The trouble with Kenyan universities

Dr Jennifer Riria simultaneously launched two books; A History of Higher Education in Kenya and her autobiography. Photo/FILE
Dr Jennifer Riria simultaneously launched two books; A History of Higher Education in Kenya and her autobiography. Photo/FILE 

Driven by her passion for change, not only in banking but in the education system, Jennifer Riria simultaneously launched two books; A History of Higher Education in Kenya and her autobiography.

“I trained as an educationist and refer to myself as a researcher, gender specialist and banker. I evolved from the educational to the banking system. It is a passion for me,” she says on choosing to write on banking and education.

Dr Riria, who has been the CEO of Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT) since 1991, says she has shaken the hands of African presidents and the Queen of Spain. But she also listens to women’s stories deep inside villages.

“It’s meant to be a mentorship material to tell the young children that you can come from nothing and be of value or blessing to many, not only to your family,” she says.

She distributed the bio for free on CDs to “anyone who wanted to read”, schools and young women under a mentorship she started and is now run by KWFT.

In 2006, she was appointed to the Higher Education Inspection Board. Time spent on this board confirmed to her that Kenya’s higher education institutions were not playing their role in the society.

A History of Higher Education in Kenya looks at these institutions since the 70s and their roles.

She defines the role as skills development and articulation of policy.

“Without saying it, I’m trying to show in the ‘70s that is what the universities were focusing on. Currently, even with the same responsibility, the universities are not playing the role given to them by society.”

Universities, she says, are supposed to engage in research that feeds into economic development.

“Why are a big number of graduates unable to get jobs? The reason is that they have no purpose; the universities have not given them a purpose or position. Thus they cannot fit into what the industry wants,” she says.

She claims that institutions of higher education have taken to schooling instead of educating people. She insists universities should develop adequate skills for today and future growth through research and policy assessment, not activism. They should ask hard, pertinent questions and offer suggestions on the way forward.

“There was a time when you said you are a university graduate, people respected you. People are not impressed anymore because you have not positioned yourself to serve,” she says.

On women empowerment, Dr Riria says there is need for continuous research to know what assistance will have the greatest impact.

She told the Business Daily that KWFT does not provide loans without finding out what the women need. It is only through research that the financial institution has arrived at water tanks and solar lamps as loan products.

“Banking with the poor people means addressing their central needs, and finance is not their only need. Their central needs go beyond finance, it is socio-economic. For things that affect their daily lives, money is just an enabler.”


The book faults “commercially-driven” universities that offer higher schooling to a select few.

“The solution is that we have to go back to the drawing board and rethink the role. That is the University of Nairobi’s original charter (the first university in Kenya). We have to identify the divergence between practice and reality. We have to find out what the economy wants and what the university is able to do,” she says.

Dr Riria says she used the proceeds from her 2013 Ford Foundation Champions of Democracy award to write the two books.

This year, she has been named the Eastern African Ernst and Young Master Entrepreneur of the Year.