Gender and Development in Africa

Gender as an issue concerns the entire humanity and challenges every society and culture although it varies on political, cultural, economic and religious grounds. Bertrand Tietcheu describes the debate on the issue of gender in Africa as always being tense and critical where most men, antipathetic to any debate on it, will more likely adopt a defensive stance – viewing it as a means for women to attack and overtake them. In this context gender in Africa relates to power-seeking and the need for societal control.

Over the years, great Kenyan women have bravely undergone difficult and humiliating conditions to fight for equality and participation in politics. One such woman was Prof. Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. In her memoir, Unbowed, Wangari quips that for a woman to feature in politics, she must have a skin as thick as that of an elephant.  Her story is one of triumph despite the challenges of a political system that favors men to a great extent. Like other women, the odds against her were lack of finances, socio-cultural perceptions, propaganda wars and criticisms. It’s also important to note that countries which have strong tribal allegiances (such as Kenya) have a more acute corruption problem since money and important jobs are given to allies of the ruling class. Albeit the description of politics as a ‘dirty game’ by many a prominent Kenyan politicians, it is also largely a ‘money game’ which actually locks out a huge percentage of women who are more economically disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts.

Other women who have over the years made significant contributions to democracy and equality in Africa and have demonstrated sound political leadership include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, Ms. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former Deputy President of South Africa and Ms. Luisa Diogo, former Prime Minister of Mozambique. It really therefore comes as no surprise when World Bank establishes in one of its policy research reports – Engendering Development – that greater women’s rights and more equal participation in public life by women and men are associated with cleaner business and government and better governance. It has also been shown also that where the influence of women in public life is greater, the level of corruption is lower and that indeed women can be an effective force for rule of law and good governance.

More good news is that since 1990, Africa has had more critical analyses of societal issues such as human rights violations, violence against women and good governance being addressed more publicly. Globalization has had a huge hand in shifting Africa’s socio-cultural arena by introducing new social values and cultural trends. For instance, following the Fourth World Women’s Conference that was held in Beijing, Kenya adopted the quota system in increasing the number of women in decision making by integrating them in more elective and non-elective public posts. In 2002, there were only nine women out of the two hundred and twenty members of parliament. In the previous 10th parliament the ratio of women to men had risen to 1:12 and now with the adoption of the new constitution, the representation of women in the august house stands at around twenty one percent.

Despite these advancements, there’s still a lot to be done by women in taking collective action on mechanisms that will ensure a higher and more equal representation in Parliament.

Counting days to my return to NYC

The week in Nairobi has been characterized by changing weather patterns – ranging from stormy rains on Wednesday to beautiful sunny days like today’s – which I’m enjoying!

The Saturday talk at Strathmore University went very well. I had initially thought that I would run out of material or things to say but the discussion on how education contributes to the economic, social and political development of Kenya was very interesting and interactive. We had excellent representation from different Kenyan Universities such as Maseno, Jomo Kenyatta International University and Kenyatta University. One of things that the participants were curious to know of was how I managed to get over the culture shock when I first arrived in the US. I admitted to at first being reserved but the American culture which encourages expression quickly caught up and of course family and new friends made it much easier.

I am now officially counting days to my return  although I still have some pending research business. Peter, my co-researcher, will still be working on  IDRC research focused on land tenure issues at Mukuru slum area in Nairobi after I’m gone. He offered to include some of my questions on the residents’ levels of income and saving patterns in his research tools. I will still be following up on this after I get back.

Have a lovely weekend!

A Talk on Leadership at Strathmore University

If you have been keeping up with international news you probably have heard  of the fire which destroyed the international arrivals terminal at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Wednesday this week. It is very sad and shocking given that fifteen years ago, on the same day, a series of terrorist attacks occurred in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania in which hundreds of people were killed. Investigations as to the cause of the dreadful fire are underway with the Kenyan Police and Criminal Investigation Department being aided by the FBI. Despite the inconvenience caused and revenue lost by planes diversion to the Mombasa and Eldoret airports in Kenya and Kilimanjaro and Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, Kenyans are relieved that no one was killed. The mood in the city and country is generally calm as citizens await the findings from the investigation as to the cause of the fire.

On a more optimistic note, I traveled to Faraja Children’s home in Murang’a, in Central Kenya county, last week for the second time this summer and was accompanied by my close friend and former colleague, Muthoni Ng’ang’a. We made it on time to have dinner with the children and go through some of the books that we had brought along with us. We also spent Sunday morning with them and traveled back to Nairobi on Sunday.

On Monday, I received an invitational email from Strathmore University’s Student Council to participate in a Leadership Seminar where I will be making an hour’s presentation on Leading Academically. I intend to focus not so much on ‘how to achieve academic leadership’ but on the importance of academics to the social, political and economic well being of Kenyans and the role played by education in poverty eradication.

