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Jennifer Riria, the chief executive of Kenya’s largest microfinance institution, grew up in a village at the top of Mount Kenya, the second-tallest mountain in Africa. Her birth was cause for disappointment: the fourth of her parents’ daughters. Her father abused her mother, and she grew up watching women carry firewood, water, food and children — a fate she pleaded every night to God would not be hers. Living on top of the mountain, she learned of the scope of its magnitude and its beauty only when she left the village.
That woman now runs Kenya Women Holding, which provides financial and other services to women. One of Africa’s foremost entrepreneurs, Riria thinks that peace and business go together and that a stable future depends on securing women’s rights, safety and participation in the economy. A Ph.D. in women, education and development, Riria won the 2013 East Africa Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and was board chair of Women’s World Banking for two terms until October 2016.
Riria credits Women’s World Banking, a global nonprofit network dedicated to women’s finance, conceived during the 1975 First World Conference on Women, for providing her with the financial knowledge that enabled her to turn Kenya Women Holding into a success. Through Women’s World Banking, Riria attended courses in microfinance and visited countries in Asia and Latin America. There, she saw how other members of the network were supporting women’s economic potential. Could the success stories of Bangladesh, for example, be applied to Kenya?
“Sisterhood is global,” Riria said in an interview. “And the challenges that women face, in Latin America, in Africa, in the US — they are the same. They might be of varying degrees, but women [everywhere] need to feel comfortable, they need to be helped to look at themselves as human beings first.”
Still, the world has rich and diverse cultural contexts, with different expectations about women’s roles. But Riria points out that communities start with women: “Any society, any organization that does not consider women as part and parcel will not succeed. Whether it’s politics, the home, anywhere — women are the stabilizing factor.”
Riria credits her organization’s success to its community-driven character. It has 236 field offices throughout the country, working with clients on how the organization supports individuals and generates a ripple effect for the wider community. The organization, she said, “serves families through women.”
“We identify a woman in the family through whom we can provide access,” she added.
Through organizations like hers, Kenyans have learned that women can prosper in business. The phrase “women are bankable” is now heard everywhere in Kenya, and today, most banks provide products for women. Those doors weren’t always open.
In 1992, Riria sought two million Kenyan shillings (about $20 million) to create loans for women. A male banker said: “Jennifer, do you want your women with their baskets to crowd my counters? Never!”
She left the bank, feeling angry. In the street, she collected herself and walked into a second bank. There, a man she had never met, who was in charge of small and medium enterprises, asked her why she was so upset. Riria explained the situation, and he asked her what she could show him to support the loan request. That day, she went back to the office and ran numbers with consultants until she was able to guarantee the loan. The bank gave her the money.
When hiring people, Kenya Women Holding looks not only at skill but also for a willingness to work amid difficulties. “What we do is very difficult, in very difficult terrains. [Staff] deal with cultures that are really difficult,” Riria said.
Serving people, she said, “requires sacrifice,” and turnover can be high at the entry level, as young people fresh out of college are eager to make a difference but unaware that it takes struggle.
One staff member was attacked when her team went to collect money from clients. She survived 24 stab wounds. Another died in a biking accident while working in a rural area where bikes are the only form of transportation.
“For me,” she said, “that is the lowest day — when a staff member dies.”
But the rewards are incredible. “High moments are when a woman walks up to me and tells me, if it was not for Kenya Women, my children would never have gone to school,” she said. “You just cry because you are so happy.”
Their experiences have taught Riria and her staff lessons that can help those at national and international levels to better understand how to secure women’s rights and economic progress together. Riria urges people to consider how to use technology to reach rural women. “Women can’t come from the rural areas to the banks. That’s why our network is so large — we want to be where the women are.”
But money, she said, is not enough. Banks do not provide people with entrepreneurship training nor the legal education required to run a business. And women face more obstacles that men do, including violence and a lack of knowledge about their rights. Many sexist barriers hinder well-intentioned legislation and policies that seek to provide economic opportunities for women.
Riria described a case she has encountered among her clients. A woman with a thriving business that is supporting her family, is forced out by her husband, who tells her to leave, and brings a new woman into his life who will also run her business. A man can take another wife. While the first wife may own the business, in practice cultural norms strip her of her rights.
“You need a woman to say: I will not keep quiet about this. I will go to the law to enforce my rights,” Riria said. But women also need the support of institutions to handle complex legal issues and judicial processes.
Worldwide, financial systems have yet to adjust to enable women to participate fully. It is not as simple as teaching women the skills to be an entrepreneur or providing them with technology. Yet because the system is still largely dominated by men and policymakers discuss women’s rights apart from economic objectives, there are not enough conversations on how to tackle these issues at once.
A study by the McKinsey & Company research group found that advancing women’s rights would lead to $12 trillion in global economic growth, with large gains for both developed and developing countries. Improving women’s rights so that their roles in labor markets are identical to men’s would mean as much as an additional $26 trillion, or a 26 percent growth, in annual gross domestic product by 2025.
To get to that point, sexist attitudes, gender-based violence and discrimination throughout institutions, cultures and society must be confronted to ensure that the world can realize its economic potential.