‘People Say I Lost… But I Really Won’

About the Author

Beatrice Karanja is a former Partner Relations Manager for African Wildlife Foundation. More

Opening Ceremony of the Nasaruni Banking Hall in Kimanjo, Laikipia

As a young Samburu girl on the semi-arid lands of Laikipia in northern Kenya, Jane Putonoi could not shake the deep-rooted feeling that she had to serve her community. After witnessing time and time again the irreversible effects of traditional cultural practices like early marriage and female genital mutilation on her friends, relatives and other young girls in the community, Jane fast realized that education was her only sure avenue to achieving her goal.

Her parents, like their parents before them and the many generations prior, lived the nomadic pastoral lives of the Samburu people of northern Kenya. Their lives were dependent on their herds of cattle and goats, and they placed little value in education. But with much convincing from church elders, whom the family would encounter in their treks across the vast landscape, Jane’s parents eventually enrolled her in a Catholic boarding school.

Today, Jane is the Laikipia County executive in charge of trade, tourism and enterprise development—a key position, considering that the mainstay economic activities for the county include tourism and agriculture (which in this part of the country include crops, ranching and greenhouse horticulture). With several degrees under her belt—including a master’s in leadership development, a bachelor’s in arts and sociology, a higher degree in epidemiology and a diploma in clinical medicine and surgery—Jane has indeed used education as a springboard to public service.

In Kenya’s landmark 2013 national elections, Jane vied for the Laikipia deputy governor’s seat. “I always knew that I wanted to serve, and the 2013 election was a good opportunity for me to honour the promise I had made to myself so many years ago,” Jane explains. “Kenya’s new system of devolved government appealed to me and to my vision of helping my people and our communities reap the benefits of more focused, better informed and mutually beneficial economic and social growth. Being from a minority community, this meant a lot to me.”

She did not win the deputy governor’s seat.

“People say I lost… but I really I won,” Jane remarks. “I may not be the deputy governor, but the position that I have is most rewarding. I am at the center of ensuring the betterment of the communities that we serve, particularly with the women who are the true backbone of our community.”

Empowering financial model

The 25th Summit of the African Union (AU) recently took place under the theme, “Year of Women Empowerment and Development toward Africa’s Agenda 2063.” The AU Africa Agenda 2063 states, “The Africa of 2063 would see fully empowered women with equal access and opportunity in all spheres of life. This means that the African woman would have equal economic rights, including the rights to own and inherit property, sign a contract, register and manage a business. Over 90 percent of rural women would have access to productive assets, including land, credit, inputs and financial services.”

That Africa that continental leaders envision is an Africa that Jane is already creating.

Take the Nasaruni Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) in Kimanjo, Laikipia District. Recently Jane, together with officials from the Laikipia County government, African Wildlife Foundation and the Netherlands Embassy in Kenya, opened a new banking hall to house the Nasaruni SACCO.

Nasaruni was started in April 2009 as a lending group of 141 registered members from among nine women’s groups. At the time, it had an asset base of Kshs 22,600—about US$230. It has since grown into a fully fledged financial services operation, with more than 1,346 members and an asset base in the range of Kshs 8.8 million, or US$82,000. The new banking hall and office building uses the latest information & communication technology to manage members’ files and solar panels to support the machinery running there. With the hall’s new location at the center of the many outlaying communities, critical social safety nets, such as access to finance, ability to save and diversification of investments, are now at people’s doorstep.

“Before this hall opened, women would have to travel at least 25 km to the nearest bank, so saving and managing money was not a common practice. Women would have to stash the little money they had between the hides on which they slept or even dig holes around the boma [homestead] and stash the money there,” says Jane, noting that these options often resulted in money being stolen or lost. “Now they can save safely, borrow against their savings and invest in their futures and the futures of their children. The women are now empowered.”

The Nasaruni SACCO has emerged as one of the only major financial institutions in Kimanjo. With the pastoralist communities relying so heavily on livestock as a means to accumulate wealth, this financial model offers them an opportunity to mitigate financial loss during times of drought and poor market access, especially the women. Observes Jane, “Access of the people at large, including the rural poor, to financial institutions is paramount. A great majority of women in these communities who were largely dependent on moneylenders and other means of financial support can now be equal with women in the urban cities.”

Jane adds that plans are underway to take this model to other women’s groups and cooperatives. “I can now stand proud and recognize that I—we—have come far. We can succeed and improve our lives. Just because we come from a traditional pastoral background doesn’t mean our future cannot be one of modernity and progression,” she says.

The 25th African Union Summit kicked off last week in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the theme, "Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa’s Agenda 2063." Since the 1980’s, women's empowerment has been integrated in every aspect of African development strategies including but not limited to education, business and employment. However, conservation and environment management is the critical area that has not been given the necessary attention for women involvement. 

The above blog post is one of a series that underscores the important role of women in conservation matters, and how women every day across Africa are already empowered to make decisions that have critical impact on their own future, the future of their families and the future of Africa’s natural resources. Discover more blogs in this series.