Driving around the countryside outside Limuru reminds me of Tuscany in northern Italy: the hilly landscape, the softness that meets the eye, the green views and the open landscape. It’s beautiful, and in the far distance: Florenze…no, Nairobi in the haze. But the similarity stops here, because no rich Florentine families, no descendants from the Medicis have built marble mansions in this part of the world, and vineyards are not to be seen. This is a poor rural part of Kenya, and the smell is the smell of my childhood’s vacations on my grandmother’s farm in Denmark.
I’m with loan officer Patricia Kalu and trainee Stephen Mwangi Mburu near a small town, Chunga Mali. They are from KEEF Kenya , Kenyan Entrepreneurship Empowerment Foundation – and we’re lost! We cannot find our way to the group meeting, this down to the fact that the borrowers take turns in hosting the meetings. So where is it this time?
We finally find the little homestead and wait for the 15 women to arrive at ten o’clock. One is in the hospital with her child, so we give them another hour, but eventually only seven show up. Fines of 50 Shilling (app. half a dollar) will be handed out later for the no-show. Not even a glass of water is offered and the meeting finally begins with a prayer.
All the women have brought a little blue booklet called the pass book with recordings of their repayments, everybody have paid back on their loan the day before by mobile phone, typically a few hundred Shillings. No notes are changing hands, and every pass book is carefully checked and filled out by the loan officers. The women in the group vouch for each other. A while back one of them couldn’t afford to pay, but with the help of the group she’s now back on track. That’s the beauty of group loans. And the beauty of mobile technology: At the beginning of the meeting the woman who is hosting the meeting asked for an advance of 2,000 Shilling, and half an hour later she’s got it through Mpesa!
They are all interested in learning more about MYC4, the interest and the reduced rate, which some of them do not understand. One is so agitated that she stands up and raises her voice, but Patricia Kalu patiently explains the principles to her. The women also want to know more about school fee loans.A prayer finalizes the meeting after about an hour, and I ask one of the borrowers, Grace Wangui Wambiru if she wants to show me her place. We walk for a while along narrow paths lined with vegetables and get to her homestead. She has a loan with MYC4, 46,000 Shillings (her first loan was with KEEF, 10,000 Shilling). For the money she has bought a lot of very young chickens, which all look alike to me, but they are different races, and she wants to experiment to find the right one for her. She also has a cow, a Friesian she tells me, the same race my grandmother had, black and white. To top it off she has seven rabbits in a cage.
– Three times a week I get up at two in the morning to go to the whole sale market in Nairobi to sell my vegetables, Grace tells me. The first few kilometers are on the back of a donkey the rest of the 40 kilometer ride is by matatu, a minibus. – I sell everything I have, I come back with nothing, so that’s’ good. Every week I make about 3,000 Shillings this way, so I’m not complaining, it may sound tough, but where there’s a will there’s a way.
Grace is married and has four children, one of them is in a national school which requires good marks, and Grace has high hopes about university. Which is the subject every time you talk to borrowers – and I have met a few – they want education for their children.
I leave Grace and the rest of the women confident that they’ll make it. Patricia Kalu talks about the benefits of being a loan officer:
– I love my work, it can be very satisfying, we can take people somewhere, they can educate their children, it’s girl power.
Indeed it is.