Women Enterprise Fund is an agency that works to provide accessible credit to support women start or grow their businesses. This year, they renewed their partnership with Coca-Cola Central, East and West Africa (SEABU) who are investing Sh12.6 million ($125,000) to support the initiative. This is in line with its global commitment to empower 5 million women by 2020 (5 by 20).
As part of the process of providing interest-free loans, Women Enterprise Fund works with volunteers (who are paid a stipend) all over the country at constituency level. These volunteers then serve as their representatives on the ground. Violet Siko has been working as a volunteer for the last 9 years. Over the course of her career, she has interacted with various women and understands the importance of this initiative. We sat down with her to talk about her journey so far.
Please tell us a little about yourself
My name is Violet Siko. I live within Starehe Constituency. I have a Diploma in Business Administration. I also finished my Degree in Business Management, Finance and Banking option last year. I have been working as a volunteer for the Women Enterprise Fund (WEF) at the Starehe Constituency since 2010.
Why did you decide to become a volunteer at the Women Enterprise Fund?
In the community I have grown up in, women have a very difficult life. They face so many obstacles. Most of them are even battered. Their quality of life is quite limited. So when I heard about the Women Enterprise Fund and the work that it was doing I was inspired to apply.
Since I joined the organization back in 2010, I have worked with so many women. As volunteers, we get to have conversations with them and they share how the organization has helped them. Most of them say if it were not for the money and training they receive, they would probably still be living in poverty. They also talk about how their lives have been transformed. How it is such a great feeling to run successful businesses. This way they are able to take care of their families. These stories make me feel like I am part of a community that is touching people’s lives
What does your role as a volunteer entail?
Our main work is to recruit groups. These groups can comprise either 100% women or 70% women and 30% men. After recruitment, we take them through the mandatory training sessions required before they can access the loans. In these smaller communities, people think that these government funds are free so it is important we start by telling them that these are loans that require repayment. We then start the process of loan applications. We work with the women to ensure that all key requirements are met and that they provide the necessary details before the applications are forwarded to the head office. We then wait for the loan cheques to be disbursed then take them to the applicants. From then on it is also our responsibility to go for regular checkups to monitor how the groups are doing.
How can women interested in applying for these loans reach you?
We have a couple of ways that people can reach out to us. We have different stakeholders. For example, here at Starehe Constituency, we use the District Commissioners offices. We work with the Social Development Office where people can come and register their groups. Afterwards, these names are then forwarded to me and the rest of the other volunteers. The other option is going to your local chiefs. They are required to have loan application forms with them at all times. This way when any group wants to apply, all they need to do is fill in the forms which are then forwarded to us. You can also access the application forms on the website of any Huduma Centers. Additionally, the groups who have already applied for these loans are very good at getting the word out there. So you may find a couple of women coming directly to you through a referral.
After the training sessions, what loan options are offered to the people who apply?
The loans are disbursed in cycles. In the first cycle, the groups with a Kshs 100,000 to be repaid within a year. Once they repay that loan, they receive the second loan for Kshs 200,000 also payable within a year. From there the group graduates to Kshs 350,000 with the same repayment period. Most groups often use the first cycle loans to boost their table banking kitties and start small businesses. However, there are no guidelines that require the women to run specific businesses. Once the money is yours, you decide what to do with it. The second cycle starts with Kshs 500,000 payable within 1.5 years. The largest loan that a group can collect is Kshs 750,000. All the loans are interest-free except for the 5% administration fee deducted before the loan is disbursed. However, the groups are not limited to the repayment periods. If a group wraps up payment of their loan in less than the allocated period, they can apply for the next disbursement.
What do the mandatory training sessions entail?
The training sessions span over a period of three days with each session being two hours long. We start by informing them what the Women Enterprise Fund is all about and how we can work with them to improve their livelihood.
We also guide them on how better to work together as a group. This involves helping them write a constitution to help guide the activities they have in the group.
After that, we get into the financial aspect of the training where we teach them about coming up with viable business ideas, managing their finances, and bookkeeping. We also ensure that they have the requirements to apply for the loan. This includes a certificate from the Social Development Office which should be 3-months old.
We also provide them with a WEF certificate after training. One important aspect of these training sessions is the conversations we have about gender mainstreaming and how it can help them better their lives.
How has the partnership between Coca-Cola- Women Enterprise contributed to the process?
There are various women groups who run businesses that require refrigeration of products. Coca-Cola has been providing coolers and fridges to these women, saving money which they are able to divert to other areas of the business. Additionally, Coca-Cola has been running a program where they intend on recruiting interns. As a volunteer, you are assigned a number of groups to monitor and evaluate. Sometimes it is hard to manage them all effectively. We will get to work with these interns so it will be easier and we will be able to interact with the women easily.
Another thing that has helped was the evaluation forms that we use. Before the partnership, the form only catered for the evaluation of the combined group business. This new form has room for evaluation of individual businesses. This allows us to really get to know how the women are doing individually. It allows us to understand why a group is performing the way it is and help where we can.
What do you think is the impact of the partnership between the Women Enterprise Fund and Coca-Cola?
The funding provided by Coca-Cola and WEF enables these women to start businesses of their own which in turn improves their lives. The training we provide is also very important. You find that there are those groups whose main issue is not even funding. By the time a group applies for a loan, they must have been a functional group prior to the application. Even if it all they do is table banking. So when they approach us, they are not only seeking to get funds, they are more interested in the training. This way they are in a better situation to handle the money better. With the funds and the knowledge, they are able to run diverse businesses yet most of these women did not even receive formal education.
What challenges have you experienced as a volunteer?
In the beginning, one of the issues I encountered on the ground came from my job title. I would introduce myself as a volunteer. When people heard that, they did not take me seriously. This became even tougher when I went to check up on their businesses and loan repayment progress. It became hard for me to do my job. So over time, I realized most volunteers used the title ‘officer’ and I started to do the same. Referring to yourself as an officer prompts these women to take you seriously during their interactions with you.
Additionally, the workload can get quite tough. As a volunteer, it is quite the task to keep up with the number of groups one has to check up on. So instead of having face to face meetings, you find yourself having to make phone calls which are quite ineffective when it comes to the collection of money.
Having worked as a volunteer for 9 years, what more do you think can be done to support women to start or grow businesses?
WEF has done quite a lot of women in the communities. However, right now we are focusing on groups. You realize that there are so many other women out there who need individual loans. Working in a group is tricky and some people have had very bad experiences with it. Once we disburse the loans, the members are then allowed to borrow from that kitty. So the repayment of the overall loan is dependent on how quick the members clear their own loans. So you may find some members are more active in paying their loans than others which can create tension. Unfortunately, the only thing you can do is exit a group. But that means you are ineligible as an individual to receive a loan. So more organizations should look into that.