On a fine afternoon in Nairobi's Mukuru Fuata Nyayo slum, Roseline Juma is busy preparing vegetables in her makeshift grocery store for customers to buy in the evening as they head home from work.
The 54-year-old mother of seven and grandmother of 10 has been in the grocery business for the past 27 years, working in and around the slum area.
When she relocated her business to be nearer the entrance to the slums just over 10 years ago, her friends asked if she'd help them set up a small savings and loans group. Juma jumped at the chance to be able to start saving a little money.
"This group has held my family together financially as I have been able to borrow money for my children's school fees and repay them later gradually. One of my daughters has just graduated from college as a teacher and that makes me very proud," Juma says.
Since her husband, Josiah Aringo, 61, was diagnosed with acute pneumonia, Juma's family has become wholly dependent on the money she makes. Aringo says he is lucky to have had his wife earning an extra income to sustain him and his family.
"Before I fell sick, I was getting casual jobs outside the slums but after I was diagnosed I had to fully depend on my wife to provide everything for us because I cannot carry anything heavy now and therefore just remain here at the grocery helping my wife sell vegetables and take over whenever she is called upon to attend her group meetings," Aringo explains.
For most people living in Nairobi's slums, finding an extra source of income can be very difficult: There is widespread poverty and opportunities are limited. But for this group of women, things are gradually changing.
In 2007, Juma helped form a 20-woman table banking group whose members pool their resources. Table banking involves members of a group meeting up regularly to save and invest together, making loans to one another without having to go through an outside organization.
Initially, Juma's group each contributed 50 Kenyan shillings ($0.50) a week, saving only what they could from the money their husbands left for them to spend each day. But as the group has taken off, they've been able to increase their weekly contribution to 200 shillings ($2) each. The number of members has also grown and they have divided their group into two, which they call the Commercial A & B Self-Help Groups.
Assistance With Childcare
Juma's group now also runs a daycare center, which has enabled many of the women in the slums to go out to work, reassured that their children will receive nutritious meals while they are there.
Mother-of-two Dorcas Malilu adds that her daughter is looked after at the center for only 30 shillings ($0.30) a day—a fraction of her previous childcare costs.
"Before, I used to pay 100 shillings ($1) every day at another daycare center and I would also be required to pack food for her. Now, she gets all her meals, including a nutritious porridge, here at the center for only 30 shillings daily, something I can pay with enough left over to feed my family in the evening and pay other bills," Malilu says.
When the savings group started, the women were trained by Mukuru Child Wellness Center, which is run by ChildFund Kenya, an non-governmental organization working in the slums to alleviate poverty among women and improve the well-being of their children.
After talking to a number of women, Jane Wairimu, the group's chairwoman, says they realized that a lack of affordable childcare in the vicinity was a major obstacle to women working. The women said they were unable to get their children to other daycare centers because, aside from the high costs, they would often be unable to get past a river in the slum that was prone to flooding, so the women had to remain home with their children or carry them to work.
"We have grown and, as many parents bring their children here, we are now thinking of a way to purchase another piece of land, where we will build a school since the children have been introduced to learning and we have also employed trained teachers. The space here, however, is small," Wairimu says.
Putting Money in Women's Hands
The United Nations Development Program recognizes women's economic empowerment as being "critical to achieving gender equality and sustainable development."
Agnes Odhiambo, senior researcher for women's rights at Human Rights Watch, echoes this. "Women's economic empowerment is central to gender equality. Various studies have shown that putting more money in women's hands, compared to men, is the smart thing to do. Women invest their money in their families and communities, which really are the foundations of strong societies. Women invest in projects that meet the needs of their communities, like in the case of Mukuru," she says.
"For example, when women are economically empowered, they will invest in the education and health of their families. They are also better able to make independent decisions about their reproductive lives and therefore lead healthier lives, but also being economically empowered helps women to be less likely to face domestic violence, which is a big problem in Kenyan slums. The Kenyan government should realize that economically independent women equals happier families, less poverty, and more national development," Odhiambo says.
When Juma arrives back from her group meeting, she finds her husband seated next to her groceries, watching their grandchildren play nearby. He hands her the money he has collected from sales while she was away.
"This business, and through the loans that my wife gets, has assisted us to educate our children. When a woman is empowered economically and can make money, that is the best thing as I have been able to see. Our children have gone to school, including also our grandchildren whose fees we pay," Aringo concludes, pointing at one of his grandchildren, who is due to graduate from primary school this year.
This article originally appeared on Women's Advancement Deeply. You can find the original here. For important news about women's economic advancement, you can sign up to the Women's Advancement email list.