by Moraa Obiria
A proverb of the Kisii community in Western Kenya says Bakungu bange bana, which means ‘women are like children’. The elders in the community maintain that women never outgrow the features of childhood. They are forever dependents. But women in rural Kenya are turning the tables to disapprove the suppressive stereotypes which have kept many of them from owning or inheriting land and property.
A case of changing times is evident by women in the Rift Valley region who are breaking the culturally created syndrome through table banking, a way to access and offer loans without going through a microfinance organisation.
Mary Ritei is a member of the Mosop Women Group, an organization that practices table banking. Her association with the 25-member group, which was formed in February 2013, has greatly boosted her social and economic standards.
“In July last year, I took a loan of Sh 20,000 (229.89 USD) and started a retail clothing business. Now I make good profits and I no longer depend fully on my husband to provide everything. We no longer quarrel over money,” Mary says. “I am saving to buy a Friesian cow. I will be able to sell milk and make more money.”
Faith Bett agrees with her colleague. She is extremely elated and focused on the benefits of table banking to her. “It is not easy to start telling your husband you want to plant potatoes for sale to raise money to cater for the needs of the family, even if he struggling to make ends meet. You do not even know how to begin because the land belongs to him and not me,” she says.
Bett has invested in the grocery business after receiving a Sh 10,000 (114.94 USD) loan from the group. She uses her profits to boost her savings and hopes in 2015 to be able to take a bigger loan to buy a piece of land and venture into commercial farming.
“If only I had a way to take a loan of half a million from a bank and buy land, I would do it right now. But that is not possible without presenting security which in most cases is land. I do not have any right to use my husband’s land without his consent,” Bett says, sounding hopeless.
In Kenya among the Kikuyu community in Central region, table banking is popularly known as ngumbacu. In literal terms, it means grasping a bundle of money which has been collected from members of an organised group.
The strategy of table banking involves members meeting monthly at an agreed location and tabling their contributions, which are referred to as shares. But unlike the conventional practice of taking the collections to the bank, the members share out depending on the number of shares each has and financial need.
One only needs mutual trust, openness, and honesty for the fellow members to guarantee each other with their savings.
“We know each other very well. We know the homestead of each member [and] that is why it is so easy for us to form the group and become each other’s guarantor. This is important because we have no other security for the loans except how well we know each other,” says Linnah Kirui, the chairperson of the group.
Kenya is largely a patriarchal society where women are denied access to land, which serves as the major tangible and valuable asset in securing any long term development loan. Despite existing legislation outlawing any form of discrimination against women, the social and cultural structures have for years been used as a yardstick to determine the place of a woman in a society.
So when Kirui thinks about where she has come from and where she is going, she is happy to be a member of Mosop Women Group. “My life has totally changed. I opened a grocery with a Sh 15,000 (172.41 USD) loan I took from the group. I am now able to support my husband in paying school fees for our two children. We are at peace with each other unlike before,” she says with a smile. “My husband is no longer worried about sugar, matchsticks, or salt. He is happy that I joined the group and on some occasions he asks me if I have enough money to boost my savings,” she adds.
Buying a two-acre piece of land to put up rental houses is her long term plan to break the family from the chains of poverty. “We have a small plot and whatever we grow is not enough for home consumption and sale. That is why my aim is to increase my shares to a level that I can take a huge loan to invest in more profitable business ventures,” she tells me.
Favourably, the loans acquired through table banking are repaid at a minimal interest rate compared to the banks’ interest rates which exceed 10 percent.
As a rule, members know where each lives, as the rotating monthly meetings are carried out in the homesteads. This makes it easy for the members to trace loan defaulters. In some of the groups, household property such as chairs, cooking pans, and television sets are attached to the loan as security.
A member who is unable to repay the loan within the time limits is required to notify the group so that she can either be assisted or the period extended. In the extreme cases, where a member deliberately ignores informing the group or does not repay the loan, then the members are forced to take away the household and report the defaulter to the area chief to demand a pay back.
But according to Jennifer Kigen, executive director for Rongai Social Economic Women Organization (ROSEWO), a non-government organisation contracted by the government to train women on table banking, rarely do they default on repayments.
“Yes, there are circumstances that the women fail to repay the loans. And this is the only time that the group is forced to engage the law enforcers,” she says. “But before any action is taken, the group forms a committee to find out why she cannot repay the loan.”
Although, there are no accurate figures on the number of women currently engaged in table banking, non-governmental organisations approximate their numbers to be exceeding 500,000.
“The government has contracted us to train women on table banking in the country and there are so many groups engaged in the practise. We train some and they train others. The information is shared and our records indicate that more than 500,000 women are in table banking groups,” says Kigen.
For some women in Kenya, table banking is a saving grace that broadens chances for empowerment of their children. In early 2014, a male friend was looking for a civil service job in one of the 47 county governments. Although he knew he was qualified, he would not get it without the clearance from the Higher Education Loans Board where he had a non-repaid Sh 174,567 (2,007 USD) loan.
Profits from his stationery business were not enough to clear the loan. It was just the 2nd of March and he had not made any major sales after clearing the monthly utility bills. However, I was surprised when he informed me of his prompt clearance about two weeks later.
Keen to know how he did it, he told me that his mother took the wholesome loan from her table banking group during their monthly meeting which was held on March 5th. It was amazing. Now, he was able to get the job and assisted his mother in repaying the loan.
The government of Kenya recognizes the concept of table banking as a transformative micro-finance practice embraced by women to empower themselves and break away from poverty. But, even as women find ways to empower themselves, their poverty levels are still high.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) finds that although the global population is more than 50 percent women, only one percent of them are wealthy. The UNDP attributes this to women’s inaccessibility both to resources such as land and to jobs to secure bank loans. Beliefs, traditions, and customs have bestowed rights of land inheritance to men, a reality that has continued to keep a majority of women within the poverty bracket.
Articles 27 and 40 of the Constitution of Kenya give women equality and freedom from discrimination as well as protection of right to property. However, these legislative regulations are yet to influence the treatment of women in the private sphere.
“Existing cultural customs have provided a broader framework for discrimination of women despite the protection of their rights in the constitution,” says Eileen Wakesho, Program Officer for Women Land and Property Rights at the Kenya Land Alliance.
Even as women find ways of empowering themselves economically, the Kenyan government, development partners, and other non-state actors still have a lot to do to eliminate the socio-barriers that perpetuate gender discrimination in access to resources.
Moraa Obiria is a writer based in Kenya. She is currently a Masters student in Gender and Development Studies at Kenyatta University, Kenya. She has published in local and international newspapers as well as magazines. She has an interest in gender related matters; business, agriculture and human resource issues. She is a researcher who enjoys doing what changes the world. She is also a poet and composes poems during her free time. Her world is incomplete with a read from numerous motivational books. Being a great author of books on women and social justice is her greatest ambition.