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  • Joyce Chimbi—Kenya

Table banking: A Kenyan innovation for women, by women

Kenya’s rural women are routinely denied land rights and form a sizeable portion of the country's unbanked population. Marginalised and excluded, the women have innovated a financial solution to safeguard their future.

The table banking movement enables women to purchase land, lease land for farming, and buy farm inputs.

Photo: Joyce Chimbi

“When my father subdivided his land, all my brothers received a portion. I was not included because I am a woman. Instead, he advised me to buy a piece of land so that he could die in peace in the knowledge that I had somewhere to call my home. Ours is a patrilineal society and women have not ordinarily owned land or movable property,” says Dr Marie Rarieya, council member at the University of Nairobi and an expert in climate change, gender, and sustainable development in Kenya.

In Kenya, like in many other parts of the world, families deny women a share of land, arguing that men remain within the family with the inherited property, whereas women marry and leave to join a different family. “Some widows have to agree to be ‘inherited’ by their brothers-in-law to continue accessing the land that their husbands left behind,” says Rarieya.

According to Kenya’s Ministry of Land, just 1% of land title deeds are held exclusively by women and 5% are held jointly with men. The remaining 94% of Kenyan land is owned and controlled by men. At best, women’s land user rights are hinged on their relationship with men, whether husbands, fathers, or brothers.

Yet, land is a critical factor of production and the backbone of Kenya’s economy. The agriculture sector employs approximately 40% of the total population, 70% of the rural population, and accounts for more than 33% of the country’s GDP.

Most Kenyan women live in rural areas and, despite accounting for at least 89% of the subsistence labour force and 70% of cash crop labour, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, they farm on land they do not own or control. Significant gender inequalities persist in access to land, its utilisation, and access to agricultural extension services, education, and financial services.

Women have long been considered a liability by financial institutions, and even until some years ago women could not open a bank account without male representation, usually her husband or father. Although a lot has changed, women still account for a majority of the unbanked population—people who do not have a bank account. They have little to no access to credit, which further curtails their ability to acquire and farmland.

To address the cultural discrimination that has economically disenfranchised one half of the Kenyan population, women are turning to innovative financial solutions. Together, they are working towards a future characterised by financial security and better health, for themselves and the land they farm.

Table banking women build financial resilience

Table banking is a microcredit movement for women and by women, and is so called since all the money transactions are conducted over a mere table in contrast to the elaborate formal trappings of banks and other financial institutions. First developed in Kenya to expand options for low-income rural women, the loan system is built on trust and a simple idea. Members give each other a small loan, which the borrower pays back with a small interest. They plough the interest and the capital back into the kitty, and the cycle continues. No amount is too little to save or borrow. As time goes by, the money available for borrowing increases.

Irene Kipkoech, a member of the Kamagut table banking group in Rift Valley, says her group meets weekly or monthly with 20 to 30 members in attendance. They place their savings on the table and borrow from each other at an agreed interest rate.

“I found hope in table banking. Today, I am a landowner and I also own a tractor that I hire out for profit.”

“The next time we meet, we place our new savings on the table and the money is again borrowed by the members. We do not take our money to a bank. The money rotates among us,” she says.

Research by the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Kenya shows that a mix of cultural, legal, and social factors—such as religious and customary laws that privilege men over women—stand in the way of women’s land and property rights. Table banking helps women sidestep these barriers and provides a pathway to land ownership.

“I am a woman living with disability, paralysed from my waist down. When my mother passed on, I lost all hope in life. I had no one to turn to,” Kipkoech says. “Homeless, I tried living on the streets of Eldoret in the Rift Valley, but it was too cold. I turned to illicit brew—brewing, selling, and drinking. I was drinking to die.

“I found hope in table banking. Today, I am a landowner and I also own a tractor that I hire out for profit.”

She says table banking also helps her lease land for farming during the planting season. “I took a short-term loan of KSh60,000 (US$432) in February to buy seeds, fertiliser, and hire farm hands in preparation for the maize planting season in March. I will harvest in August, and by the end of September I will have repaid my loan in full, using profits from the sale of maize from my acre of land,” Kipkoech adds.

The Kamagut table banking group is facilitated by the Joyful Women Organization, a Nairobi-based NGO and umbrella table banking organisation that is one of the largest in Kenya, with more than 240,000 members. Cumulatively, table banking groups across the country circulate an estimated KSh60 million to KSh80 million (US$433,451 to US$577,964) per year.

