|Kenya Women Holdings Ltd Chief Executive Dr Jennifer Riria in Nairobi. She says empowering society through women is the key to achieving sustainable growth. [PICTURE: WINSLEY MASESE]|
By WINSLEY MASESE
It was a momentous evening for Dr Jennifer Riria after emerging the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Eastern Africa chapter, 2013.
“This is an experience of a lifetime and when I go to Monte Carlo, all I can speak is bonjour,” she said amid applause from the audience. “This award is not about me but the ability of microfinance in the world to give families a new lease of life through women,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Riria is the group chief executive of Kenya Women Holdings Ltd (KWH), previously Kenya Women Finance Trust. However, beneath her excitement is a childhood experience that gave birth to a soft spot on women’s efforts to balance between reproductive and productive roles.
Long walk to freedom
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With three girls and an expectant mother, the wish was that the unborn is a son. However, that was never to be. She was the fourth born. “For a long time, I knew that I was not wanted as my mother had to walk about 25 km to our home without any accompaniment, after the birth.”
And as she was growing up, she experienced more problems, further fuelling her determination to succeed. “My mother had to walk about seven kilometres carrying firewood and food and I sat on the top.” “I knew that if I had a chance, I would do something to change the lives of women,” Riria notes.
The chance came when as a senior lecturer at Kenyatta University and also with the United Nations, there was the opportunity to head Kenya Women Finance Trust, an institution advancing issues of women.
At the time, there was about Sh2 million in uncollected loans and had to embark on a turnaround strategy. Her entry into the financial arena marked a renaissance that has seen the institution grow exponentially. “If you go through women, food and other basic necessities will be on the table.” The main aim is to reach places and offer products that ordinary commercial banks do not consider as profitable.
For example, women were ignored by commercial banks in the early 1980s and 1990s and had to struggle to position themselves in business.
“Women were seen as un-bankable and this made it difficult for them to borrow money to engage in business and this is the landscape we wanted to change through microfinance,” she says.And the change on how lending works has seen change take place in the society by providing loans to women to buy water tanks, and solar panels.
They are now able to cut down on numerous hours spent looking for water and firewood and channel them to some income generating activities.
Riria argues: “It is through buying a cow for women that society is able to handle cases of malnutrition.” The group, she observes, is about transforming lives and this can be achieved through empowering women.
“I am satisfied KWFT led the way to open a microfinance institution for women with the ultimate success that banks now accept that women are bankable and good clients. KWFT is virtually in every town with about 235 field officers. “We want to use agency banking to ensure women are banked from anywhere,” Riria says. The Group’s goal at the time was to help women access loans by organising them into groups where members would contribute between Sh200 and Sh1,000.
Today, the trust provides financial services to more than 400,000 women, boasting a loan portfolio of over Sh13 billion. However, this was not a walk in the park as she was labeled a home-breaker and warned by men to stay away from their wives for allegedly making them ‘big headed’.
At some time, she came across challenges and pessimists who thought that giving out Sh3,000 was not economically sound. “Some asked why I quit my university job to give people Sh3,000, questioning what this could achieve,” she says.
If she wins the award, she will join the likes of Equity Bank Chief Executive James Mwangi who was voted the 2012 winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.