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Women lead the way in Kenya's thriving investment groups

By Lillian Leposo, for CNN
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Kenya's women investment group
  • Kenyan women forming their own investment groups, known as "chamas"
  • They aim to build a nest egg for retirement
  • Banking analysts say three out of every five Kenyans is part of a "chama"
  • Some banks have created niche products to target these groups

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- At the up-market "Urembo" hair and beauty salon, in uptown Nairobi, entrepreneur Maureen Murunga has her sights set on expanding her business.

The growth is important to Murunga, who bought the business a year ago, without the help of big banks.

"A local small bank gave me my first break," she says.

"But it wasn't without a lot of tears, tantrums, kickings and insisting that they would have to support me," she adds.

Murunga, who has a background in banking, says it is difficult for women to get credit from banks to start businesses.

"The bank will limit the financing to the security available," says Murunga. "For the women in this region, that is the challenge, because that will involve things like land, which traditionally families will give that to men.

"So for women, creativity is a big part."

That need for creative financing led Murunga to start an investment group, or "chama" as they are popularly known in Kiswahili.

Unlike the traditional revolving fund groups that merely saved money, theirs is an active investment group. Registered as Unathi Investment Limited, the 21-women in the group, mostly in their late 30s, are drawn from all sectors, ranging from finance to information technology to legal.

We hold each other accountable in terms of our resources, ensuring that we have something aside for our retirement.
--Nancy Kanyango, Unathi Investment Limited
  • Kenya
  • Nairobi
  • Business

Their common goal is to build a solid retirement nest egg. Each member's monthly minimum contribution is about $200 but the more they contribute the more shares they get.

Murunga says when it comes to new members they look for someone who is interested in their long-term strategic vision and thus willing to pump in money for 10 years without getting any out.

Collectively, they have been able to purchase prime real estate, trade shares in the stock market and invest in unlisted, growing companies.

"The chama has been very exciting in that it's been much easier for us to quickly invest in big deals which would not have been possible if I tried to do (it) myself," says Murunga.

Another member is Nancy Kanyango, the current chair and a legal expert working with the government. She says shared responsibility is important.

"We hold each other accountable in terms of our resources, ensuring that we have something aside for our retirement," she says.

But even with their group's achievements in just three years, Kanyango is quick to point out that it's not all been smooth sailing.

"All our personalities are different -- some people are fast at making decisions or have a greater risk appetite than others," she says, and the members must balance their commitments to the chama with busy nine-to-five jobs.

Banking analysts say three out of every five Kenyans is part of a chama and banks have been moving to profit from this niche market. Some banks have even created products that specifically target chama groups, with favorable interest rates and sizeable loan potential.

Joseph Okumu, a product manager with Bank of Africa, says: "We're an SME (small and medium enterprise) bank. We thought if we sit to get an SME that has grown 10 years we probably might miss out on the market, so we thought, let's get these groups, empower them and grow them so that they become an SME from an early age."

Though the group is run with a steady hand, the members still take time out to socialize, going back to the spirit of what brought them together: friendship.

"It's about the money but also more than that," says Kanyango.

"We know each other; we know each other's family and what goes on in each of our lives," she adds.

Now men are also forming their own groups or joining mixed-groups. But the women of the Unathi group say they're a long way from allowing the men in.

"We made a deliberate decision that it would be a woman's group", says Kanyango, "just the dynamics of not mixing with men on that space."

"It's our space," she adds with a laugh.