Africa Defense Forum
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Savings Groups Give Lifeline to Kenyans

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VOICE OF AMERICA

The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out an estimated 2 million jobs in Kenya, forcing many into the informal economy. Kenyans, however, also have a secret that is keeping many of them financially afloat — the largest cooperative savings and loan movement in Africa. 

With more than 14 million members making monthly contributions, Kenya’s cooperatives offer loans during tough times, helping many to ride out the pandemic or even start their own businesses. 

Judy Muthama was selling shoes and utensils in the Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum in central Nairobi. Sales were good until the pandemic wiped out her business. But she is restarting her business with a $600 loan from a savings and credit union, where she has had a membership for three years.

Muthama said that if it were not for the cooperative, she would have closed her business. She said the cooperative improved her situation each time she encountered financial constraints. 

Austin Oduor is the chairman of Uprising Housing Cooperative, whose savings union has 834 members. He said the union has seen an 80% drop in monthly collections since March 2020, but it still is helping members get through tough economic periods. 

“While they appreciate the cooperative, we have worked with them in a number of things,” he said. “We have given them meal vouchers, hand washes, masks. We gave some of them loans to take their children back to school.”

Kristin Wilcox, director of a United States Agency for International Development program that works closely with the cooperative societies in Kenya, said she admires the initiative that drives the groups.

“By their very nature there is no one from outside assisting these members to achieve their goals. It’s purely based on their own energies and own abilities to collectivize,” she said. “I think that’s exciting because there is no one, no man behind the curtains, there is no one there at the end of the day to take the bulk of the profit. What they are able to achieve is on their own.”

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