete step toward fulfilling the promise she made to her husband and her son, to help her youngest through college.

We look forward to following up with the farmers at the end of the intervention period early next year to see how much progress they’ve made in saving for the future.