Table Banking is putting millions of shillings in the hands of women

By Joyce Chimbi

Nairobi, Kenya

For years Maryanne Wacu was the designated treasurer for the Gwataniro (coming together) women’s group in Ikinu, Kiambu County. It was a merry-go-round that functioned just like many others at the time.

“It was a group [of women] saving [together] and we contributed once a month. The treasurer of the group would keep the money for a month and hand it over to each of the group members in turn,” she explains.

To keep the money safe and as was the case with women of her time, the 70-year old explains that she would hide it in her brassier. “This later caused a very severe breast infection,” says Wacu.

In a group of 12 women it would take each woman a year to access the kitty. But not anymore. Kenyan women have revolutionalised group saving. In the hands and pockets of women from all walks of life are millions in savings.

Women turn the tables

“The table banking concept has literally turned tables on financial institutions,” explains Margaret Ochieng’, executive director, Women Concern.

Women Concern is based in Kisumu, Nyanza region and has introduced the table banking concept to 100 women in four different groups of 25 women each, offering them training on ways to mobilise their own resources.

Ochieng’ explains that table banking is a group saving strategy where members from a particular group place their savings and borrow immediately giving each member a shot at the money.

This means that the money is not saved in banks or hoarded by the treasurer of the group to be distributed later. “At any given time the money revolves among the members giving them instant access to credit without collateral,” Ochieng’ expounds.

The most solid collateral used to access credit is land. However, the challenge is that farming on land that they do not own; women have remained systematically excluded and marginalized by financial institutions.

“But over time women have become resourceful and the table banking concept is genius,” explains Dr Francis Kiragu a gender and development lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

One of the most visible table banking movements in Kenya is the Joyful Women Table Banking movement with 200,000 members in all 47 counties.

This movement is estimated to have a revolving fund estimated at 27 million dollars of liquid money currently at the hands of the women in form of loans.

Re-inventing group saving

Through instant saving and borrowing, women who could barley put food on the table are controlling millions in savings.

Members of the Nyabende and Obunga village table banking loans and savings movement share a light moment. Photo Joyce Chimbi.

Take Grace Awino for example from Obunga table banking group in Kisumu. When her husband ran her out of their home in Ahero, Kisumu County with a machete, it was the last straw in a marriage marred by physical and emotional abuse.

“I left with my three children and rented a small room for eight dollars per month but we were evicted after only two months,” she says.

This was six years ago and that woman who could not raise eight dollars in rent is now a distant memory. In her place is an entrepreneur with several pieces of land including the one on which her home now stands.

Her transformation started when she began making tea for construction workers and joined a table banking group.

“I had joined and dropped out of other merry-go-rounds but this one was different. We would save and borrow everything immediately. You could even borrow more than you had saved,” Awino expounds.

On their very first meeting she placed 28 dollars on the table. It is all the money that she had, but left with 55 dollars from other members’ contribution.

Hers is the story of many women living in rural areas across the country as the table banking movement continues to make waves. What’s more, financial institutions are taking notes.

Table banking has enabled women like Miriam Auma to won land and cattle, providing a sustainable source of livelihood. Photo Joyce Chimbi

All the leading banks now have a group account to entice table banking groups. A number of financial institutions have gone as far as tailoring these accounts to the needs of women.

It is perhaps for this reason that statistics by the Central Bank of Kenya now show that women are currently the top savers accounting for at least 82 percent of total savings in Kenya.

Further, transactions associated with women’s bank accounts now stand at an estimated 58 percent. “Table banking has pulled women from the sidelines and into mainstream financial institutions,” Dr Kibe emphasizes.

A typical week for table bankers

Tabitha Njeri, a member of Mwaki (fire) table banking group in Kiambaa, Kiambu County explains that most groups meet every Friday.

“We place our contributions on the table. Loans are repaid with interests and any outstanding fines are also paid,” she explains.

“Our group is only three years old, we are 20 women. At this point, in just one meeting we place about 1,000 dollars on the table. It is a lot of money. By the end of the year we plan to have raised at least 3,000 dollars. This money is then taken back into the members’ pockets in form of loans,” she says.

At the very next members’ meeting, what will be placed on the table is the actual capital that was shared out in the previous week plus loan repayments and depending on the group, other contributions are included.

Susan Atieno attends to a calf she acquired through the Obunga table banking self help group. Photo Joyce Chimbi.

“In our group we contribute an additional 20 dollars every week towards needs that directly touch on our children. This money is recorded separately but is shared out in form of loans. These loans attract a small fee that adds to our kitty,” says Awino.

While table banking groups across the country are guided by similar principles, they vary in the manner in which they chose to raise additional funds.

“Our group applies for grants from the county government, especially through our Women Representative’s office and also seeks support from other well wishers. This has helped us to sustain some of the ambitious projects that we have,” Njeri explains.

Njeri’s group, just like many others is investing in land “we buy a big chunk of land jointly and then sub-divide so that we each get a piece of it.”

Other creative ways of raising money involve small charges for lateness to the weekly meeting, absence with or without apology and even talking on the phone during the meeting.

Statistics by the Kenya Lands Alliance shows that women still hold less than five percent of all title deeds, and jointly hold less than ten percent of land title deeds.

While there are no recent figures on how much the revolving fund movement has contributed towards improving women access to land, there is no doubt that their financial muscle can no longer be ignored.

Editor's Note: This report was made possible through a reporting grant from the Women in Media Network (WIMN).