It’s a sad day when education is merely thought of as a means to the end of securing a job and where rote learning is implicitly encouraged and enforced in schools just to pass exams. In line with is and in the course of preparing for the presentation, I ran across the following thought provoking quote from a research report written on the Evaluation and Profile of Education in Kenya,

‘Kenya’s education system has not been able to tailor its contents to the socioeconomic and cultural realities of the people capable of developing local solutions for local problems. Instead it continues to uphold an education system that is centered around schooling rather than learning, consequently producing a people who consistently look to Europe for models of development that matches their own social and physical environment’ Ntrangwi M

Kenya’s education system is criticized on the bases of administration structures, the quality and relevance of curriculum, cost of providing education and its ability to develop citizens who are socially, politically and economically well informed. The current 8-4-4 system (eight years of primary education, four of secondary and four of tertiary) overloads the students and teachers alike. The system is also highly elitist and very competitive, picking only the best. It has not been successful in imparting the key values of democracy.

Though I will not lay the 8-4-4 burden on the student leaders, given that they are probably more of casualties of the system (as I was), I will stress on our part as leaders who will influence Kenya’s education policy in the future and the role we would have to play as agents of change in attitudes and values that have a bearing on the economic development of our country.

Does access to low cost finance translate to poverty alleviation?

Last week Friday, Rachel Ruto, wife of the Deputy President of Kenya, William Ruto met with women groups from Narok county and urged them to form saving groups and take bank loans in order to improve their living standards. Limited access to information on credit opportunities was quoted as being the main cause of missing out on funds by about ninety percent of women in rural areas. She further noted that only women groups in urban areas seek credit from revolving fund kitties such as the Women Enterprise and Youth Funds because ‘they access information and know how to make business proposals.’ However, my study on micro-finance institutions (MFIs) and their collaboration with the Kenyan government in the disbursement of Women and Youth Funds seems to indicate that the problem is more deeply rooted or at least not as simple as suggested.

I recently interviewed Shiro, a former Jamii Bora Bank[1] Loans Officer and she affirmed that the government does offer low interest funds through MFIs however the exercise is intermittent and most importantly the supply of these funds does not match their demand. Well, this is quite understandable given the ten percentage point difference between the interest rates on loans from MFIs and the government’s revolving funds. So how do urban women access information on these funds? Mainly through government pronouncements in leading newspaper media and through MFI loan officers. Should urban women be more advantaged than the rural ones? Yes, to the extent that they can read and can spare Ksh.50 (about $0.6) to purchase a newspaper – which really does not account for the difference in the revolving fund loan applications. The women in the urban areas to which these funds are geared are also poor and have very little formal education, if any. So how will poor women be trained not only to write winning business proposals but more importantly, to translate the loans borrowed into improved businesses and profits in order to ultimately lift their socioeconomic status?

Most MFIs state their mission as existing for the purpose of giving poor people access to credit. However, it’s widely accepted and known that their ultimate goal is poverty alleviation. The institutions make the assumption that building strong financial institutions for poor clients will eventually lift them out of poverty. However, there is a palpable gap between accessing the finance needed to start up a business and creating a successful one.  According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review[2] , the latter requires MFIs to provide financial education, management training, value chain support and social services in addition to the services offered by the traditional financial institutions. This would shift MFI’s focus from tracking outcomes that are not in tandem with their ultimate goal such as loan repayment rates and loan sizes (rendering them no different from the commercial banks) to health, nutrition, housing and education improvements.

Economic pressures and the need to be financially sustainable have seen MFIs such as Jamii Bora develop into institutional-centered outfits as opposed to being client-centered. Prior to March 2010 that is, when Jamii Bora became a full-fledged bank, it offered its borrowers and their dependants health insurance covers at the subsidized deposit amount of Ksh.1,200 per year or Ksh. 30 ($0.35) per week. This service has since been scraped off. Undoubtedly, there are numerous advantages of the growth from a trust/MFI to bank status, such as access to higher loan amounts by clients; however, to the majority of the population, even the minimum is not attainable. Jamii Bora Bank had to lower its minimum loan level amount from Ksh. 100,000 ($1,176) to half of that because its clients could not service the higher amount.

So is the problem solved by access to information on low cost credit and knowing how to write powerful business proposals?

I don’t think so.

[1] Jamii Bora Bank was initiated as a charitable trust in the year 1999 by 50 street families who were seeking to solve their financial problems. Ingrid Munro and a number of Swedish investors were its founders.


