At 19 years of age, Jennifer Riria got pregnant. She had just completed her A-levels at Kipsigis Girls High School as the pioneer class. Her dad, a deacon, was repulsive and she was kicked out of home. But determined to make the best out of life, she travelled with her baby to the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania where she secured scholarship to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Education. Thereafter, through another scholarship, she got Master’s degree at the University of Leeds in the UK.
Dr Jennifer Riria is the Group CEO of Echo Network Africa (ENA) and founding member of Kenya Women Holding and Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT) Microfinance Bank. She is distinguished as Microfinance Banker and Practitioner, Researcher and Gender Specialist. She has led KWFT for over two decades and transformed it from an unprofitable NGO to a microfinance bank that it is today, serving low income women and their families. Starting out with a staff of four, she worked tirelessly with a clear vision and changed the fortunes of the organisation. Consequently, she improved the economic status of more than 4 million women and their families, and disbursed over US$ 3 billion over a period of 25 years.
She is an institutional builder who focuses on organizations that empower and advocate for the majority, particularly women and their families. As a mark of a true leader at heart, she chairs the TUVUKE Initiative which advocates 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 participation for all in the democratic processes, and especially, inclusion and visibility of women at all levels in the political processes.
For her service in many of these leadership roles, she has been recognized locally and internationally. But unlike many who had supportive childhood background towards achieving their goals, Jennifer Riria was not privileged to have such opportunity.
Background And Education
Jennifer was born in rural Kenya about 700 kilometres from Nairobi in the 1950s. She was the fourth born in a family of 10 children. She grew up in abject poverty, sleeping in the same room with chicken and goats as her parents were peasant farmers in Meru. Young Jennifer did household chores that other young girls only heard of; she fetched water and firewood, tended cows and also looked after her younger siblings. From childhood, she detested the treatment being given to women in the society. She recounted this in an interview she granted:
“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.”
Jennifer attended a primary school where she had to travel about 4 kilometres from home every day, traveling barefooted and would wash the only uniform she had each night while in pursuit of education. She did not allow these circumstances to limit her as she excelled in her primary school summative examination to secure a place at Precious Blood High School, an all-girls boarding school administered by the religious order of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, located in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and largest city about 700 kilometres from her 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, Jennifer left home for high school.
She recalled that taking charge of her life at the age of 12 gave her a go-getter attitude in life which was further reinforced by the school’s culture that instilled in her the value of responsibility. But alas! At age 19 at the end of high school, Jennifer became pregnant and her dad, a deacon, would have none of it and she was kicked out of home.
Nonetheless, this young lady was determined to make the best of her life. After giving birth, she travelled with her baby to the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania where she obtained a scholarship to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Education. Thereafter, she went on to undertake her Master’s degree in Education Administration at the University of Leeds in the UK. Sadly, her daughter passed on in 2007. Later, Jennifer obtained a Doctor of Philosophy in Women’s Education and Development from Kenyatta University.
It was while undertaking her PhD studies that Jennifer’s calling in life became apparent to her. She described her mission in life as a calling to families through women. She began working on policies that would improve child survival among communities in Kenya supported by the Ford Foundation. While at it, it dawned on her that there was a connection between a child’s survival and its mother’s welfare. Then 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 therefore knew financial inclusion for women would positively impact on their lives, their families and ultimately society at large.
However, she did not 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 before stepping out in the world of microfinance at KWFT where 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.
The Kenya Women Finance Trust proved to be Dr. Jennifer’s first managerial job. The financial institution was established in 1982. But as at 1991 when she joined KWFT, the institution was in bad shape, understaffed, and losing money. Jennifer took the roles of CEO, janitor, office cleaner, accountant, loan officer and receptionist. Without proper management and with limited resources, she had to sit under trees to award loans to women and she had to travel by public means to meet the institution’s clients. Her efforts began to bear fruit and the institution stabilized under her stewardship, and soon enough the institution was on its feet with members and branches all over the country.
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. In February 2018, the holding company then re-branded to Echo Network Africa Limited. Dr. Jennifer Riria is the incumbent CEO of the holding company.
Jennifer has also served on the boards of Kenyan and international organisations, including at the Nairobi Stock Exchange, being the first female to serve in that capacity. She has also served on the boards of Jitegemee Trust Limited – a microfinance company, National Bank of Kenya and Kenya Post Office Savings Bank. Her other leadership engagements include Women World’s Banking (Chair), Jabali Microserve (Chair), Member of the Global Leadership Council of Women and Girls Lead Global, TUVUKE Initiative for peaceful and fair electoral process in Kenya (Chair), a life Board member of Association of Microfinance Institutions in Kenya (AME) of which she is the founder, among others. In the past she played a major role in the reconstruction and re-positioning of NHIF for which she was recognized, AMFI (Founder and Life Member), Post Bank, National Bank and institutions of higher learning.
