Victoria Kisyombe – Start up Story Of The Woman Who Pioneered Micro-leasing In Tanzania Empowering A Generation Of Women

Victoria’s incredible journey into entrepreneurship emerged as a result of personal tragedy and the unexpected death of her husband back in 1991. For her and their three young children, life was to change inexorably as she was left to deal with the resulting social and economic challenges facing them. An entrepreneurial approach to life thereafter provided the solution.

 

Originally from Mbeya in the South-West of Tanzania, Victoria’s primary and secondary education took place there before she moved to Kenya to complete her studies. She returned to Tanzania to attend the University of Dar es Salaam, where she completed a bachelor degree in Veterinary Science in 1983. With her degree in hand, she returned to her home of Mbeye to practice as a vet in this largely agricultural community. In 1986 she was awarded a scholarship by Edinburgh University to complete a Masters degree in Veterinary Science, an incredible personal achievement.

“If I can change the life of one person it makes a whole difference because behind that person there is a whole family. It’s a family, it’s a society, it’s Tanzania.”

Yet, just five years later, her life was to take a very different direction following the unexpected death of her husband. When Victoria faced the prospect of providing for her family alone in Tanzania, she was faced with some stark facts – under customary law, his family reclaimed all their marital possessions. She didn’t own property in her own name, she didn’t have any collateral, or indeed a personal credit history with a bank. In fact, she had only one asset to her name – a cow named Sero. Being educated and resourceful out of necessity, she looked to make this sole asset work for her and become a critical source of income. She sold the milk produced by Sero each day and used the income to look after her family and accumulate some savings with which to rebuild her life. That precious cow, Sero, made all the difference in the world to the family.

During this time, Victoria found that her difficult circumstances were not unique, indeed she knew that many women find themselves in similarly tough circumstances, yet often without access to productive assets like Sero to help them through those tough times.

 “I saw that there were other women, other widows—some of them had not been to school like I had been and they were less privileged than I had been—and I thought: ‘How are they managing?’”

In Tanzania, where 33 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and where more than 90 percent of women are not able to own property due to the country’s customary laws, women often struggle to open and grow businesses without the collateral needed to qualify for loans. Many women are considered not creditworthy by financial institutions because they lack tangible collateral assets. This in turn leads to poor financial support and poor access to basic goods and services for women with low incomes. As a result, this exclusion propels many women into a cycle of poverty. Victoria saw an opportunity to find a solution to the restrictions that limit women’s economic participation in the country.  In 2002, she recognized that access to micro-finance for women could be a game changer in the lives of Tanzanian women, so she took on the challenge of redesigning the traditional model of micro-finance to make it work for women. She launched a new business venture, SELFINA (Sero Lease and Finance Limited), named after her first asset, her cow Sero, and began loaning and leasing productive assets to Tanzanian women. These leased assets provided a practical means of women being able to generate their own sustainable income, and over the lease term, eventually owning the assets in their own names. This not only newly empowered these women, but also provided them with critical collateral to qualify them to access traditional  bank finance in the future.

“This is the era for Africa to move forward, and if Africa is moving forward, the women can move forward with it.”

Since those early days of SELFINA back in 2002, Victoria has provided 25,000 leases to Tanzanian women, USD $22 million in credit, positively impacted the lives of more than 440,000 people and helped over 200,000 Tanzanians out of poverty. A repayment rate of 95 percent enables the company to keep growing, and as a result, creates opportunities for more women to empower themselves, build small businesses, and care for their families. SELFINA has been a real catalyst for women’s entrepreneurship in Tanzania, and through its efforts, has been responsible for a substantial number of small women-owned businesses and enterprises. Today, the company leases everything from livestock, farm equipment, office equipment, catering kit, water pumps, sewing machines, milling machines, oil extraction machines, and bicycles, creating in the process women entrepreneurs in all fields of business, from florists and farmers, to caterers and designers. The majority of her clients live in rural areas, and are widows and young women, looking to empower themselves and take control of their own lives. Victoria has designed a business and a financial model that not only meets the needs of her country’s communities, but also has been recognized globally by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank. 

 

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