Of KWFT, Women and Savings

Last week was quite eventful for me. On Thursday, 18th I visited Kayole Estate, an upgraded slum area in the Eastlands of Nairobi where I met nine women registered in a savings group by the name ‘Mukaki’ under the Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT). KWFT is a micro-finance institution established by Kenyan women which offers services to low-income Kenyan women only. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in partnership with the Belgian Survival Fund, has been KWFT’s major donor since 1992. Other donors include UNDP and the Ford Foundation.

Set with their constitution and designated officials (chairlady and treasurer), groups such as Mukaki can now access loans that are five times their total saving. In every monthly meeting, the ladies service their loans and save an extra Ksh. 1,100 (about $18).

What I found most intriguing about this particular savings group was their use of m-pesa (mobile-phone based money transfer and micro-financing service) to service loans and make deposits directly into their KWFT accounts citing insecurity issues as their main motivator for using the mode of payment. In addition, the treasurer of the group pointed out that tracing the trail of the amounts deposited and their auditing was made much easier through m-pesa as opposed to transacting with cash.

Some of members of KWFT have advanced through many loan cycles, created bigger businesses and have taken out much larger loans. However, most of the trust’s borrowers are poor women. For instance, for the Mukaki group, the highest loan taken was about $500 while the least was for about $50.

It is said that one of the keys to KWFT’s success is its very clear message that all loans must be repaid on time. If any group member has an overdue balance, all new disbursements to the group are stopped immediately. With this kind of group responsibility or liability, it’s no wonder that KWFT boasts a financial self-sufficiency ratio of over 105 per cent since 2006 – meaning that the trust is no longer overly dependent on grants to cover its financial and operating expenses.

Groups such as Mukaki enforce the group responsibility concept by using each member’s house assets as security and by all members acting as guarantors to the group loan. Each member is allowed to take an individual loan but the amount has to be vetted by the entire group and is in most cases granted on a pro-rata basis with regards to the level of savings held by the borrower.   

The ability to access savings through ATMs and do mobile banking at will, has not only empowered women in places like Kayole but has also boosted their self-esteem. Women savings groups also bolster their welfare especially during tragic times such as the death of family members/bread winners or during hospitalization of their members, given that women living in poverty can barely raise the premiums required to take health insurance.

On Friday, I also attended an International Development Research Center (IDRC) Partners’ Meeting that was hosted by Akiba Mashinani Trust and got to meet with lawyers from a group known as Katiba Kenya (translated Constitution of Kenya) which is currently researching on land tenure issues in Kenya’s informal settlements. I also met with fellow researchers and professors from Nairobi University.

The highlight of my week howeverImage was the visit to Faraja Childrens’ Home – an orphanage which houses twenty seven children situated in Murang’a, Central Kenya on Saturday. I learnt and played the monopoly game and had lots of fun with the children. Although the change of scenery and the very fresh air with lots of trees was definitely welcome, I had to travel back to Nairobi the next day.

Diffusing negative health and social repercussions of crowding half a city’s population on 1.5% of total land area

Last week Wednesday I met Jane Weru, Kingsley Kariuki and Joel Mwaniki of Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT). All set up with my interview questions and well on my way to Hurlingham Nairobi, I received a call from Peter that AMT had moved offices since the last time we visited them last summer! Luckily their new abode was not too far from the old one so I made it on time for the meeting. Phew!

At a time when urban poor housing in Kenya is on the brink and given the estimate that over half of Kenya’s urban population, which is about 3.9 million people, live in slums, organizations such as AMT seem to be the very practical light at the end of a long and dark tunnel.

Below is an excerpt from a narrative that I am currently writing using information gained first-hand from the AMT officials.


Akiba Mashinani Trust was officially incorporated in 2007 by Pamoja Trust and ‘Muungano wa Wanavijiji’ /  Federation of Slum Dwellers and by the year 2010 was completely independent of Pamoja Trust. The organization was initially set up as an appendage of the Huruma Upgrading Project and had “Kambi Moto”– a Swahili name that literally translates to a camp on fire – as one of its very first projects.  One of the major challenges characteristic of slums globally is the lack of proper sanitation facilities. Kambi moto project in Huruma was charged with the building of thirty toilets at a time where ‘flying toilets’ were rampant in the slum areas of Nairobi.

In explaining just how bad the situation was before the construction of proper toilets was done, co-founder of AMT Kingsley Kariuki detailed, “The refuse thrown would land on the roofs of the shacks made up mostly of iron sheets. Then when the rainy season came, it would spill from the roofs into the pathways and homes of the residents. Of course, this always translated into debilitating health issues.” 

