MURANG’A COUNTRY, Kenya – Grace Ndegwa has been struggling to make ends since her husband died in 2003. With two sons to care for, Ndegwa spends her days working the one-acre parcel of land where she grows tea, coffee and vegetables. The proceeds from her farm in Murang’a County, 45 miles (72 km) from Nairobi, are hardly enough to feed her children and pay for their school fees.“I am always under pressure to raise enough money for my family. It has become more painful now my teenage boys are in high school and ask for money, which I don’t have,” she says.
For 15 years, as she worked just to put food on the table, Ndegwa has been driven by the dream of one day starting a “meaningful” business. In a few months, she might finally reach that goal when she becomes a landlord in a country where only around six percent of women own any land.
“Some women scorned us, accusing us of not finding better ways to invest our money. Today, the same women are joining the SACCO in droves.”
Ndegwa is one of 25,000 members of the Murang’a County Women SACCO (MCWS), a five-year-old savings and credit cooperative that decided to break with tradition when it came to funding women’s businesses. Instead of members putting their money into each others’ smallhold farms and personal enterprise, the traditional model for savings groups, MCWS decided to invest in real estate.
Collecting their savings, which were sometimes as little as $0.10 per day, the group’s members managed to raise $1 million to build a five-storey apartment building. Due to open in September, the apartments should bring in enough rent to give the women of the MCWS the financial muscle they need to branch out into other businesses.
“This building has created many opportunities for me,” Ndegwa says. “I will now be in a position to improve my credit worthiness and be able to access bigger loans from banks or SACCOs, which will help me invest into other income-generating ventures.”
Seeing a Bright Future
To fill their 102-room apartment block, the women of MCWS are relying on Kenya’s booming university student population.
In Murang’a, like in many other towns in Kenya, demand for housing has soared as universities and other tertiary institutions crop up to meet the demand for higher education.
The most recent data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that between 2007 and 2013, university student enrolment increased by 78.2 percent at private universities and 107.6 percent at public universities. That rise has been fueled by investment in education infrastructure. In 2002, there were six public universities and six private universities. Now, the country has 18 private and 53 public universities.
“We learned that Murang’a University College’s next intake will see the number of students double …
After we realized the magnitude of the housing problem in the county, we decided to invest in student hostels.”
“We learned that Murang’a University College’s next intake will see the number of students double from the current 2,500,” MCWS chairwoman Rose Wathigo says. “After we realized the magnitude of the housing problem in the county, we decided to invest in student hostels.”
At full capacity, the building can house 408 people, and should generate over $10,000 per month in rent. With that money, the MCWS is planning to buy 2,000 acres of land in neighboring Laikipia County and then divide it between all of the members. Some want to use the land to start commercial enterprises, others to venture into farming. But for all of them, it means the chance to overcome the cultural and financial limitations that prevent so many women in the country from owning land.
“We are now seeing a bright future,” says group member Margret Wanjiku. “The SACCO is helping us achieve what we could not have managed individually.”
As well as giving its members the opportunity to become landowners, the cooperative also offers the women a chance at decent work – as manual laborers.
Tapping into government tenders that earmark 30 percent of all county procurement budgets for special interest groups including women, young people and persons with disabilities, MCWS has worked on various construction projects and poured some of the profits into their new apartment building.
One of the most recent was a $300,000 road rehabilitation contract the women secured last year. The women earn $5 a day to work on the MCWS contracts, doing jobs such as bush clearing, digging trenches and mixing concrete.
“Working for MCWS contracts has helped me earn extra income,” says member Cecilia Njeru.
The Risk and the Reward
By making big investments and focusing on building sustainable livelihoods, the members of MCWS have been able to save money and access credit at affordable rates, benefits that few women in Kenya enjoy.
Ndegwa, the farmer, says before the SACCO was formed, women in the county – like those in the other parts of the country – used to invest in merry-go-round savings groups locally known as chamas. In these groups, all the members would pitch in their money and then each member, in turn, would take all the savings to spend on small business resources or everyday expenses.
“It’s sad that, over the years, the women’s contributions were only used to buy [things like] household utensils,” Ndegwa says. The financial power the members get from the SACCO is “incomparable” to the system they had before it, she adds.
The success of MCWS has attracted attention from other women’s groups across the country. The cooperative has accepted invitations from seven other counties to teach women how to start similar SACCOs.
For the women of MCWS, the recognition validates their decision to break from the familiar small-scale funding that SACCOs are known for and put their money into a real estate project that many considered too risky.
“Even as we struggled to raise $0.10 in savings a day, some women scorned us, accusing us of not finding better ways to invest our money,” says Wanjiku. “Today, the same women are joining the SACCO in droves.”