Keeping Kenya’s women-led businesses afloat during COVID-19 lockdown


As Kenya adopted containment measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, many small business operations were hit hard.

Irene chopping cabbage for customers in her stall in Ugunja. Photo: UN Women/Ben Brewster
Irene chopping cabbage for customers in her stall in Ugunja. Photo: UN Women/Ben Brewster

Irene Auma had just returned home to Ugunja in Western Kenya from Uganda when Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the country would go into lockdown.

“I had just bought goods worth USD 500 from Uganda to sell in my stall at the market,” said Irene. “All my goods perished, there was nothing to sell. Besides, there were police everywhere, so traders could not attempt to sell.”

According to a UN Women Kenya study, COVID-19 has disrupted the sources of livelihoods for many, particularly for lower-income households. The number of women estimated to have lost all income as a result of the pandemic is 1.6 times higher than male counterparts.

To mitigate the impact of the pandemic for women, girls and their community, UN Women partnered with the Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT) to offer affordable credit and business management training supported by the Government of Japan. So far the scheme has dispersed over USD 60,000. KWFT developed a unique and affordable loan product aimed at supporting affected women entrepreneurs to replenish their stock and meet other related business expenses ensuring their business had continuity.

High interest rates, short repayment time and need for collateral by banks makes it hard for women run small and medium enterprises to access credit. “I don’t have a title deed, I don’t have a car logbook, all I have is this vegetable stall, so accessing loans from the bank is very hard for me,” explained Irene. The revolving fund assisted businesswomen to avoid extended losses and business failure through urgent response to the pandemic. An initial grant of USD 50,000 was distributed to 314 women across the country who also received mentorship and training on business development.

According to Elizabeth Obanda, UN Women Kenya’s Economic Empowerment Specialist, the loan sought to benefit micro, small, and medium-sized women-led enterprises. “Women entrepreneurs were able to revive their businesses, improve their income as well as meet their financial obligations and support their family. This enhanced their sustainable livelihood, dignity and built their self-esteem,” she said.

“With the flexible loan, I received [USD 200], and was able to get my business running again. I have been able to afford food and pay school fees for my children. If women are empowered, we become strong to support our families.” Within 3 months, Irene repaid the initial loan and has borrowed again to pay her daughter’s college fees. “With this flexible loan, I will be able to educate my children too,” she added.

Supported by the Government of Japan, UN Women Kenya has been working with Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT), through Echo Network Africa (ENA), to provide affordable credit access to women-led small businesses in Kenya. To date, short-term loans have benefitted 669 entrepreneurs in 45 out of Kenya’s 47 counties, reaching women entrepreneurs in urban, rural and marginalized communities.