TAKING ENTERPRISING WOMEN TO A HIGHER LEVEL

Eng. Charles Mwirigi, Chief Executive Officer, Women Enterprise Fund (WEF). [FILE]
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By offering attractive solutions, Fund lightens the burden for women seeking to excel in business

By George Gichuki

The Women Enterprise Fund (WEF) is a Semi Autonomous Government Agency (SAGA) which is domiciled in the Ministry of Public Service and Gender.  WEF was established in 2007 and it is mandated to empower   women (especially the ones at the bottom of the economic pyramid) to engage in income   generating activities.   These activities are mainly entrepreneurship and agribusiness.  “ In respect to  the women  who are interested in starting businesses ,  we arm them  with the necessary  skills  before advancing  to them loans,” says  Eng. Charles Mwirigi, the Chief Executive Officer. “By and large, we   are   committed to poverty eradication among women and we target the ones who are less endowed economically,” he adds.

WEF is fully funded by the Exchequer.  By the same token, it has also brought on board a few strategic partners who come in handy in the fulfilment of its mandate. From 2007, the  organization  has received  close  to  Kshs. 5 billion  from the Exchequer  which has been  used  to fund women entrepreneurs.

Mandate

To start with, WEF is mandated is to fund women entrepreneurs.  These funds do not attract any interest with only an administrative fee of 5% attached to each loan cycle. “Since our establishment, we have turned around the Kshs. 5 billion advanced by the government four times and we currently have a kitty of Kshs. 20 billion,” says Eng. Mwirigi. This money has benefited 1.8 million women throughout the country.  To that end, WEF has established offices in all the two hundred and ninety constituencies countrywide.  Ninety per cent of the funds are advanced using this model with no collateral security.  In this vein, women form groups of ten members, open bank accounts and then they are advanced the first batch of loan amounting to Kshs. 100,000. After settling the first loan, members are eligible for a second batch amounting to Kshs. 200,000. The third loan is Kshs. 350,000, while the fourth one is Kshs. 500,000 and currently, the fifth and final cycle is Kshs. 750,000.  However, plans are at an advanced stage to introduce a sixth cycle of Kshs.1 million.

By the same token, given the rising cost of living, WEF is considering increasing the first  loan cycle   from Kshs. 100,000 to Kshs. 200,000. “We are also holding negotiations with the Ministry of Labour and Social protection in order to reduce the minimum size of registered groups from the current ten to five or six,” says Eng. Mwirigi.  WEF has employed officers who are in charge of training various groups of women and advancing to them loans. Essentially, these groups are meant for women as per the mandate of WEF. Nevertheless, there is a small window for men to join the groups but they should not be more than thirty per cent of the membership. Secondly, men should neither hold any leadership positions nor should they   be signatories of bank accounts.

The second mandate of WEF is building the capacity of women as individuals as well as the institutions which they own.  To that end, 1.45 million women have been trained by the organization’s officers at the constituency level.

Thirdly, WEF markets goods that are produced by women, as well as various services locally and internationally. “To date, we have taken over twenty thousand women to international trade fairs. Further, through a partnership that we had with the Export Promotion Council (EPC) – now the Kenya Export and Branding Agency –   three hundred and ten women were trained on export preparedness. Through the partnership, twenty beneficiaries were taken to Dar es Salam , Kigali and the Democratic Republic of Congo ( DRC)  for international forums,” Eng. Mwirigi observes.  According to him, WEF is in the process of reviving this partnership.

WEF is also mandated to facilitate and support linkages between women owned enterprises and big corporations in order to enhance market and technology transfers.  “Our members are therefore able to learn best practices in various fields such as horticulture, dairy farming and value addition as well as the  green house technology,” says Eng. Mwirigi.

Finally, WEF supports the development of infrastructure.  Since this requires a lot of capital, one way of achieving this mandate according to Eng. Mwirigi is by partnering with government institutions   like the Kenya Industrial Estate (KIE) and the County Governments under whose docket, the markets are domiciled. Through such partnerships, WEF would finance, train and impart necessary skills and knowledge to the women entrepreneurs for their businesses to excel. However, according to Eng. Mwirigi, WEF has been cost effectively achieving this mandate by buying branded parasols for women operating in open air markets and other open spaces.

Products

WEF’s flagship product is branded Tuinuke loan. It is an interest free loan that is advanced to groups of women. The loan is given in five loan cycles with the first three cycles  ( which are Kshs.100,000, Kshs.200,000 and Kshs.350,000 )  repayable within twelve  months and Kshs.500,000 and Kshs.750,000 repayable within eighteen  months and twenty four  months respectively. The loan processing turnaround time is one and a half months and no collateral is required from members before they can access it.

In addition, women with orders to supply products or services to public institutions are facilitated to do so by WEF. This is through a product that is known as local purchase order (LPO) or local service order (LSO) financing whose limit is Kshs. 2 million. This product targets individuals or businesses that are either wholly owned by women or where they have at least two thirds shareholding.  “No interest is charged on this product; it only attracts an administration fee of five per cent,” says Eng. Mwirigi. Its repayment period is three to six months depending on the procuring organization. The money advanced is recovered upfront by WEF after the procuring entity pays the suppliers.     WEF also facilitates women to tender for business through bid bonds or tender securities within a day.

