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June 5, 2014 5:08 pm

Jennifer Riria: The entrepreneur who empowered Kenyan women

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Jennifer Riria is an entrepreneur with a mission. Her career has been focused on transforming the lives of women – and with them, their families – in her native Kenya.

Today, she is group chief executive of Kenya Women Holding, a microfinance, banking and insurance group that works with 900,000 women, employs 2,800 people and since inception has disbursed $1.3bn of loans, each one averaging less than $600.

She is also chairwoman of Women’s World Banking, the Association of Microfinance Institutions, and an initiative focused on strengthening democratic processes in Kenya.

Her story starts in a village where she was born the fourth child and the fourth daughter in a family of 10 children. “I say this with a lot of pain in my heart, but I was not a wanted child,” she says. “My father expected a boy.” Her father “worked and lived off the garden”. But although poor, “there were other family members who were even poorer than us, living with us”.

She walked 4km to school every day in bare feet and washed her one school dress every night, sleeping with goats and chickens under her bed. When she came home from school, she “did what other little girls did. I fetched water, looked after the cows, chopped firewood, helped to cook and looked after the babies. That was my life.”

At the end of her primary education she scored well and was offered a place at the prestigious Precious Blood High School in Nairobi. “This was 700km or so away from home,” she says, but in spite of parental opposition, she decided nothing would stop her attending that school. Her sister was at Kenyatta University. “I took a bus,” she says, “carrying my clean underwear and clean handkerchief” on to the campus.

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At the end of high school however, Ms Riria found herself pregnant and a mother. Her father – “a staunch Presbyterian” – objected strongly, so she took her child “to University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, got a scholarship and then went to University of Leeds in the UK”, to study for her master’s degree.

She returned to Nairobi to work on her PhD thesis on women, education and development. It was the first thesis on women in Kenya and initially she could find no professor willing to supervise her.

When Ms Riria left Kenyatta University, doctorate in hand, she took a sabbatical and “that was another really neat break”, she says. Working on policies to contribute towards child survival among communities in central Kenya, she “began realising that there is no way you can improve child survival without connecting it to the welfare of the mother. The mother didn’t need education just to learn how to read and write but also how to make a livelihood. Women need to have access to credit finance, to be able to change their lives,” she adds.

It was then that Ms Riria was appointed to rescue the ailing Kenya Women Finance Trust, the precursor to Kenya Women Holding. “When I joined, I was young, bold and fearless, on the edge of stupidity,” she says. Ms Riria describes the institution then as “failing, indebted, and lacking support. It needed structural reform and governance structures. It was set up by women who volunteered their time, not professionals.”

Jennifer Riria’s manifesto for African economic development

“Over 60 per cent of Kenyans do not have a bank account, and we are ahead of the rest of Africa. For Africa to develop its potential, financial inclusion is a priority. Secondly there is no society, no community. We need democratic processes. Thirdly women must be included at every level, managing lives and managing people. Then we need infrastructure – physical and technical. Connectivity is very poor. I can’t forget education. You can’t talk about financial inclusion with talking about financial education. And I mustn’t forget corruption. The people who suffer from this wastage are women and children, education and medical services. People need to be empowered and they need to empower themselves.”

Undaunted by her own lack of financial training, Ms Riria started educating herself and seeking help and advice. “I was the loan officer; I was the accountant; I was the auditor; I was everything. But I knew what poverty means; I knew what hunger means; I knew these women,” she says.

It began lending very small amounts – 200 Kenyan shillings (just over $2). “Banks at the time did not want to lend to women. They told me: ‘You are giving women dizzy heads.’ When women have money in their hands, they are able to say ‘no’, to their husbands, to hold up their heads within the family,” she says.

Ms Riria established a formal board and separate management committee for KWFT. Then, in 2009, a similar institution was taken over overnight by the government. She called a board meeting the same day and created an ownership structure that safeguarded the non-financial objectives of the organisation, “to ensure there was no mission drift”, she says.

Kenya Women Holding was born with the delivery of “the double bottom line that it must meet social and financial goals” as its guiding principle.

Talking about the continuing dearth of women entrepreneurs who win competitions such as the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Ms Riria says: “I think one of the things that women suffer from is talking about themselves.

“We grow up to serve and never to think about ourselves. Women are the last to admit their accomplishments.”

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