Every year, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Africa Development Bank, and other international finance agencies find new ways to research on ways to avail more money to women.
Using the current term of “financial inclusion”, the agencies reach out to local financial institutions in search of the perfect formula to get more money to women’s pockets. Such conversations are held in upmarket restaurants, where market women, hawkers and other small trading women would find a challenge to attend.
In the session, the financial institutions meet women and seek to find ways to provide financial facilities to them. This is nothing new. In the past, banks have researched for women products and gone ahead to launch products with benefits such as lipstick, heels, wine glasses, massage sessions and perfumed fancy cheque books, among others.
For the “bottom of pyramid” there are several options; investment groups (chamas), saccos and M-Pesa products top the list. There are the lucky ones covered by the youth and enterprise fund while the working women with a payslip, salary secured loans are available.
The business constituency has been missing; the women looking to start or scale their businesses.
These are women in business who face capital challenges; from starting capital, working capital to trade finance. These women would easily forego the fancy benefits of the lipstick account, if they were promised their businesses would survive.
Most banks in Kenya will have a product tailored for women, but on closer look, it’s just any other account, they just apply some lipstick. There are no statistics on the number of women that get financial facilities, as opposed to just holding accounts.
The World Bank reports that close to 20 percent of Kenyans do not have accounts, with any institution or mobile money provider, and two thirds of those left out are women.
The report, titled: The Global Findex Database 2017: Measuring Financial Inclusion and the Fintech Revolution, also finds that the gap in Kenya is being bridged by mobile money loans, but big business loans remain a challenge for many women.
Women face unique challenges in accessing serious financial support from banks, because most of them do not have collateral. There are various social and economic reasons that hinder women from owning property or even charging it with a bank, for those who do.
The reasons vary from the married women who have to seek permission from spouses before engaging a bank, to those who do not have any property to their name. Listening to women, you will hear stories of how they have worked hard to support their families or contributed to property acquisitions yet their names do not appear anywhere. The stories are sad but topic for another day.
These challenges faced by women are well researched, especially by local banks and the international agencies, yet they continue engaging women in search of that perfect product.
For women seeking to grow their businesses, we need Local Purchase Order (LPO) financing, overdraft facilities for cashflow, term loans, letters of credit and invoice discounting. Some may have some security and others may not, but does that mean we cannot be helped?
Scaling business requires a company to demonstrate that it has access to capital; one can not get a big project, if they can not show that they have access to capital. It's a cyclical argument that is used to keep women from doing big business.
I have been to a few of these conversations with banks, where they often point to the Central Bank of Kenya(CBK) restrictions as to why they can not support women in business. Much as the CBK is vilified, they have made exceptions in the past.
For instance, banks setting up in rural areas were allowed to adjust to local aesthetics like using sawdust during rainy days, to encourage people with muddy shoes to use banking facilities. Farmers in some areas thought the bank was too clean for their muddy shoes and that they had to clean up before entering banking halls.
It is the season for financial institutions to outdo each other, making presentations on who caters for women best. But before they whip up emotions, only to demand collateral, courtesy of CBK demands, it would be nice if the institutions can collectively negotiate with the CBK and find solutions.
Instead of international agencies partnering with local institutions to hold lavish and expensive conversations, can they use the money to lend to one woman, that way, they would demonstrate seriousness.
In the absence of actions, all efforts to bring together women in business and research on what works, will just be wastage of time and resources. Let the actions speak louder than words.