The power of women as a niche market

When she approached a bank for a loan two decades ago, Jennifer Riria was ridiculed and mistreated. This was the time when women were regarded as kitchen companions and sort of second-class citizens who could not take credit from banks because they did not have collateral or financial power. 

She recalls that day when the bank manager asked her, “Do you want women with baskets on their backs to crowd our banking hall?” It meant she would set a bad precedent. She didn’t laugh.

Dr Riria cried that day all the way from the bank, she says, and has never forgotten this dubious view that banks had on women entrepreneurs. Today, she leads a strong women microfinance bank, Kenya Women Holding, and Kenya Women Insurance. 

Focusing on women gave her an advantage as mainstream banks focused on men, professionals and businesses. Her client roaster has reached more than 800,000 women entrepreneurs and their families, with 1.1 million accounts by close of 2014. 

Since she founded the Kenya Women Finance Trust (now Kenya Women Microfinance Bank) in 1990, she has been making bold steps, working hard and carefully to escape the pitfalls that have tripped many enterprises in Kenya. As the chief executive, she has led the rehabilitation and restructuring of an NGO that nearly collapsed in October 1991 into an aggressive and ferocious bank that is giving the big boys a run for their money. It has expanded its operations to 45 counties in Kenya and plans to cover the entire nation. 

That incident with the dismissive bank manager motivated her to become microfinance banker and practitioner and take on the role of ensuring that women are bankable not only for themselves but for their families. In the process, she has built an admirable empire that has kept most low income women on a roll. From a practical involvement in business, Dr Riria says an entrepreneur will fall so many times but never gives up. 

“Women are bankable,” she says. “When lending to a woman you are lending to her as an entrepreneur. Don’t look at the face, look at the activity that she is doing.”

Kenya Women Finance Trust was formed as a service to families to alleviate poverty through women. It has been helping three million women in what she calls “financial and non-financial services”, which basically involves addressing positioning of women in the economic matrix. All these are aimed at improving the welfare of families, which forms the core of Kenya Women’s philosophy, perhaps from the long-held view that when you empower a woman, you feed the whole society.

 It is about ‘who is the core’. For Dr Riria, it is a very deliberate choice that the women are the core  of community empowerment. They form 90% of her clients and she believes that if they go through the ‘core’ the rest will just flow in. 

After all, she says what matters is the way banking has taken shape. She notes that others like Chase Bank, I&M, KCB and even Barclays took the cue and are now offering products and services targeted at women. “They realised that somebody is succeeding. If you are a front-runner like Kenya Women is, everybody will join you. They steal your staff, copy your chic products… but you continue being a front-runner in products and services. You are like a first born,” she says. 

In the 1990s women had no place in banking as many challenges were lined up in their way. But that view has changed dramatically and they enjoy wider access to  financial services. There has been a development of various financial and non-financial products and services that respond to the changing needs of women as individuals and entrepreneurs.

Having served more than 2.3 million women, disbursing cumulatively more than  Sh113 billion in a little over 20 years, the institution’s outstanding loan portfolio has grown from Sh2 million in uncollectable debt to more than Sh14.9 billion with an asset base of Sh21.7 billion.  Clients’ savings have increased to Sh14 billion with a loan book of a similar figure, all indicators of its phenomenal growth. “We project to disburse over Sh25 billion this year,” she says.

Business reforms so far have seen most financial institutions re-invent their products. The ways of doing business and enticing customers have also  changed. To her, inspiration is helping her to get there without the bruises. And when women are able to access financial services (that is they are able to create their own assets) only then will she sleep. 

“Financial inclusion involves all genders. It is only that that’s not my docket. Inclusion must not only be restricted to finances, it is inclusive in terms of participation. There has to be the men involved,” she says.

With the growth of staff from six to 3,000 this year, Kenya Women is one of the largest institutions in the country. And many people and organisations are noticing. It has received the Best Employer Award three times in a row. “We are the best employer because we have no problem with men serving women. We have 50 % men and 50% women,” she says. 

In Kenya, there are more than 50 banks, a situation that has led to healthy competition with many coming up with products particularly for women, thus ensuring better financial inclusion for this segment. 

Taking a loan at Kenya Women is a learning opportunity. Dr Riria says before a loan is approved education is emphasised. The focus is on women groups, making it easier to train a good number at once. They meet for eight weeks (or at least six weeks). During this time Kenya Women agents assess the viability of businesses, and see whether the enterprises are indeed up and running and have sustainable potential. Group members save and draft regulations that govern relationships in their group to guard against acrimonious fallouts. 

One of the challenges they encounter is crafty women. “What some very clever women who are holier than thou do is not tell the truth. A big percentage are genuine but some are not. But we catch them when we go to assess their enterprises.”

Win-win situation

Aside from being a banker and a seasoned business woman, she is also a scholar and a gender specialist. Management of risks in Kenya Women is very structured. 

There is the so-called social collateral for the women borrowing in groups where members make sure that they guarantee repayment. “It may be a thermos, a bed, a piece of land… so it makes you feel pain and is just away to give you the pressure to payback. No woman would wants a bank to come and take their cooking pans because they have defaulted. “

In disaster situations, bank walks with their clients. In the 2007/8 post-election clashes, they helped build their confidence and grow with them. This opened the bank’s eyes to the next opportunity. 

Kenya Women Holding is introducing insurance. It has started off with a cow insurance product and plan to introduce more insurance products. They work together with the client to ensure that they are not disfranchised.

“There is need for systems to be in place to empower people. I don’t have a problem with the women staying in the kitchen but if a woman decides to go into business she should know that business is business and not philanthropy. They have to learn the essence of doing business. Entrepreneurship is about choosing an idea. You have to plough back into the business to grow it,” she points out.

Kenya Women controls 59% of the microfinance market, a huge chunk in a county with nearly 50 banks. Dr Riria believes there is potential for a deeper financial penetration. She terms Kenya’s 12% savings rating as “terrible”.

“We have M-Pesa… this has enabled us to penetrate and this penetration is also too small,” she says adding that the clients are women living in rural areas, the unbanked and those in places where M-Pesa and other financial service providers can’t reach. Like the nomadic areas. 

The institution’s relationship with the government has been key to its growth. IFFAD was supporting it to alleviate poverty. The collaboration was not about grants but food security activities. There have been dairy cows, and it has done research on potatoes, and had collaborations on providing goats for milk. 


It also works with international bodies such as the United Nations.  “For any society, any political system or any country to succeed, the barometer to measure that is how well women are positioned and advocated for,” she says.

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