It’s kind of the norm for women-focused savings group to mobilise efforts towards promoting the small-scale ventures of its members, but one Kenyan women’s cooperative group appears to be rewriting the narrative and treading paths that could be thought of as uncharted territory, especially for such groups.
The Murang’a County Women SACCO (MCWS) is breaking from the norm. Instead of towing the usual line which entails making meagre contributions to support the small-scale ventures of its members, the group has gone one better by pulling those ‘meagre’ resources together towards accomplishing a project that would have been thought unachievable if it hadn’t been pulled off.
When women cooperative societies come to mind, it is quite common to picture a group of small-time female entrepreneurs and local housewives who come together on set dates to discuss problems concerning their immediate societies and make small contributions towards supporting each other’s businesses or households. That is to say, most women cooperative groups concern themselves with helping its members through contributions that are distributed to members in turns.
While this is not exactly a bad idea, it does leave some work undone as the funds realized per contribution hardly proves sufficient to bring about that much-vaunted economic emancipation of member women. And this can be thought to have motivated the game-changing approach of the MCWS.
Where most women groups see adversities and obstacles in the form of financial and cultural constraints, the MCWS see the big picture which has a window of opportunity etched at its centre. The women cooperative group defied the odds and rocked the old establishment when it unveiled a students apartment block built on their backs from scratch. And in the process, putting to bed the financial and cultural impediments which hamper so many Kenyan women from becoming landowners in the country.
Even though savings amounted to as little as USD 0.10 per day on some occasions, they leveraged the strength in their numbers and dedication to the common good to raise up to USD 1 Mn which went into the completion of a 102-room apartment block.
This group of women can be said to have achieved this remarkable feat by sacrificing immediate, ephemeral benefits for substantial, lasting future gains. Instead of doing what would generally be termed reasonable by channelling their contributions into the businesses of individual members that need them, this women resorted to doing something unprecedented. Instead of disbursing the contributions as most similar groups are designed to, the MCWS resolved to take the pains of pulling these contributions together, procuring a land, and erecting a decent structure that will be rented out to students. And they pulled it all off with aplomb in spite of the social and cultural difficulties that threatened to derail their mission at various points in time.
What makes this feat all the more remarkable is that the project was brought to life on the backs of some painstaking work put in by the members of the organisation. The five-story apartment building erected by the women cooperative group for rental to local students was the result of clever savings and wages gotten from strenuous construction work completed by the women who make up the 25,000-strong organization. Through sheer will and determination, these women are believed to have collectively raised upto USD 1 Mn which brought the vision to fruition.
Grace Ndegwa is one of such women. Since her husband’s demise in 2003, the mother of two had struggled just to get by every day. Although she spends most of her day toiling on the one-acre farmland in which she grows tea, coffee, and vegetables, she barely makes enough to feed the family, not to mention paying both her sons tuition.
Having struggled for the better parts of the last decade to keep her family going, Ndegwa’s aspirations to one day start a meaningful business may have been thought of as wishful thinking at best, even to herself. But that was until joining the MCWS a few months ago. Now, she can consider herself a proud co-owner of landed property in a country where land ownership is not exactly the turf of women. And the women cooperative group made it all happen.
Ndegwa can be thought of as just one of a rare breed of women who form the MCWS. The five-year-old savings and credit cooperative society opted to tow an entirely different line in the aspect of providing funding to businesses founded and run by women in the community. As opposed to the traditional practice which usually involves making specific contributions into each other’s smallholder farms and personal enterprises, they completed a manoeuvre that can be thought of as the product of some outside-the-box thinking by choosing to invest in real estate — a sector widely believed to be out of their league.
What they lacked in financial firepower, they made up for in collective desire. Even though savings amounted to as little as USD 0.10 per day on some occasions, they leveraged the strength in their numbers and dedication to the common good to raise up to USD 1 Mn which went into the completion of a 102-room apartment block. This should see the women garner the financial muscle they need to branch into other businesses on the backs of substantial proceeds realised from the property in the form of rent.
The completion of the project can be expected to unlock a wider door of opportunities as the women of the MCWS have now been furnished with improved credit-worthiness which should afford them a better chance of landing bigger loans from banks or Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisations (SACCOs). This can serve to facilitate investments into other highly-profitable ventures.
