If there is one woman that is proof positive of the power of individual entrepreneurs to make a difference, it is Dr Jennifer Riria. She has singlehandedly transformed the microfinance industry in Kenya in order to tangibly improve the lives of women. Because of her efforts, hundreds of thousands of Kenyan women now have access to finance, previously not available to them, and as a result, are today empowered to live their lives and fulfill their own potential and dreams.
Jennifer’s story starts in a Kenyan village where she was born the fourth child and fourth daughter in a family of 10 children. Her father worked and lived off the garden and although the family was poor, there were other family members who were even poorer living with them. Each day she would walk the 4km to school in her bare feet, washing out her school dress each night. Her life consisted of schoolwork by day and doing her daily chores in the evening, fetching water, looking after the cows, chopping firewood, helping to cook and looking after the babies. That was her life. She performed well in primary school and, as a result, was offered a place at the prestigious Precious Blood High School in Nairobi which was 700km away from home. She saw it as an opportunity to get on in life and was determined to attend the school, despite her parents being opposed to the idea. She embarked upon her high school career, boarding a bus and carrying only her clean underwear and a clean handkerchief. At the end of high school, however, Jennifer found herself pregnant and a mother, to which her father objected strongly. She did not let her situation stop her education, and with her child went on to study at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where she obtained a scholarship, after which she went on to study for her prestigious masters degree at the University of Leeds in the UK. On her return to Nairobi, she commenced work on her PhD, taking as her theme a subject close to her heart – women, education and development. Having completed her PhD, she began working on policies to contribute towards child survival among communities in central Kenya, realising along the way that child survival is intrinsically connected to the welfare of the mother. She recognized that the country’s mothers didn’t simply need education just to learn how to read and write, but also how to make a livelihood. Importantly, they also needed to have access to credit finance, to be able to change their lives. This acknowledgement was to define Jennifer’s career path from that point onwards. But before she became the advocate for women’s economic empowerment that she is known as today, Jennifer taught at Kenyatta University in Kenya for ten years. It was only after a subsequent stint in the United Nations that she took a full step into the world of microfinance.
“We take financing and products to the poor people in the villages. They do not come to us, and what poor people need is not big money. but it is access to it and that is what micro finance has been able to do.”
In 1991, Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT), the precursor to today’s Kenya Women Microfinance Bank (KWMB), a subsidiary of Kenya Women Holding, was in a troubled state. Despite her lack of experience in the financial industry, Jennifer bravely took the helm of the company and relentlessly sought education, support and advice from those around her. In those early days, she was the loan officer, the accountant, the auditor – in fact, she did everything. Her advantage in the role was that she had personally experience of knowing what poverty and hunger actually means, and she knew these women needed access to finance to positively change their lives. Under her direction over the years, the bank emerged as a model microfinance institution, achieving its mission and positively impacting the lives of Kenya’s women. In fact, it won the first Women’s World Banking Excellence in Leadership Award launched in 2011. The award recognizes the “role-model” institution in the network that exemplifies both excellence in women leadership and excellence in performance.
“Over the last 24 years we have reached to more than 2.3 million women and their families. We have disbursed over 1.3 billion Kenyan shillings. We have products that address the concerns of women, that address survival.”
To cap what has been an incredible career to date, in 2014, Jennifer launched her autobiography at a dazzling event at the Fairview Hotel in Nairobi. She also launched a straight-shooting book she authored titled: ‘A History of Higher Education in Kenya’. It spells out the weaknesses of the country’s higher education system and the problems this has generated.