Thinking about your role as a leader, what do you see as the next challenges for your organization?
One of the major challenges is keeping focused on the mission and vision. We will keep focusing on poor women but at the same time realize that a mixed portfolio is a key to the success of the organization. We must be able to cut a niche for women who are not so poor and the poor and think about how each can belong to this organization. How do we do this? Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT) has to be the place for women to be, a place where women feel ownership. The challenge is to remain with the women we have been serving but include the other women, who are also left out in terms of financial access, without moving away from the poor women. That is a big challenge.
Another challenge is developing and implementing MIS systems—modern technology that is going to serve women, that is user-friendly to women, not just for the sake of KWFT but also for the benefit of the women. Technology will provide a one-stop shop for women. We are so big and so wide in all parts of the country that the branch network is not enough. We need to have branchless banking that is beneficial to the institution and beneficial to women. This will involve a lot of money, and another challenge is financing this. We can create economies of scale by using already existing networks such as Kenswitch. Kenswitch is a platform that all other banks use, so clients can use anyone’s ATMs—providing access to 600,000 outlets around the country. We provide the women with a card and she can access her money. Then the challenge becomes financial education that enables the women to use and accept these modern technologies and of course, related to that is the cost of the education which is not income generating for our institution. That is why we have two institutions, one for-profit and the NGO. The NGO must take care of all of these activities. The challenge is to get interested partners. Most want to partner on the financial side not the non-profit side.
What do you see as the Center’s role in microfinance and what would you like to see it contribute to the sector?
I am big into women’s leadership. We have got to have leaders to run these institutions and we need women to run them. There are also standards to be met, standards set by the Central Bank, and you cannot lead just because you are a woman. Women drop out of the race for leadership at the middle management level. We are very conscious of this and we try to push them up the ladder but it is not always possible. We have a big challenge in creating women leaders who can take over these institutions from the men. Fifty percent of workers at KWFT are men. We pride ourselves that all have equal opportunity but, when there is a woman and man going for same position if they are equally qualified, the women have always got the edge. I worry that women don’t want leadership positions. They have so many other priorities, particularly in their mid to late 30s when they are married with their first child. The self-articulation of a woman at that time is clouded by so many things; [they see me and think] they do not want jobs that will take them to New York like Jennifer who always travels to New York. There are also cultural elements. That is a challenge for me as a leader and one that needs to be addressed consciously and consistently. Kenya Women Holding’s strategy is to have specific leadership training so that we can identify women and find a way of creating women leaders. This challenge cuts across the divide of the bank and the NGO. I see it as a crucial role for WWB, creating leaders among the network. We have to find a way of providing training to young women coming up. Sometimes I see them give up easily, but I tell them that a woman has to be 20 percent better than a man for the same position. That is the reality. Training them is more mentorship than anything else so that women see it can be done. They can see that a woman has done it before and has not died. This is not in training materials; it is really mentorship, support, exposure and visibility. If we find out how to achieve those four pegs, we will have strong women leaders.
Thinking back, is there something that you wish a mentor had told you at the beginning?
Oh yes, one of my big mentors was Nancy Barry. She is still a very big mentor to me, even at my age. She teaches me the focus, the passion and the dedication to serve women without ever looking aside. She is very strong, very clear on issues and where to move for women. The other mentor is Mary Okello who inspires me to this very minute. She was the first woman banker manager in Africa and KWFT was born on her desk in the bank. KWFT operated from Mary’s desk. What a fabulous thought that this is where the seed was built and now we are the largest microfinance network in Africa serving women. At that point in time, in the 1980s, it was unthinkable that a woman would think of a women’s bank. The first asset KWFT had was a desk from Mary that she asked the bank to give us. I still have the chair which I have preserved. This is a woman who is an entrepreneur. There are many other women who have inspired me. Look how Ellen Sirleaf became president. For me that is a role model. I see her and know that I can be the president of Kenya. That is a perfect role model for me.
My definition of mentors is people who will get women to move to the next level. It is not the ones who say “be good and be nice,” no; whatever it takes to move you to the next level, take it. That is what excites me and is the kind of mentorship I want to do. But, it has to be structured very well. Mentorship has to be done in levels. Not everyone is aspiring to be president. I can say that now but the young lady just entering a job, she is thinking about moving up the job ladder. Mentorship needs to be thought through very carefully. They tell young girls “look at Jennifer” but you need to get achievable targets, not discourage people. Looking within our cultural context, we must move women up slowly but contextually, slowly breaking the barriers of culture and the ladders of tradition. Mentorship is a slow process. It is something you see, that is the way we need to build.
What advice do you have for other CEOs in the microfinance sector?
I think whether they are women or men, there is need to have a very clear succession plan. They need to prepare those around them, let them know that the cards are going to change and the game will be played differently. It is a very important that women are prepared mentally for the next position because of the cultural conditions and other roles that they play.
There is a very important need within institutions for succession planning, not only on the top level, but all the way down. At KWFT, we plan all the way down to the loan officers. We ask, “If this loan officer is not there, who will take over?” We test the system when everyone goes on annual leave by moving people up temporarily to fill a position. This provides skills and prepares people to take on the next role. This is important for us.
Another strategy for succession is that, after we transformed, bankers wanted to come and work with us. Before the banks were taking our talent. Now we take bankers from the banks, including senior people. We take KWFT staff that know microfinance and pair them with the bankers so that, if they leave, someone is there to take over.
How do you ensure that your institutional culture is aligned with your mission of serving women?
There is a cultural shock for bankers when they join KWFT so we orient them very seriously on our programs. They think they are coming to a tiny NGO but when they arrive they say “this is a monster, how did you create such a monster so quietly?” They internalize how we do things through a really structured learning process. Then they hit the ground running because everybody is running. They realize they have to engage and fit into a certain type of culture. In our culture, there is no one who is a desk worker. Everyone is out there engaging with the women. Our institution is integrated so that anyone can carry out any task but everyone understands that the core of the institution is the women. When they join the institution, we reorient them in the field. We hire people before they have a desk, so that they can go for a month in the field, and learn how we relate to each other as staff and how we relate to clients. Our principles are excellent services and accountability for results to each other, clients and the institution. We are purpose-driven and target-driven. In banks, staff is part of an entire production line. At KWFT, they take responsibility for every action and there is no room for failure.
How do you maintain accountability at the board and senior management level?
We do not know how to accept failure. The board tells me that sometimes people fail and you have to accept a failure once in a while. For example, when the violence happened in Kenya, clients were displaced and our repayment rate went down to 96 percent and I was devastated. The board could not understand why but, to write off this amount for the first time in 20 years was painful. Because we have such strong accountability, if something is wrong with your portfolio sometimes you feel you have failed yourself and everybody. You are responsible but collectively we are all responsible. In fact, success awards are not given to individuals; they are collective because it is everybody’s effort that contributes to the whole.
The Managing Director of the bank is very clear on this. You can’t award a single person. The head office, which I am part of, has set very high targets. If a regional office gets an “A” in portfolio quality, disbursement, delinquency, staff turnout, return on equity, and sustainability, they get a trophy. The head office gets the average score based on what all regions have achieved because that is what the head office has done. All that we have put in to the regions is what comes out. This is how we maintain a culture of performance and a culture of excellence.