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Economy

Informal Banking Helps Kenyan Women Find Financial Autonomy

These informal banks in Kenya help women acquire financial stability, to help them take control of their income.

Women in Bubisa, Kenya
Women in Bubisa, Kenya
Dominic Kirui

BUBISA —​ Orge Konchora always wanted her children to get an education, but her husband's modest salary as a driver wouldn't cover school fees —and she knew she had to help out. Although the family also had some livestock, the animals were owned entirely by her husband and most died during a drought. This meant the couple had to make an extra effort to pay for the schools and meet their household expenses.

This was not easy for the 53-year-old mother of two because in the Gabra community from which she hails — as in many of the communities that inhabit Kenya"s dry north — a woman is not allowed to own any property, be it land or livestock.

So Konchora joined one of the savings groups started by some of the women from her village, and from other nearby villages, to help them take control of their income. As a result, both of her children are now at university in Nairobi.

20% of Kenya's population does not have access to a financial institution.

"Life was tough. I was lucky to be living near the highway, so I could make and sell tea and bread to the Chinese constructors who were building the Nairobi-Moyale highway. But that came and went. Now I am always in business and can pay my children's school fees even when my husband is struggling financially," Konchora says.

When they started the group, the women were taught basic literacy and business skills for two years by a group mentor. After two years, the women were left to stand on their own and run their businesses.

Some 20% of Kenya's population does not have access to a financial institution or a mobile money provider; two-thirds of these are women. Still, the picture is improving. The 2017 World Bank Global Findex database shows that 1.2 billion adults have obtained an account since 2011, 515 million of them since 2014. Between 2014 and 2017, the share of adults who have an account with a financial institution or through a mobile money service rose globally from 62 to 69%. In developing economies, the share rose from 54 to 63%. Yet women in developing economies remain 9 percentage points less likely than men to have a bank account. The database indicates the reasons why financial access remains difficult for rural women: illiteracy, lower levels of education, lack of land ownership, and sociocultural restrictions on agency and mobility.

Kenyan women participating in a tailoring class — Photo: Sun Ruibo/Xinhua/ZUMA

In the scheme for which Konchora signed up, women come together as a group; they agree to a maximum 15 members, three of whom form a core group to start the business, which they run as a partnership. The 15 women then start saving money and can borrow for any emergency or to expand their own individual businesses. They agree to return any borrowed money with 10% interest within three months. In addition, the women contribute monthly to buy shares within the savings group.

This ensures the women, most of who have no bank account, can enjoy a financial service that they manage themselves. They are also able to own property and have access to money of their own without having to depend on their husbands or travel hundreds of miles to the formal banks in the town of Marsabit.

Each group also has a constitution. Any delay in loan repayment attracts a penalty. If someone is caught talking during a meeting, they are fined 20 shillings ($0.20). According to Bordakhane Sujo, the chairwoman of the Bakaal Savings Group in the village of Loglogo, this ensures discipline and commitment among the members. There are also two money counters in every group who are responsible for confirming the amount of money in their savings before a meeting starts.

Meshack Omarre, the regional manager at BOMA Project, an NGO that works to empower women and girls throughout the northern dry lands of Kenya and part of Uganda, says these would usually be the poorest and least empowered women in the region due to the strong cultural beliefs held by the communities, "But," he says, these informal community banks are changing that, slowly but surely.

"Here, a woman is likened to a sheep, regarded as not knowing anything. You will also find in remote areas that they even agree with the men who call them that," says Omarre. "But this is gradually changing. Men are accepting that they cannot meet the daily cost of running the family alone and they need their wives."

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Society

Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*

-Essay-

When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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