Recently, I was honored to pay a courtesy call to His Excellency Luke Williams, the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya. We discussed matters of mutual interest including Green Growth and the vast opportunities that both countries present to their people. Because women’s economic empowerment is a critical part of the Green economy, I was electrified to learn about Australia’s passion and record for advancing women’s economic empowerment.
For decades, Kenyan women have been at the forefront of stimulating local economies across the country. They do this through thousands of female-led small entrepreneurship that are often funded through infusions of capital from thousands of women groups. These groups are major proponents of informal credit schemes like table banking. Approximately 97 percent of table banking members in Kenya are women who save to common kitties in their groups then borrow from such kitties.
However, hundreds of women groups do not have even the minimal financial muscle required to engage in table banking. That’s because of the dire economic situation of their members. One such group is Mlilo Women Group in Taita Taveta County. It is located in the hilly region of Sagalla. Founded in 2009, it comprises of fifteen women who use Kirindi, a traditional Sagalla dance to earn money. Although their dance gigs are few and far between, the dance revenue is often their only means of livelihood. While they also weave traditional baskets, finding a market for these baskets remains a constant challenge.
Mlilo Women Group exemplifies the resilience and innovation of women groups all over Kenya. Unfortunately, they operate within a context of demoralizing social and economic challenges. For instance, while women in Kenya have an average of four children, those in rural areas have more. This increases their financial burden, which further complicates their ability to earn regular revenue.
Further to this, in 2020, the World Economic Forum released the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report. This report revealed that the overall living conditions of Kenyan women ranked 109 out of 153 countries. This marked a decrease of 33 from the previous year. Regarding the gender pay gap women who have a regular income are already economically disadvantaged since for Ksh100 that a Kenyan man earns, a woman earns KSh68. Evidently, Kenya is letting down its women!
It is morally imperative that equal pay for similar service rendered must become a reality in Kenya.
At a policy level, we are duty bound to enact strategic policies that will ensure not just equal pay for women, but also advance equal employment opportunities. At an entrepreneurship level, I suggest that we develop a Kenya Women Economic Recovery Program (KWERP) that will practically ensure widespread financing of women-led SMEs. These entrepreneurships are a massive trigger for sustainable livelihoods and stronger local economies.
Last year, the World Bank conducted a survey here in Kenya on women-led businesses. It revealed that such businesses have a bigger investment impact. They support large portions of household budgets and in so doing uphold the economic wellbeing of Kenyan families.
The World Bank study further revealed that, ‘women-led businesses mostly employ women, which shows they can be a catalyst for bringing more women into the workforce. About 75 percent of the workers in female-owned enterprises are women (when excluding the business owner), while in male-owned businesses, only 20 percent of employees are women.’
Against this backdrop, it is critical for our Nation together with our development partners to support women-led establishments. Admirably, organizations like Environmental Africa are currently training those dancing women in Sagalla to run the revenue wing of their group as a business. This will mean incorporating a young local entrepreneurial mentor to guide them.
However, these indomitable women of Sagalla and thousands of other women groups across Kenya need more than hands-on mentorship. They also need funding that will help them craft better products that may appeal to a wider market. In these contemporary hard economic times, I recommend that we be as passionate as the Australian Government in advancing women economic empowerment for sustainable development.