When Jennifer Riria approached a bank for a loan two decades ago, she was ridiculed. She recalls that day when the bank manager posed to her: “Do you want women with baskets on their backs to crowd our banking hall?”

Today, she leads Kenya Women Holding, a women microfinance bank, 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 to escape pitfalls that have tripped many. As chief executive, she has led the rehabilitation and restructuring of an institution that nearly collapsed in October 1991 into an aggressive and ferocious bank 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 bank manager motivated her to become microfinance banker and practitioner and took on the role of ensuring that women are bankable. In the process, she has built an admirable empire that has kept most low income women on a roll.

A STRONG NICHE

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 that when you empower a woman, you feed the whole society. “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.” 

After all, she says what matters is the way banking has taken shape. She notes that others 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 firstborn,” she says.

In the 1990s women had no place in banking as challenges were lined up in their way. But that view has changed 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. The project to disburse over Sh25 billion this year.

With a 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.

Taking a loan at Kenya Women is a learning opportunity. Dr Riria says before a loan is approved education is emphasised. The bank’s agents assess the viability of businesses, and see whether the enterprises are indeed up and running and have sustainable potential. One of the challenges 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.”

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 want 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.

NEW INSURANCE ARM

Kenya Women Holding is introducing insurance, starting with a cow insurance product and plan to introduce more insurance products. “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,” she says.

Dr Riria says an entrepreneur will fall so many times but never gives up.


For more on Jeniffer Riara and Kenya Women Holding strategies, get a copy of the Nairobi Business Monthly November Edition currently available is supermarkets and newspaper vendors.

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