A long standing goal of the philanthropic organization is filling the gap in urban financing by providing an affordable alternative source of finance to what the market offers.  In line with this, co-founder Jane Weru spoke of how some community members in Timau, Nakuru could not believe that the only cost they would have to incur in order to be members of an AMT savings scheme would be the cost of a passbook – which is about half a dollar or the cost of buying a simple note book! Such skepticism is justified by huge hidden costs and high interest charges ubiquitous in Kenyan banks and (worse still!) micro-finance institutions that are championed as leaders in offering cheaper loans to Kenyans.  

For an individual to access AMT loans, they just need to be members of a registered savings scheme/group where they participate by saving any amount that they comfortably can on a daily basis. The saving scheme has to have proper leadership and a documented constitution to guide its undertakings. While banks charge around 24% for individual loans, AMT members can access funds at an interest rate of 8% with only 20% of the proposed project cost acting as collateral. The repayment on loans is then ploughed back into the organization’s revolving fund.

How AMT works

AMT works closely with Muungano wa Wanavijiji in the mobilization of savings schemes and in recruitment of the savers. In the form of intangible products, AMT organizes for the technical support needed in its housing projects such as liaising with architects for quality but lower priced architectural designs, helping with the procurement of building licenses and permits from Nairobi City Council and in the payment of the necessary legal fees.

AMT’s tangible products are categorized into three: Housing, Welfare and In-sitting construction sites. Through its housing products, AMT facilitates project financing such as land purchase, the management of construction and building capacity of its members.  The philanthropic organization offers livelihood loans geared mainly towards boosting small businesses within the communities that it serves. It also negotiates with insurance firms to provide affordable health insurance covers for its members. 

At a time when Kenya is encumbered with tribalism, AMT stands out as an organization that brings together all Kenyans as it has proper representation in various regions of the country such as Mombasa (Coastal area), Kisumu, Athi River and Nakuru.

The organization is funded mainly by grants from international organizations such as the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and International Development Research Center (IDRC).

Where do I go from here?

From a sample of the savings portfolio held by AMT, I realized that the organization is limited in terms of the data that it has on its savers. Although well furnished with information on its saving groups it lacks some particulars on the individual members e.g.the number of dependants per saver and the average annual income amount/expenses incurred.  Hopefully, Peter, Lillian and I will obtain such information directly from the Federation of Slum Dwellers and from a visit of the residents of Mukuru slums scheduled for the last week of August.



My Kenyan Research Journey so far…

I left New York’s lovely weather on the eighteenth of June and was welcomed into Nairobi’s cold June weather – referred to as the ‘ Kenyan winter’ by the locals on the next day. The first week was used up mainly in establishing contacts and meeting dates with my research team members; Peter Magati, an MA (Econ) candidate at the University of Nairobi and Lillian Ollows, a PhD fellow from the Gordon Institute of Business at the University of Pretoria, South Africa – both lecturers at Strathmore University.

Although working at different capacities, our group’s main objective is to research on Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT) Group, a financing facility for the Kenyan Federation of Slum Dwellers. Peter is more interested in matters concerning land ownership and security of tenure, Lillian is working on personal financial management while I’m more into how women in organized savings groups and working in collaboration with organizations such as AMT are able to realize objectives such as the upgrading of their homes and tuition fee payments for their children.

Experience has so far taught me that one can never really over estimate:

1. The time needed to set appointments that actually materialize and

2. The procedures that need to be undertaken before undertaking research that involves human subjects.

Although both are time and energy consuming, they are well worth the effort and one gets to learn quite a bit!

Second week in Kenya, I was still working on the questionnaire, interview and focus group discussion questions that we would use for data collection and getting them approved by the Institutional Review Board at Fordham University. My team members and I also worked on syncing our questions to avoid duplicity and ensure efficiency in as far as the interviewing and focus group time was concerned.

Also before embarking on the data collection, our group needed to fill up and submit a certain ‘Form A’  which is an application for authority to conduct research in Kenya and a requirement by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology. This was done successfully on Wednesday last week and we finally got our green light! 

As I waited for feedback from AMT, I got to meet Mrs. Margareth Ndegwa, a Child Volunteer Officer and a leader of one of the women’s savings groups at a slum area called Kanguruwe in Nairobi on the third week of my stay in Kenya. I have so far managed to set up a meeting with her group on the eighteenth of this month. I will also be meeting officials of the government supported Kenyan Women Federation Trust fund and Jamii Bora bank (which works almost like AMT) next week.

Finally, tomorrow at 10:45am Peter, Lillian and I will be meeting Kingsley Mucheke, the co-founder of AMT at their Hurlingham Office. We were actually lucky to get him at the time since both he and Jane Weru (the other founder of AMT) will soon be travelling to Russia to receive the Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize – which according to the award criteria – is given to those who demonstrate remarkable leadership, creativity and results in developing philanthropy for progressive social change in an emerging market or country.