Dr Jennifer Riria is a leader extraordinaire. Currently the group CEO of Kenya Women Holding (KWH), she has touched many lives and transformed the microfinance industry in Kenya by empowering thousands of women financially. She had a talk with ESTHER KIRAGU on her humble beginnings, stellar career and being a transformative leader.
When Dr Jennifer Riria agreed to take over the reins of leadership of the then Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT) in 1991, the organisation was on its knees. It had serious management issues including lots of accumulated debt that had crippled its operations. Despite this and the fact that she lacked experience in the financial industry, she still took on the huge responsibility.
“You don’t have to know everything for you to embark on a task; you can take up the role, learn on the job, and seek knowledge, support and advice from those around you. That is what I did,” she starts off this interview.
Starting out with a staff of four, she spent the next two decades working to propel the organisation from an unprofitable NGO to a medium-sized bank that serves families through women, majority of whom are low-income earners.
“At the beginning, I took on multiple roles such as CEO, loan clerk and even office cleaner. There were days I would sit under trees to award women small loans to empower themselves and their households. Those were tough days but they transformed the institution into the bastion it is today,” she explains KWFT’s turnaround.
Shaped by her background…
Her humble beginnings clearly worked to her advantage and covered up for her inexperience in financial matters. Dr Riria grew up in abject poverty as her parents were peasant farmers in Meru. The fourth of 10 siblings grew up detesting the treatment of women in the society. She, therefore, knew financial inclusion for women would positively impact on their lives, their families and ultimately society at large.
“Women would spend hours on the farm, carry water and firewood with children saddled on their backs only to get home and find their husbands disgruntled that food was not on the table. It was a life of misery and they had no voice to stand up for themselves or resources to change their circumstances,” she says.
Young Riria had to walk barefoot four kilometres to school daily and clean the only uniform she had each night in pursuit of education. From a young age, she knew the value of hard work and would often help with house chores, which included fetching water, looking after the cattle, chopping firewood, helping to cook and looking after her younger siblings. However, she knew this was not the life she wanted for herself and didn’t allow her circumstances to limit her.
“I remember kneeling by my bedside every night asking God to send me far away from this environment,” she reminisces.
And God answered her prayers as she excelled in her primary school summative examination to secure a place at Precious Blood Kilungu in Machakos, which was 700 kilometres away from home. Her dad was opposed to her going to high school and instead wanted to marry her off. But with her mother’s blessing and all the savings she had that amounted to five shillings, young Riria left home for high school.
“Taking charge of my life at the age of 12 gave me a go-getter attitude in life, which was further reinforced by the school’s culture that instilled the value of responsibility,” she explains.
At 19 years of age, Dr Riria fell pregnant. She had just completed her A-levels at Kipsigis Girls High School as the pioneer class. Her dad, a deacon, would have none of it and she was kicked out of home.
“I was still determined to make the best of my life and I travelled with my baby to the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania where I obtained a scholarship to pursue a Bachelors degree in education. Thereafter, I went on to undertake my Masters degree at the University of Leeds in the UK,” she shares, adding that her daughter passed on in 2007.
She is a mother to two more children; both daughters, as well as a grandmother of six; roles that she says she enjoys and is thankful to God for.
A life of impact…
While undertaking her PhD studies in women, education and development, Dr Riria plunged into what she describes as her calling to families through women. “I began working on policies that would improve child survival among communities in Kenya supported by the Ford Foundation. While at it, it dawned on me that there was a connection between a child’s survival and its mother’s welfare. At the time, education among women was low and even worse was their inability to access credit facilities, which could change their lives and that of their families,” she explains.
However, she didn’t embark on the quest for women economic empowerment immediately as she taught at the Kenyatta University for 10 years and went on to work with the United Nations (UN) before stepping out in the world of microfinance at KWFT. Here, she played a key role in ensuring Kenyan banks opened their doors to women at a time when accessing a loan let alone having a bank account were services inaccessible to women.
She has also been at the forefront of inclusion and education in financial matters for women from marginalised areas. “During my early years at KWFT, the idea of women being drivers of the economy seemed impossible to the public but today the narrative is different as people’s thoughts and attitudes have changed,” she explains.
For Dr Riria, financial education and access for women and thereby change of livelihoods for various households remains her greatest joy. In 2010, Kenya Women Finance Trust evolved into two organisations – the Kenya Women Microfinance Bank, which is the financial arm of the institution and the Kenya Women Holding, which is the non-financial arm of the institution. These institutions continue to impact on women and are currently operational in 45 counties in Kenya.
Dr Riria has served in many leadership roles. She recently retired as chair of Women World’s Banking after 22 years of serving the global community. Passionate about women, she serves as a member of the Global Leadership Council of Women and Girls Lead Global, Women’s World Banking Africa Advisory Council, and is a life board member of the Association of Microfinance Institutions in Kenya among others.
Touching lives remains at the core of her heart. At one time during a visit to Naivasha IDP camp, she came across two teenage girls who had been rescued from Eldoret during the 2007/2008 post-election violence and had dropped out of school. This inspired the launch of Capture the Future, a programme targeting young girls from poor backgrounds whose education hang in the balance. The Kenya Women Holding and the Kenya Women Microfinance Bank adopted the project and currently 116 girls are benefiting from it. The two young girls who were pioneers in the programme are now enrolled in college and three more are set to join university this year.
Plans are underway to launch the Jennifer Riria Foundation so as to reach out more girls. “I want to assist girls who fall off the education system due to teenage pregnancies and female genital mutilation among other reasons. We plan to approach the Ministry of Education for partnership on this,” she says.
The leadership mantle…
As a mark of a true leader at heart, she chairs the TUVUKE Initiative, which advocates for peaceful and fair electoral process in Kenya. In 2013, she coordinated 17 civil societies and delivered a peace treaty under the TUVUKE Initiative. She is clear that she does not belong to any political party but advocates for participation for all in the democratic processes, and especially, inclusion and visibility of women at all levels in the democratic processes.
“The needs of women are the same regardless of the party one belongs to and these needs cannot be handled from a party perspective. And this being an election year, my appeal to all citizens and especially women is to get their voters cards and participate in elections, as this is their democratic right,” she says and adds that she hopes to see more women vying for political seats from the grassroots to national level.
In recognition of her outstanding leadership and impact, Dr Riria has received a myriad of awards and accolades both locally and internationally. The latest ones being Intellecap Inspiration award for being a true inspiration in the development sector as well as being named the Business for Peace Honoree by Business for Peace Foundation, among many other awards.
“As a leader, you have to identify people you can work with and then infect them with your passion. Of equal importance is the need to have systems and policies that support governance of the organisation whether you are there or not. At the end of the day, a leader knows it is not about them but rather about the people you empower, and it is not about what you get from the organisation but more importantly what you give to the organization, the legacy that you leave behind” she reveals her secret to running an organisation that will outlive her.
She acknowledges that having God and a strong support system around her enables her to juggle all the roles on her plate. To unwind, Dr Riria enjoys entertaining guests, reading, playing golf, gardening and travelling.
Published in February 2017