Financial security and women’s health

Table banking is a catalyst for women’s economic empowerment, which has flow-on effects for health and wellbeing. For Kipkoech, the impact has been life-changing. “People wrote me off as I crawled on the ground because I did not have a wheelchair. I also have a deformed finger from an infection that went untreated for a long time for lack of healthcare,” she says.

"Economically empowered women have a voice in family planning and access to quality healthcare throughout their pregnancy, reducing their risk of death from childbirth”

“Today, I have a wheelchair, and any time I need to go to the hospital for a check-up or treatment, I hire a driver. This would have been impossible without the profits from my farm. I also made the decision to have two children. My life is full.”

The impact is especially pronounced in access to reproductive health and family planning, explains Masese Kemunche from the Center for Enhancing Democracy and Good Governance, a non-political grassroots advocacy group focused on women’s socioeconomic empowerment and development.

“Economically empowered women have options. They can meaningfully participate in decisions that affect them. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are pillars of women’s health. Economically empowered women have a voice in family planning and access to quality healthcare throughout their pregnancy, reducing their risk of death from childbirth,” he says, explaining that sexual and gender-based violence is also lower among women with higher decision-making power.

Health insurance through the country’s National Health Insurance Fund, which costs KSh500 (US$3.61) per month for people in the informal sector and is held by just 26% of women, helps women deliver under the care of skilled birth attendants, reducing both maternal and infant mortality.

Financial security enables women to choose safer sex practices such as using a condom without fear of retribution from their partner. The Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) 2022 shows that 76% of married women and 89% of sexually active unmarried women have a need for family planning. If all women who say they want to space or limit their children were to use family planning methods, the contraceptive prevalence rate would increase from 62% to 76% among married women, and from 70% to 89% among sexually active unmarried women. Unmet need for family planning declines with increasing wealth, from 22% among currently married women in the lowest wealth quintile to 10% among those in the highest wealth quintile.

Table banking can also have a profound impact on young women’s access to healthcare and their children’s access to education. Recent statistics from the Ministry of Health show that Kenya has the third highest rate of teen pregnancies globally, with young women from lower-income families more likely to become pregnant than those from higher-income families.

Kemunche says economically empowered women keep their children in school, disrupting the cycle of adolescent and teenage pregnancies. “Research has shown that many girls get pregnant seeking favours from boda boda [motorbike taxi] riders to buy hygiene products or free transportation to school. Economically empowered mothers can facilitate access to education and protect their children from such predators,” he says.

Rural women are using table banking to sidestep discriminatory and harmful cultural practices that undermine the critical role women play in sustainable food production.

Photo: Joyce Chimbi

Gender parity in food security

With climate change worsening food insecurity, which disproportionately affects women, table banking helps Kenyan women farm more reliable crops. Smallholder farmers, who account for 75% of agricultural output in Kenya, have long relied on informal seed systems, where they save seeds from previous harvests, borrow, and share with one another. Kenya’s Seed and Plant Varieties Act prohibits exchange and sharing of Indigenous seeds, which are characterised by a strong resilience to climate change and higher yields. Farmers must buy certified climate-resilient seeds.

Rarieya says women who own or control land can afford to grow climate-resilient crops as well as grow or purchase nutrient-adequate foods. “Climate-resilient crops have a low vulnerability to pests, diseases, and changes in weather patterns. These crops give higher yields, providing food security at the household level, and ensure a steady supply of food commodities at local and national markets. Resilient crops are a pillar of food security for women farmers, who can put food on the table and money in their own pockets.”

Indeed, nutrient-adequate and healthy diets cost two to three times more than diets that meet only energy needs, according to the World Food Programme; the KDHS report found nine in 10 women took iron-containing supplements during their most recent pregnancy.

Access to climate-resilient crops and greater awareness of sustainability practices are also encouraging women to switch their households from biomass or kerosene—which are relied on by about 85% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa—to cleaner forms of energy for cooking.

“Rural women are significantly embracing clean energy for they have a choice and can afford to switch from wood fuel to cooking gas, reducing indoor pollution. Table banking is not only about saving and borrowing—it has become a platform for mentorship and training in better health, hygiene, and sanitation practices,” says Kemunche.


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