FOUNDER: Board president of Zawadisha, Jen Gurecki, with the chairladies.
FOUNDER: Board president of Zawadisha, Jen Gurecki, with the chairladies.
SEEING THE LIGHT: Mary with her solar lamp.
SEEING THE LIGHT: Mary with her solar lamp.
Micro-lending is increasingly important in many African countries. And although the industry struggles with criticism about high interest rates and lack of data to support its impact, small loans can make a big difference in people’s lives.

“We started with what most people associate with micro-lending: cash loans,” says Jen Gurecki, founder and board president of micro-lender Zawadisha. “But business is hard everywhere in the world and most people fail. This is the same for the women we lent to. They were often switching businesses trying to follow trends in the market.”

Gurecki started Zawadisha (“to give a gift” in Swahili) in Kenya as part of a grassroots project. She began with 10 women she’d met while researching bottom-up approaches to social change and community development for her Master’s degree.

“I used photography as a research methodology,” she says.

“It’s called Photovoice and it’s a process by which people can identify, enhance, and represent their own communities. It’s a practice based in the production of knowledge and the women who I worked with were at the forefront of creating this knowledge rather than me as an outside researcher.”

These women were representative of the Kenyan women Gurecki has met since then. They were eager, bright, and driven. They were clear about what role they could play in uplifting their families. They were committed to being the drivers of change.

“They welcomed me as an outsider and made me feel like family,” Gurecki says. “To improve their lives, they wanted to stand on their own two feet, as they often said then and continue to convey today.”

Gurecki started making annual trips from the US and now spends two to three months per year in Kenya, a country she considers her second home. But during her first trip back to east Africa, she saw some of the realities of micro-lending.

“Not all of them invested 100% of the funds into their businesses, which is normal and legitimate,” she says. “Instead, we found that a good chunk of that money was used to purchase household items.

"I also observed first-hand that the narrative around uplifting people from poverty with one loan was flawed. It was at this time that I knew we needed to revisit our model to better support these women.”

As Gurecki and her team watched the traditional micro-lending industry boom (and were faced with serious competition as a result), they looked for opportunities to offer services that would help women but weren’t available to them. They also realised that sometimes cash loans could be more of a burden than a solution. Indeed, although all the initial loans were repaid, Zawadisha learned a lot of what Gurecki describes as “hard lessons that have helped shape what the organisation is today”.

“In one of the many conversations I had with women in rural villages, I learned that what would make an immediate change in their lives was access to lights and water,” she says. “They wanted solar lamps and rain water catchment tanks, but no one would offer them on credit, nor could they afford the $25-$50 price. So we changed our model with loans for those, and the rest is history.”

Gurecki explains that when rural Kenyan women living in poverty have access to renewable energy and water they see a dramatic increase in the quality of their lives. Money that was spent on kerosene lamps can now go to school fees. And the six hours that were spent walking to a river for water or into the forest for wood can now go to income-generating activities.

As women become responsible for dramatic changes that benefit the family, their status in the home goes up.

“Because of poor distribution and high costs, simple household items like rainwater tanks, clean cook stoves, and solar lamps are out of reach to women whose lives depend upon them,” Gurecki says.

“We remove the barriers for rural women to access renewable energy and water products by eliminating the up-front costs through an in-house financing programme, and deliver the items directly to their doorsteps. We also employ local women as peer educators who provide financial literacy, and micro-enterprise and leadership training to our borrowers.”

For user Khadija, having constant access to water has changed everything. The time she used to spend collecting water is now used on beadwork and farming, making life a lot less stressful. Janet expresses similar gratitude: having access to a water tank means she doesn’t have to travel far for water during a drought.

“Zawadisha has helped me with new improved farming methods,” says Hellen, another woman the organisation supports. “Nowadays I save on buying vegetables. Also, I sell the ones I don’t use to my neighbours and earn money. In our area things are tough because of drought. We need to learn new ways of surviving.”

The organisation operates in Taita Taveta county and Narok in Kenya. It employs a dozen people and works with nearly 2000 women. But considering that each of them uses their "loan" to help their family, Gurecki believes at least 10000 people have benefited from Zawadisha’s work to date.

“We’re in the early stages of our organisation and this work can be so hard,” she says. "We’re optimistic about 2017 as we will meet our first quarter fundraising and loan distribution goals. We aim to increase our portfolio by 100% this year and so far we’re on track.”

“I charge people’s phones at 10 shillings with my solar light," says Umazi.

"At first I didn’t keep any records but after training on record keeping and saving I now save my money and I have saved KSh600 in my MPesa. I am happy."

“Having access to a water tank helps us not to travel far for water during drought times and that time saved is put towards economic opportunities, such as kiosks, beadwork, farming, and basket weaving,” said Janet.