The rise of gender-lens and social impact investing could be a real game changer in Africa where traditionally, access to finance still remains a key challenge for women in business. There’s a great quote by Melinda Gates, Co-Chair, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the USA. She says: “If you invest in a girl or a woman, you are investing in everybody else.” That is certainly the case in Africa where women feel a sense of inherent responsibility to give back and uplift their communities.
In the early days of the social impact movement, women and girls were seen more as program beneficiaries, rather than financial movers and shakers, but that is no longer the case as women social entrepreneurs in Africa are looking to make an impact in their communities as a result of their own business efforts. Globally, social lenders are also beginning to change their long-entrenched views as they realize that focusing initiatives like microfinance lending for women entrepreneurs turns out to be the most effective way to make whole communities more prosperous - unlike their male counterparts, these women entrepreneurs believe in giving back and uplifting their communities as an integral part of their business models. This early insight has quickly led to further programs specifically targetting women, including special business programmes, competitions, and support networks for female entrepreneurs across the continent. The advent and growth of gender lens investing in women-owned businesses, has created female-centred portfolios that put much-needed capital behind women in a more systematic and high impact way. As a result, things have moved on significantly in the world of social investing. No longer only the beneficiaries of social finance, today women are building a complete ecosystem of social investing that has female financial power at its heart.
At the same time, female financial expertise is taking the helm in more direct ways through a growing number of women-run venture capital firms and all-female investor networks. Their presence in the start-up marketplace disproves the myth that women investors are risk averse. And, even when the firms don’t specifically target women-run businesses, they seem to be having a catalytic effect on female-founded companies. Women-run investment firms report receiving more pitches from female entrepreneurs because of their networks. As a consequence, a greater percentage of their investments, up to 40% in some cases, have been in companies started by women. Elsewhere, women are establishing venture funds specifically targeting female entrepreneurs and focusing on female markets - they are seeking to invest in companies that are run by women, and which have solutions to address those problems being experienced by women.
Here in Africa, there are a number of game-changing women social entrepreneurs who are making much-needed access to finance a reality for women on the continent looking to startup businesses and become financially independent and genuinely empowered. In this special feature on women funding women, we profile three truly inspirational women who are proving that it is possible to change the socio-economic prospects of communities and countries in Africa by empowering women entrepreneurs to build successful companies with growth potential. Meet three pioneering women who've made a remarkable and lasting impact by funding and empowering women in their respective countries.
Jennifer Riria - Group Chief Executive of Kenya Women Holding
If there is one woman that is proof positive of the power of individual entrepreneurs to make a difference, it is Dr Jennifer Riria. She has singlehandedly transformed the microfinance industry in Kenya in order to tangibly improve the lives of women. Because of her efforts, hundreds of thousands of Kenyan women now have access to finance, previously not available to them, and as a result, are today empowered to live their lives and fulfill their own potential and dreams.
Jennifer’s own remarkable story started in a Kenyan village where she was born the fourth child and fourth daughter in a family of 10 children. Her father worked and lived off the garden and although the family was poor, there were other family members who were even poorer living with them. Each day she would walk the 4km to school in her bare feet, washing out her school dress each night. Her life consisted of schoolwork by day and doing her daily chores in the evening, fetching water, looking after the cows, chopping firewood, helping to cook and looking after the babies. That was her life. She performed well in primary school and, as a result, was offered a place at the prestigious Precious Blood High School in Nairobi which was 700km away from home. She saw it as an opportunity to get on in life and was determined to attend the school, despite her parents being opposed to the idea. She embarked upon her high school career, boarding a bus and carrying only her clean underwear and a clean handkerchief. At the end of high school, however, Jennifer found herself pregnant and a mother, to which her father objected strongly. She did not let her situation stop her education, and with her child went on to study at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where she obtained a scholarship, after which she went on to study for her prestigious masters degree at the University of Leeds in the UK.
On her return to Nairobi, she commenced work on her PhD, taking as her theme a subject close to her heart – women, education and development. Having completed her PhD, she began working on policies to contribute towards child survival among communities in central Kenya, realising along the way that child survival is intrinsically connected to the welfare of the mother. She recognized that the country’s mothers didn’t simply need education just to learn how to read and write, but also how to make a livelihood. Importantly, they also needed to have access to credit finance, to be able to change their lives. This acknowledgement was to define Jennifer’s career path from that point onwards.
It was only after a stint in the United Nations that she took a full step into the world of microfinance. In 1991, Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT), the precursor to today’s Kenya Women Microfinance Bank (KWMB), a subsidiary of Kenya Women Holding, was in a troubled state. Despite her lack of experience in the financial industry, Jennifer bravely took the helm of the company and relentlessly sought education, support and advice from those around her. In those early days, she was the loan officer, the accountant, the auditor – in fact, she did everything. Her advantage in the role was that she had personally experience of knowing what poverty and hunger actually means, and she knew these women needed access to finance to positively change their lives. Under her direction over the years, the bank emerged as a model microfinance institution, achieving its mission and positively impacting the lives of Kenya’s women. In fact, it won the first Women’s World Banking Excellence in Leadership Award launched in 2011. The award recognizes the “role-model” institution in the network that exemplifies both excellence in women leadership and excellence in performance.
