By Bedah Mengo, Xinhua
The micro-finance sector in Kenya has become synonymous with women as many continue to seek services from the industry that is growing fast in the East African country.
According to the Association of Micro-Finance Institutions (AMFI), there are 52 institutions registered under the umbrella body in Kenya, compared with less than five in the 1990s. Many other organizations are also seeking to be registered.
The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) also said the microfinance sub-sector has achieved tremendous growth in the past decade.
The growth has been attributed to women, who are the chief beneficiaries of loans and other financial services offered by micro-finance institutions.
Joan Mwikali, the leader of a women’s group belonging to Kenya Women Holding (KWH), an offshoot of the micro finance institution that offers them formal banking, told Xinhua that over 90 percent of KWH’s 500,000 members are women.
“Micro-finance institutions deal with groups, not individuals. Women are good in making and staying in groups, whether for social or financial reasons. This has made them become the biggest beneficiaries,” she said.
Therefore, women’s ability to mobilize themselves in groups, according to Mwikali, has seen them edge out men and the youth from the institutions that target small-scale traders.
“I am yet to see a group in KWH in our area which is led by a man. All of them are led by women, though there are some men in the groups,” she said.
“Being in a group demands that one should attend meetings every week and make contributions and when one is in need of a loan, the group will act as the guarantors,” she explained.
The micro-finance model of working with groups, she said, discourages men from seeking services from the institutions.
“Most men would rather go to a bank and take a loan than attend meetings, make contributions for a specific period and thereafter apply for a loan. Men do not have that patience,” she said.
“It is true that women are the sole beneficiaries of micro-finance in Kenya, but that should not be the case. These institutions, whether they bear the word women in their names are to serve all genders,” she said.
It is a similar situation at Small and Micro Enterprise program (SMEP), a micro-finance institution.
An employee of the company in Nyanza province identified as Benson said that most of their clients are women.
“Over 95 percent of people we deal with in the region are women. In some areas, we do not have male clients,” he said.
Benson noted that exclusion of men from micro-finance institutions activities is mainly because of cultural reasons.
“Men want to stand on their own as culture demands. They do not want to be in groups, which micro-finance institutions deal with, because they believe that makes them appear ‘weak’”, he said.
And the fact that the institutions over the years have taken a feminine look has not helped matters for men.
“I once went to talk to a group of men at a village meeting to appeal to them to join our institution, apply for loans and start businesses but they dismissed me. They told me micro-finance is a women’s thing,” he said.
Mwikali said that women’s dominance of the institutions has also been brought about by years of financial seclusion and desire to become financially independent.
“Women in Kenya started to form groups where they contributed money and gave each other on a rotational basis even before micro-finance organizations sprouted up. This was to help them gain financial independence,” she said.
“So when microfinance institutions started, it was easier to work with the groups, which is why women have dominated the sector,” she added.
The World Bank also notes the institutions are helping African women get involved in building their countries’ economies as they engage in income-generating activities to support their families.
It is estimated that women comprise 74 percent of the 20 million people being served by micro-finance institutions around the world.
At the same time, a rise in the number of institutions has helped to improve access to financial services in the sector, from 1.7 percent in 2006 to about 10 percent currently.
To spur growth in the industry, CBK changed its laws to allow the institutions take deposits, acting as banks, and mobilize savings.
As in June this year, the institutions had opened 44 branches across the East African nation. The number of borrowers with loans from the institutions was close to one million.