A Life Of Impact
Today, Kenya can be lauded for making great advances in the banking sector. However, the most unique and innovative service in the banking sector is women-oriented banking which has changed the lives of women around the country. Women are now able to access loans and other financial incentives to build their businesses, take their children to school and empower themselves. But you cannot talk about women and banking and not mention Dr. Jennifer Riria, the entrepreneur who has always been on a mission to transform the lives of women and their families in Kenya. She has singlehandedly transformed the microfinance industry in Kenya in order to tangibly improve the lives of women. Because of her efforts, hundreds of thousands of Kenyan women now have access to finance, previously not available to them, and as a result, are today empowered to live their lives and fulfil their own potential and dreams.
She has been at the forefront of inclusion and education in financial matters for women from marginalised areas. Under her stewardship, KWFT took financing and products to the poor people in the villages. They didn’t have to come to them. She recounted: “….what poor people need is not big money, but it is access to it and that is what micro finance has been able to do. ……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 explained in the interview.
When further asked how different the Kenyan corporate scene is today from when she first started working, she answered: “In the past, women were totally excluded from the economic sector. Once, I went to a well-known banker to request for a loan facility for women. The banker dismissed me, saying that his bank could not work with women. It was really frustrating. This has changed over the past two decades, with many women now holding managerial positions and company leadership…”
For Jennifer Riria, financial education and access for women and thereby change of livelihoods for various households remains her greatest joy. 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 over 100 girls have benefitted from it.
In the words of Melanie Hawken, Lionesses of Africa (LoA) founder and editor-in-chief: “In the world of entrepreneurship and social impact, Dr Jennifer Riria is a real inspiration. She not only steered her own personal path through adversity at a young age, but she went on to tackle a major socio-economic challenge in her native Kenya, as a result empowering hundreds of thousands of women in the process. She is proof positive of the power of the individual to make a difference in the world. Jennifer, we at LoA salute you.”
Jennifer is also the brain behind the Educate the Net 235 Girls initiative. The programme is close to her heart and supports needy girls in their education. She recently just launched The Jennifer Riria Foundation so as to reach out to more girls who fall off the education system due to teenage pregnancies and female genital mutilation among other reasons.
Throughout her career, Dr Jennifer Riria has been a leading advocate for women’s economic empowerment and is a true champion of democracy. In recognition of her efforts, she was awarded and named “Champion of Democracy” by the Ford Foundation in 2012 for her role both as a leader of the TUVUKE Initiative and Group CEO of Kenya Women Finance Trust. She is a recipient of a plethora of other honours and awards.
In 2006 she was awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear by Kenya’s President H.E. Mwai Kibaki for her role in Development. In 2009 she was recognized by the Corporate Council of Africa for her excellence in financing. In 2011 she was also recognized by the Marketing Society of Kenya and awarded “Warrior” status award. In 2013 she was awarded the Ernst & Young (EY) Entrepreneur of the year, East Africa 2013, and subsequently, the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2014, at which point she was admitted to EY’s Global Hall of Fame.
In April 2015, she was awarded The “Most Outstanding Businesswoman of the Year Award” by the Africa Economy Builders. She is the first woman from East Africa to win this prestigious pan-Africa award that seeks to reward and recognize those persons who have contributed significantly to Africa’s growth. In the same year, she received six other awards from the CEO Global as Africa’s most influential woman in business and government, among them was the “Africa Life Time achiever” and “Continental Lifetime Achiever”. In February 2016, she received Intellecap Inspiration award for being a true inspiration in the development sector. In March 2016 she was named the Business for Peace Honoree by Business for Peace Foundation. On May 8th 2017 she received Women of The Decade in Innovation and Leadership Award, by the All Ladies League and Women Economic Forum (WEF) in New Delhi India.
Dr. Jennifer Riria, PHD, MBS, ICON/HP, is a proven transformative leader who strives for results and focused on running an organisation that will outlive her. When asked what the role of the KWH is, she explained its aim is to empower, advocate for rights and position women, youth and people living with disabilities through dedicated programmes, which include capacity building, education and mentorship, peace building and health awareness. The aim is to create a society that is equitable, fair and just. She considers herself an institution builder who is resolute on honesty, hard work, vision and the desire to drive change as her benchmark for success and contribution to the financial realm in the country and beyond. She acknowledges that having God and a strong support system around her enables her to juggle all the roles on her plate.
For every woman born into this world from a humble background and for every woman who thinks she is limited by her circumstances, Jennifer is proof that with determination, there is nothing too hard to achieve. She is a mother of two more children; both daughters, as well as a grandmother. To unwind, she enjoys entertaining guests, reading, playing golf, gardening and travelling. Dr. Jennifer Riria is also the author of two books; an autobiography and A History of Higher Education in Kenya. Both books were launched in June 2014.