The final product is the financial intermediary channel.  Initially, WEF had engaged microfinance institutions, microfinance banks, savings and credit co-operatives (saccos) and commercial banks to disburse money to various businesses owned by women.  To that end, it had injected Kshs. 1.8 billion in the said financial institutions.  Nevertheless, this method was not meeting WEF’s objectives and it was therefore terminated.  That was mainly because the said lenders were not keen on micro lending.  On the contrary, most of them would invest the funds advanced to them in treasury bills and bonds according to Eng. Mwirigi. “Upon requesting them for reports, they would furnish us with names of loan applicants and we therefore realized that we were not reading from the same script,” he laments.

 Currently, WEF is partnering with various saccos that are   either owned by women or are offering   women-friendly loan products. WEF advances loans to these saccos at one per cent per annum on a reducing balance. In turn, the saccos lend their members at eight per cent per annum on a reducing balance. “We have also facilitated women to establish saccos through our constituency officers,” says Eng. Mwirigi. Between 2013 and 2016, one hundred and fifty-nine saccos countrywide were formed through this model and by collaborating with the Ministry of Cooperatives, they    would attend training sessions whenever called upon.  “We have supported these saccos in developing   cost effective systems for managing loans and deposits as well as appropriate structures in line with our mandate,” he adds. 

Covid-19

Before disbursing any funds to   its members who mainly operate from the grassroots, WEF through its field officers equips them with the necessary skills. Nevertheless, this important exercise has not been taking place since March because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We conduct one-on-one training sessions on all our prospective and existing beneficiaries which has not been possible in the recent past because of the requirement by the Ministry of Health to observe social distancing during meetings in order to curb the spread of Covid-19,” Eng. Mwirigi avers.   Consequently, the loan officers are concentrating on repeat borrowers who have already been trained.   With the declining number of Covid-19 cases in the country, WEF is gradually starting the training sessions by focusing on smaller group compositions (with a maximum of ten members) at a time. “This is taking place  in open air to avoid congestion of the participants,” Eng. Mwirigi observes.  WEF is providing all the participants with face masks and sanitizers so that they do not contact the deadly coronavirus.

A major achievement of WEF over the years is the high repayment of the funds advanced to its members which stands at 95.96%. Nevertheless, since June of this year, this has slightly reduced by two per cent because of the slowdown in the economy caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.  The reduction has also been associated with the inability of the members to travel to various banks and their respective agents in order to settle loans because of the restrictions that had been in place countrywide, before the government recently opened the economy.

Solutions

In order to enhance business continuity since the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country, WEF has come up with a number of solutions. To start with, no meetings are being held with its members without complying with the guidelines and protocols that have been outlined by the Ministry of Health.

Secondly, the board has  approved a  policy for restructuring the loan repayment period for the beneficiaries. “Since some businesses are currently not performing well, we have prolonged the grace period,” says Eng. Mwirigi adding that they have so far   given repayment holiday for loans amounting to Kshs. 50 million.

In partnership with the Ministry of Public Service and Gender, WEF has been engaging in corporate social investment initiatives that are aimed at   checking the spread of Covid-19.  To that end, WEF has purchased sanitizers and face masks which have been distributed countrywide through the Caucus of Women Parliamentarians.  In August, there was a big ceremony that was held at the National Youth Service (NYS) headquarters in Ruaraka. It   was led by the Cabinet Secretary of Public Service and Gender, Professor Margaret Kobia and all the institutions under the ministry (including WEF) participated. During this ceremony, the institutions donated sanitizers and face masks among other items in order to fight the spread of Covid-19 in the country.

The road ahead

In its current five year strategic plan (2019-2024), WEF is focusing on removing the road blocks that may limit the ability to achieve its mandate. In view of the new-normal of doing business that has been occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic locally and internationally, WEF is set to start offering its products online.  In addition, it has also started training its members virtually (through webinars) as opposed to physical sessions.  “In line with our strategic plan, we are going to launch new products at the group level where most of our business is concentrated,” observes Eng. Mwirigi.  Moreover, WEF is considering giving individual loans to any interested member within a group.

Currently, WEF is partnering with Coca Cola 5by20 to train its beneficiaries on business and finance skills. Through the partnership, WEF has engaged thirty six  interns spread across the counties to carry out the training that will see two hundred and eighty five thousand  women imparted with these key skills. In addition, together with SNV Netherlands (an international non-governmental organization), WEF is training farmers in Arid and Semi-Arid (ASAL) areas in agribusiness. Other training partners include Hand in Hand International and Kenya Institute of Business Training. In respect to the women who want to have the quality of their products certified, WEF has partnered with the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). “Through this partnership, KEBS charges our members a discounted fee of Kshs. 5,000 as opposed to Kshs.20, 000, which we pay on their behalf,” says Eng. Mwirigi.

By the same token, WEF has partnered with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in providing business incubation to its members. Its next level is now developing partnerships with various county governments in areas such as marketing, mobilizing members and offering infrastructure.  “Very soon, we are going to sign a memorandum of understanding with Busia County government,” says Eng. Mwirigi adding that they are also holding discussions with Murang’a County government on how to develop a partnership.

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