Today, Jennifer is the Group CEO of Kenya Women Holding Group working with 900,000 women, mostly in rural Kenya. She is the Kenyan country winner of the 2014 EY World Entrepreneur of the Year award. Her career has been focused on transforming the lives of women – and with them, their families – in her native Kenya. The company has grown substantially during her time at the helm and now 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, a global microfinance network consisting of over 53 MFIs from 30 countries, the Association of Microfinance Institutions, and an initiative focused on strengthening democratic processes in Kenya. Learn more.
Essma Ben Hamida - Co-Founder and Executive Director of Enda Inter-Arabe, Tunisia
Essma Ben Hamida is the co-founder of Enda Inter-Arabe, the first best-practice microfinance institution in Tunisia, launched in 1990. The original business began at Ichkeul National Park, near Bizerte. In 1993, Essma and her co-founder opened a community center at Hay Ettadhamen, the largest poor suburb of Tunis. Through their work with young school dropouts and women through a health education project, the pair discovered a big potential among women to develop income-generating activities, but they had no money to buy raw materials like wool and cloth to begin working. That's how Essma and her co-founder got involved in micro-finance.
Today, with a staff of 1300 working out of 79 branches, Enda serves 270,000 micro-entrepreneurs (70% are women and 35% youth, 40% in rural areas) with a US$150 million loan portfolio and a repayment rate above 99%. In addition to issuing traditional lines of credit, Enda has developed specialized products including education, housing and agriculture loans, and start up loans to help unemployed youth launch their businesses and create jobs. Enda provides business development services such as financial literacy classes, vocational training, marketing and workplace guidance.
During the past 20 years, Enda has contributed to improving the lives of over half a million Tunisians excluded from access to financial services and to creating thousands of jobs. The Mission of Enda Inter-Arabe is to contribute to the financial empowerment of marginalized populations, including women and young people, through a range of quality financial services and promoting entreprenerial culture. The vision is to see financial inclusion of marginalized households, through socially responsible microfinance. Five core values guide all decisions and actions of Enda, because the human being is the main objective of this important social enterprise and the first reason for its success - these values include Service, Integrity and Transparency, Innovation, and Responsibility. Enda offers employees and customers development opportunities; it encourages taking the initiative and helps to instill a sense of community and social commitment; and it ensures equality of opportunity within the institution and the emancipation of women in society as a whole. Learn more.
Victoria Kisyombe, founder of SELFINA - Sero Lease and Finance Limited, Tanzania
Victoria Kisyombe, founder of SELFINA (Sero Lease and Finance Limited), is the inspirational story of the woman who pioneered micro-leasing in Tanzania, empowering a generation of women micropreneurs in the country. Victoria’s incredible journey into entrepreneurship started as a result of a very personal tragedy and the unexpected death of her husband back in 1991. For her and their three young children, life was to change inexorably as she was left to deal with the resulting social and economic challenges facing them. An entrepreneurial approach to life thereafter provided the solution.
When Victoria faced the prospect of providing for her family alone in Tanzania, she was faced with some stark facts - under customary law, his family reclaimed all their marital possessions. She didn’t own property in her own name, she didn’t have any collateral, or indeed a personal credit history with a bank. In fact, she had only one asset to her name – a cow named Sero. Being educated and resourceful out of necessity, she looked to make this sole asset work for her and become a critical source of income. She sold the milk produced by Sero each day and used the income to look after her family and accumulate some savings with which to rebuild her life. That precious cow, Sero, made all the difference in the world to the family.
During this time, Victoria found that her difficult circumstances were not unique, indeed she knew that many women find themselves in similarly tough circumstances, yet often without access to productive assets like Sero to help them through those tough times. In Tanzania, where 33 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and where more than 90 percent of women are not able to own property due to the country’s customary laws, women often struggle to open and grow businesses without the collateral needed to qualify for loans. Many women are considered not creditworthy by financial institutions because they lack tangible collateral assets. This in turn leads to poor financial support and poor access to basic goods and services for women with low incomes. As a result, this exclusion propels many women into a cycle of poverty. Victoria saw an opportunity to find a solution to the restrictions that limit women’s economic participation in the country.
In 2002, she recognized that access to micro-finance for women could be a game changer in the lives of Tanzanian women, so she took on the challenge of redesigning the traditional model of micro-finance to make it work for women. She launched a new business venture, SELFINA (Sero Lease and Finance Limited), named after her first asset, her cow Sero, and began loaning and leasing productive assets to Tanzanian women. These leased assets provided a practical means of women being able to generate their own sustainable income, and over the lease term, eventually owning the assets in their own names. Since then, Victoria has provided 25,000 leases to Tanzanian women, USD $22 million in credit, positively impacted the lives of more than 440,000 people and helped over 200,000 Tanzanians out of poverty. Victoria has designed a business and a financial model that not only meets the needs of her country’s communities, but also has been recognized globally by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank. Learn more.