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BW Businessworld

Do You Have A Market For Your Venture?

As a distinguished Microfinance Banker and Practitioner, Researcher and Gender Specialist, Dr Jennifer Riria, Group CEO, Kenya Women Holding has led Kenya Women Microfinance Trust (KWFT) for over two decades and propelled it from unprofitable NGO to a medium sized Bank, serving low-income women and their families. We speak to her about women leadership and startup culture in Kenya

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KWFT has served over 3 million women and disbursed over $2.3 billion over a period of 20 years. Dr Jennifer Riria has served in many other leadership roles for which she has been recognised locally and internationally. An institutional builder who focuses on institutions that empower, positions and advocate for the majority, and especially low-income women and their families.

“Earlier the holding was called Kenya Women Microfinance Trust but the central regulation changed the name to Kenya Women Micro Finance Bank in 2013 which was wholly owned by Kenya Women Holding. The main aim of the holding is to carry out activities that empower and position women in strong light and advocates women for a term,” said Dr Riria who was part of the Women Economic Forum 2017.

Talking about her journey as an entrepreneur, Dr Riria feels that Kenyan women are empowered women and have learnt a lot with time. “The journey of women power was intensified from 1975 with UN Women Conference in Mexico. In 1995 at the Copenhagen conference women spoke about the issues faced by them and how to position them in the world, to voice their ideas and wanted active participation in various democratic positions across the world. Since then I have seen a lot of changes at the government and human level. Women will not make headway, not whine or cry but it is important to have their voice heard. And still, there is a lot to be done,” she says.

Financial inclusion is so critical because it gives a woman the power of controlling the dollar in her hand. “It gives a voice, a position to be able to act for her family.”

How have women in banking sector evolved in Kenya?
Women about two decades ago were not in banking sector especially in rural Nigeria, Kenya and India. But now women have a number of responsibilities - they take care of the family, educate their children. They are now participating in more programmes and eager to be associated with banking processes in Kenya.

Another important factor is the digital disruption that has brought in a lot of change. Women are able to access M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service, launched in 2007 by Vodafone for Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania. So this has enabled them towards improved financial inclusion.

As per development in the country, women have benefits and are accepted as major players in the economy, however, there are still issues to access financial services. In some places, they cannot afford, but the government support is coming in the form of women fund to start a business in Kenya.

While women in the democratic space had limitations, they still are dominated by patriarchal perception. But gradually we see a change happening when women have started to put their foot down. The constitution in Kenya has a law called 2/3 gender rule already in effect where no more than two-thirds of positions are occupied by persons of the same gender. So a board committee in a company, as per the law, has one-third women or one-third-men and this gives equal opportunities to all.

Tell us about the structure of KWH?
Currently, we have 1.3 million women on accounts in Kenya. Out of 47 counties, we are working on 45 counties. We disburse loans to across different sectors like green energy, water, etc.

What is the startup scenario in Kenya?
Startups die in nine months, that’s why we are vary of startups. Of those we have worked we keep close to them, teach them to reinvest the money and tell them how to diversify and use the money within the same project. As an entrepreneur, resilience, vision, focus are a few of the characteristics important to start your own venture. We hand hold them to clear their purpose. So it’s totally about their venture, how they visualise and create knowledge by helping them to sustain.

Have you faced any issues?
Startups have a lot of issues. First, they must understand about their venture. Do you have a market? What is the source of raw material? We also give money to buy machines and stay with them for 8 weeks to understand their market. But the most pertinent question is whether they have a market for their venture? Have you’re your math? All this and more is included and we try and give financial education to grow their business. At times we even have to sensitise against women abuse and violation among partners.

So where does the problem lie?
Interest rates have not been the problem for women so far but it is the timely access to financial services. The opportunities that they capture is so time limited if they don’t get it on time they lose their opportunity. Banks take a long time to process their loans. Hence the contract is lost. We don’t subscribe our business rates but we have been lending at 18-19  per cent. What is important to cover is the cost of running a business.

What perspective do you have for Indian women in the finance sector?
I am inspired by Ela Ramesh Bhatt who is an Indian cooperative organiser, activist and Gandhian, who founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India in 1972 and served as its general secretary from 1972 to 1996. She advised me to grow thick-skinned if I have to work for women. Don’t give in to your resilience!

I see great opportunity for Indian women what we don’t have in Kenya. The small industries for home-made Indian food condiments like jam, chilli sauce, that are made at home, packed to sell at corporate houses is an acceptable trend in India. Manufacturing in Kenya is monopolised by international companies. We have to take licenses and the process is too time-consuming. Even the manufacturing equipment is expensive in Kenya. Borrowing is not easy.

Though women entrepreneurship is acceptable in Kenya but India is working at fast pace. I have seen a doctor in India pursuing her passion of making tomato sauce in the backyard of her house in a village with the help of government agencies. Whereas women in Kenya are free to do anything but there are patriarchal beliefs.

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women economic forum Dr Jennifer Riria microfinance