Through this move, the women of the MCWS can be thought to have their eyes on the ever-growing university student population in Kenya, especially as the demand for housing in Murang’a and many other Kenyan towns appears to be witnessing something of an upward surge. This rise can be thought to be connected to the increasing number of tertiary institutions which are being established to meet the increasing demand for higher education in the country.
As data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics suggests, university student enrollment in Kenyan public and private tertiary institutions have risen to 107.6% and 78.2 % respectively between 2007 and 2013. Investment in education infrastructure can be considered responsible for the trend as data from the Bureau also indicate that there are now 53 public and 18 private universities in the country, which represents considerable growth from the six apiece recorded in 2002.
And with the next intake of Murang’a University College expected to double the number of students from the current figure of around 2,500, student housing will come at a premium as the housing problem can be expected to get even bigger. But guess who will be in pole position to cash in on the opportunity — you know it — the women of the MCWS who collectively built that 102-room student apartment. And what a shrewd investment move that could prove to be!
When occupied to its full capacity, the apartment can accommodate up to 408 persons and generate over USD 10 K in rent on a monthly basis.
But despite the success achieved, the cooperative group isn’t resting on its laurels or taking its eye off the ball just yet. With the proceeds from the students’ apartment, the MCWS has set its sights on purchasing another 2,000 acres of land in nearby Laikipia County. Once successfully procured, the new land will be divided amongst members of the group who will be looking to put it to use for agricultural purposes and other commercial enterprises. More importantly, to these women, it provides the opportunity to surmount the cultural and financial hurdles which increase the odds of female land ownership in the country.
The MCWS can be thought to be giving a lot of women a good shot at improving their lives and bettering their future. And by leveraging collective effort, it is making it possible for these women to manage feats that would have been otherwise improbable.
Away from giving its members the opportunity to become landowners, the MCWS also functions to help women secure decent paying jobs as manual labourers. The women of the MCWS are known to have had a hand in some construction projects, from which funds were generated for the completion of their apartment building.
And this may have something to do with local government policy which dictates that 30 percent of all county procurement budgets be set aside for special interest groups including women, young people and persons living with disabilities. A very recent example can be cited in a road rehabilitation contract worth USD 300 K which is said to have been secured by the women’s group two years ago. This saw the women of the MCWS doing jobs such as bush clearing, trench digging, and concrete mixing for a daily wage of USD 5.00. This way, the group can be thought to afford many economically-disadvantaged women the opportunity to earn extra income.
By this massive investment into real estate which is aimed at building sustainable livelihoods for Kenyan women, the members of the MCWS have been able to generate income through savings, as well as access credit at affordable rates — which has hitherto hardly been the case.
Before the group came into existence, the practice — like in many other parts of the country — had been to invest in small local savings groups popularly called chamas. In such groups, the savings pitched by all the members are handed over to individual members in turns, and the money realised is often barely enough for everyday household expenses, not to mention small business resources.
But the MCWS can be thought to have broken from that norm. The financial power and economic emancipation afforded these women by the dynamics of the group are arguably unlike anything the community has ever known. And many more women are joining the train.
The success achieved by the MCWS has been the subject of interest from many other women’s groups across Kenya who are looking to hop on the new bandwagon and get some piece of the action. The cooperative society is believed to have given the green light to invitations from seven other counties who are in need of first-hand insight on how to go about creating similarly successful women cooperatives in their locales.
Such clout and recognition garnered by the group has undeniably justified and vindicated the decision of these women to turn their backs on the small-scale funding arrangements that SACCOs are known for, to take on a more-daunting prospect in the form of a real estate project which many doubters dubbed outrageous, too risky, and unrealistic initially.
Even though the group was scorned by naysayers who labelled the project as doomed to fail especially when saving dropped to as little as USD 0.10 per day at some point, the women of the MCWS kept their eyes on the prize. And having brought this project to life in spite of the challenges, the sky does seem like the limit for these courageous women. Well, you know what they say — a little drop here, a little drop there, and pretty soon you have an ocean!
This development was first covered in a publication on NewsDeeply.
Featured Image courtesy: TheSlopes