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Woman who has made an impact in banking and education sector

By Kiundu Waweru | November 27th 2013 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Mary Akelo, the founder of Nairobi-based Makini schools. (Photo:Standard)

By Kiundu Waweru

Kenya: Thirty five years ago, armed with nothing but a passion for children and dismayed by the falling standards of education in public schools, a career banker thought of starting a school.

That was the year the first Kenyan president died, and unlike today, there were neither many academies nor private schools. Mary Akelo enrolled eight children at a three bedroom house. In 1981, Makini Primary was born. Makini may rhyme with one of its English translations, ‘keen’, and it may be argued Mrs Okelo has been nothing but keen, because she grew Makini to one of the Kenyan household educational names.

From the initial humble abode, Makini schools can now be found in several locations including Ngong Road, along State House Avenue and also in Kisumu. It boasts of a primary, secondary school and even a college, with about 2000 students.

Since its first KCPE class of 1995 which was ranked eighth in Nairobi, Makini has continued to perform well. In 2004 to 2006, it made history for producing the top girl in the country  for three onsecutive years.

Well, looking keenly, history is no stranger to Makini’s founder and director, Okelo. Indeed, she is not only known for her pioneering role in best practice in the education sector, but also in the banking domain. In 1977, Okelo broke the glass ceiling when she became the first Kenyan woman bank manager at the Barclays Bank.

“In those days, it was very difficult for women to access credit as they were required to have the approval of their husbands among several other bottlenecks,” she told The Standard in an earlier interview. “We operated under the archaic Napoleonic law where women, children and lunatics were put in the same category.”

An achiever                  

And in setting up her business, Okelo’s main headache was getting capital. But as they say, nothing good comes from comfort. This state of affairs would open doors for women, to not only scale the corporate ladder, but also access credit. Today, women are able to own big businesses, a far cry from the role of women then, who according to Okelo were “clerks, cashiers, sweepers and tea girls.”

 At the Barclays Bank, she teamed up with like minded female colleagues and began the Barclays Bank Women’s Association. Through this, they would mentor and challenge young women to seek higher office, first by capacity building including seeking further education and professional courses.

In 1981, with other women, lawyers, entrepreneurs, bankers who also hungered to change the status of women, they founded the Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT), modelled after the Women’s World Banking (WWB). WWB had been started three years earlier after a United Nations meeting in Mexico where it was determined that women were being left behind in the development agenda for lack of credit and capital to start businesses.

Okelo was the first KWFT Chairperson, an organisation which has achieved its dreams and successes and is today a deposit taking microfinance institution.

Coincidentally, Okelo would be the first African representative to the Women’s World Bank in 1985. She says that at this time, life was a big challenge as she was juggling many things, including family. But she would get more appointments. In 1987, the WWD seconded her to the Africa Development Bank as a senior advisor to the President on women development and the private sector. A few years later, she rose to be the Vice Preseident of the WWB in New York.

During this stint, she travelled a lot, especially around Africa where she lobbied and advocated for the review of rules and regulations in the financial sectors that hindered women’s development. In 1992, Okelo decided to quit the banking industry. By that time, she had inspired many women to dream bigger than assistant office jobs, become managers and also venture into entrepreneurship.


Akelo studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree and also holds a post graduate diploma in early childhood education, a diploma in Banking from the Chartered Institute of Bankers and is also a fellow at the Kenya Institute of Banking.

Initially, Okelo wanted to be an ambassador. Her dream would have come true since in 1967, she started her career at the ministry of Foreign Affairs but six months later, she left for the Barclay’s job where she rose through the ranks to make history, well, as a woman ambassador.

And as Kenya marks 50 years of independence, Kenyans, especially the first students at Makini, some who now educate their children at the same school, will hail her as one of the people who have made a positive change in this country.

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