Exactly 29 years ago, in October 1991, Dr Jennifer Riria took a leap of faith by resigning from her job with a global organisation to rescue then struggling Kenya Women Finance Trust; an outfit that sought to finance women in rural Kenya. This was at a time when leadership in financial institutions was like an exclusive club for men. And this challenge was too attractive to pass on. So Riria took on reigns of a skeleton KWFT; one with not a dime or an employee to its name. And she would spend her early days on the job-hopping from one bank to the next in pursuit of finances for onward lending. Today, KWFT is a household name in all corners of the country having helped over a million women set up thriving businesses. KWFT is an associate company of Echo Network Africa of which Riria is the CEO. She shares 10 lessons on money and business that she has garnered in the decades.
Borrow just enough. Never more
Be careful about this. First, one should not over borrow. There should be a proper assessment of what the business actually needs, not what the person needs. This is usually based on what the business can actually generate. This will determine how the payments can be made. Ignore this and you will struggle to pay it back.
Make your product accessible
I joined KWFT when it had zero customers. The first thing we had to do was make it relevant to women. We had to make KWFT convenient for our potential customers by creating a tight network in rural areas. For example, we ensured no woman will have to walk for more than five kilometres to access our products. In a similar manner, you cannot grow the customer base if your product is not accessible to those you intend to serve. You must realise that money follows a product. An accessible product at the right price will draw in customers.
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How to increase chances of funding
For a lender to give you money, you must prove you are bankable. For example, if you have a culture of depositing small amounts on a regular basis and withdrawing something for business purposes, you are showing the bank that you have good financial management skills. This also applies if you want to join a group that lends money to members.
Get a faltering business out of trouble
Anyone who looked at KWFT in the initial stages could have recommended its closure. There was little going on then. But there was nothing wrong with the business model, just the wrong strategy. If your business is faltering, step back and find out where you failed. Some fail because of simple things that just require personal commitment. For example, do you open your business on time, when your customers are up and about? Are you for example reinvesting in the business? For example, when I go to the market, I will meet women who want to give me a bunch of bananas, another wants to give me a bag of potatoes, all for free. Those are nice gestures but it is also a lack of business manners and simple business discipline. What they are giving out for free is their profit for the day. How much more of their products are they giving out for free? In business, you must account for everything on your table. Ask yourself whether you are doing things that make your business succeed.
Time to quit?
Ideally, a person should not quit at the slightest hint of trouble. It is good to analyse why you failed and see if you can take a different approach to your business. This is your livelihood and unless all ways to salvage business have failed, it is better to try all tricks in the book to stay afloat.
Do not be a copycat
Before you start a business, talk to someone who started something successful and find out how they did it. We have in the past connected someone with a thriving startup with another person looking to start a startup. However, do not start the business like your neighbour’s. For example, one woman goes to Dubai to buy clothes for resale in Kenya and you invest your savings on the same model without any understanding as to why they did it. Do not sell tomatoes just because everyone is selling them. Look for real needs that ought to be addressed by your business. Could you perhaps do value add to the potatoes, perhaps by making crisps? You must know what you want to do and where your market lies.
Make it about more than just the money…
If you start a business because you just want to make money, you might get frustrated quickly if your expectations are not met fast enough. Entrepreneurship is about helping people transform their lives, and for women, in particular, the lives of their families. For example, if you lend money to a woman to start a business, the money somehow finds its way back to the family. Entrepreneurship is about giving her a voice. In the process, she fills a real need that in turn brings her some income. Have more than the need to make money in your vision and you will be fine.
Ideas attract capital
One of the common complaints among young people aspiring to do business is lack of business mentoring. However, I encourage them to join networks and learn to be innovative. Banks fund ideas and when young people innovate, they can get bargaining power. I have the example of a young man who was so demotivated to the point where he almost gave up on life. But he held on. And came up with a good business idea. I just learnt that he just got a grant from the Commonwealth to connect young, innovative people from all over Africa.
Create a business that outlives you
Creating and sustaining a business takes commitment, and at times, tears. A business is a mission not just about benefiting yourself but delivering the best services to customers. Work on establishing structures so that those who come after you will find it easy to continue with the original mission.