Small loans change Kenyan women’s lives for the bet­ter

Money is spent on so­lar lamps and rain wa­ter catch­ment tanks to im­prove fam­i­lies’ way of life

African Independent - - BUSINESS - EU­GENE YIGA

MI­CRO-lend­ing is in­creas­ingly im­por­tant in many African coun­tries. And although the in­dus­try strug­gles with crit­i­cism about high in­ter­est rates and lack of data to sup­port its im­pact, small loans can make a big dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives.

“We started with what most peo­ple as­so­ciate with mi­crolend­ing: cash loans,” says Jen Gurecki, founder and board pres­i­dent of mi­cro-lender Zawadisha. “But busi­ness is hard ev­ery­where in the world and most peo­ple fail. This is the same for the women we lent to. They were of­ten switch­ing busi­nesses try­ing to fol­low trends in the mar­ket.”

Gurecki started Zawadisha (“to give a gift” in Swahili) in Kenya as part of a grass­roots project. She be­gan with 10 women she’d met while re­search­ing bot­tom-up ap­proaches to so­cial change and com­mu­nity devel­op­ment for her Mas­ter’s de­gree.

“I used pho­tog­ra­phy as a re­search method­ol­ogy,” she says.

“It’s called Pho­tovoice and it’s a process by which peo­ple can iden­tify, en­hance, and rep­re­sent their own com­mu­ni­ties. It’s a prac­tice based in the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge and the women who I worked with were at the fore­front of cre­at­ing this knowl­edge rather than me as an out­side re­searcher.”

These women were rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Kenyan women Gurecki has met since then. They were ea­ger, bright, and driven. They were clear about what role they could play in up­lift­ing their fam­i­lies. They were com­mit­ted to be­ing the driv­ers of change.

“They wel­comed me as an out­sider and made me feel like fam­ily,” Gurecki says. “To im­prove their lives, they wanted to stand on their own two feet, as they of­ten said then and con­tinue to con­vey to­day.”

Gurecki started mak­ing an­nual trips from the US and now spends two to three months per year in Kenya, a coun­try she con­sid­ers her sec­ond home. But dur­ing her first trip back to east Africa, she saw some of the re­al­i­ties of mi­crolend­ing.

“Not all of them in­vested 100% of the funds into their busi­nesses, which is nor­mal and le­git­i­mate,” she says. “In­stead, we found that a good chunk of that money was used to pur­chase house­hold items.

“I also ob­served first-hand that the nar­ra­tive around up­lift­ing peo­ple from poverty with one loan was flawed. It was at this time that I knew we needed to re­visit our model to bet­ter sup­port these women.”

As Gurecki and her team watched the tra­di­tional mi­crolend­ing in­dus­try boom (and were faced with se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion as a re­sult), they looked for op­por­tu­ni­ties to of­fer ser­vices that would help women but weren’t avail­able to them. They also re­alised that some­times cash loans could be more of a bur­den than a so­lu­tion. In­deed, although all the ini­tial loans were re­paid, Zawadisha learned a lot of what Gurecki de­scribes as “hard lessons that have helped shape what the or­gan­i­sa­tion is to­day”.

“In one of the many con­ver­sa­tions I had with women in ru­ral vil­lages, I learned that what would make an im­me­di­ate change in their lives was ac­cess to lights and wa­ter,” she says. “They wanted so­lar lamps and rain wa­ter catch­ment tanks, but no one would of­fer them on credit, nor could they af­ford the $25-$50 price. So we changed our model with loams for those, and the rest is his­tory.”

Gurecki ex­plains that when ru­ral Kenyan women liv­ing in poverty have ac­cess to re­new­able en­ergy and wa­ter they see a dra­matic increase in the qual­ity of their lives. Money that was spent on kerosene lamps can now go to school fees. And the six hours that were spent walk­ing to a river for wa­ter or into the for­est for wood can now go to in­come-gen­er­at­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

As women be­come re­spon­si­ble for dra­matic changes that ben­e­fit the fam­ily, their sta­tus in the home goes up.

“Be­cause of poor distri­bu­tion and high costs, sim­ple house­hold items like rainwater tanks, clean cook stoves, and so­lar lamps are out of reach to women whose lives de­pend upon them,” Gurecki says.

“We re­move the bar­ri­ers for ru­ral women to ac­cess re­new­able en­ergy and wa­ter prod­ucts by elim­i­nat­ing the up-front costs through an in-house fi­nanc­ing pro­gramme, and de­liver the items di­rectly to their doorsteps. We also em­ploy lo­cal women as peer ed­u­ca­tors who pro­vide fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy, and mi­cro-en­ter­prise and lead­er­ship train­ing to our bor­row­ers.”

For user Khadija, hav­ing con­stant ac­cess to wa­ter has changed ev­ery­thing. The time she used to spend col­lect­ing wa­ter is now used on bead­work and farm­ing, mak­ing life a lot less stress­ful. Janet ex­presses sim­i­lar grat­i­tude: hav­ing ac­cess to a wa­ter tank means she doesn’t have to travel far for wa­ter dur­ing a drought.

“Zawadisha has helped me with new im­proved farm­ing meth­ods,” says Hellen, an­other woman the or­gan­i­sa­tion sup­ports. “Nowa­days I save on buy­ing veg­eta­bles. Also, I sell the ones I don’t use to my neigh­bours and earn money. In our area things are tough be­cause of drought. We need to learn new ways of sur­viv­ing.”

The or­gan­i­sa­tion op­er­ates in Taita Taveta county and Narok in Kenya. It em­ploys a dozen peo­ple and works with nearly 2 000 women. But con­sid­er­ing that each of them uses their “loan” to help their fam­ily, Gurecki be­lieves at least 10 000 peo­ple have ben­e­fited from Zawadisha’s work to date.

“We’re in the early stages of our or­gan­i­sa­tion and this work can be so hard,” she says. “We’re op­ti­mistic about 2017 as we will meet our first quar­ter fundrais­ing and loan distri­bu­tion goals. We aim to increase our port­fo­lio by 100% this year and so far we’re on track.”

“I charge peo­ple’s phones at 10 shillings with my so­lar light,” says Umazi.

“At first I didn’t keep any records but af­ter train­ing on record keep­ing and sav­ing I now save my money and I have saved KSh600 in my MPesa. I am happy.”

“Hav­ing ac­cess to a wa­ter tank helps us not to travel far for wa­ter dur­ing drought times and that time saved is put to­wards eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, such as kiosks, bead­work, farm­ing, and bas­ket weav­ing,” said Janet.

FOUNDER: Board pres­i­dent of Zawadisha, Jen Gurecki, with the chair­ladies.

SEE­ING THE LIGHT: Mary with her so­lar lamp.

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