“You are part of my life”

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By Nikhil Srivastava, Kenya Ambassador Volunteer

This morning I met Ann Mwaniki, a wholesale phone card saleswoman and mother of two, who has used three Zidisha loans to expand her business inventory and provide extra income for her family.

Ann operates a delivery service in the town of Lucky Summer where she lives, supplying bodegas and groceries with the prepaid phone cards they sell to their customers. She purchases the cards each day from a bulk retailer downtown to resupply her roughly 30 customers, keeping track of their inventory and turnover to size her purchases. Ann delivers the cards personally to her clients, who choose her among competitors for her punctuality and reliability. Although as a wholesale supplier her margins are low, Ann’s access to a sizable portion of business in the growing neighborhood of Lucky Summer provides a helpful supplemental income for her family.

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Ann’s oldest child Favour Blessing in a new school uniform.  Her increased business earnings have allowed her to send him to a quality preschool.

Ann is on her third Zidisha loan and has maintained a 94% repayment rate. So far, all of her loans have been used to increase the inventory of phone cards, but within the next year she hopes to save enough to open her own retail store – selling phone cards and additional items like electricity tokens and M-PESA transactions to retail customers. Selling directly to consumers in a physical store will allow her to increase her profits and reduce the travel and delivery time that keeps her away from her family.

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Ann grew up in Nyeri, a small town 250 kilometers north of Nairobi, where her parents still reside. She currently lives just off the main road in Lucky Summer with her husband Oscar and two sons: Favour Blessing, almost five, and Trevor Mac, just 16 months. Ann’s husband originally began the phone card business, which Ann took over when he started a job at a nearby factory, but Ann was the first to use Zidisha loans to expand the operations.

Though Ann is a Kikuyu, Oscar is a member of the Luo tribe from the town of Busia in western Kenya. Oscar and Ann met after college, and after two years of dating their families approved the marriage though they came from two different ethnicities.

If there was any hesitation in the minds of Ann’s family about the marriage, it was put to rest four years ago when Ann gave birth to Favour. Unfortunately, the birth was a difficult one, and Ann was stricken with a severe calcium deficiency that left her barely able to feed her baby. For almost two years she was bedridden, eventually contracting tuberculosis due to her weakened immune system and needing to take a cocktail of pills each evening. Through the ordeal, Oscar supported his wife, helping to change Favour’s diapers and clean the house. Ann credits her husband immensely for staying by her side, something she feels another husband may not have done.

Now fully recovered, Ann is blessed with two healthy boys. On her way to work each morning Ann drops off Favour at a nearby preschool and Mac at his mother-in-law’s house, and she collects them on her way home. The two children have opposite personalities; Favour is always smiling and eager to pose for a picture, while Mac is reserved and rarely away from his mother’s shawl.

Ann is thankful to have access to Zidisha, and she serves as a volunteer mentor for 24 other borrowers.  In a recent comment, she thanked each of the 55 lenders who had supported her by name, adding, “You are part of my life.”

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Ann, thank you for your hospitality today in showing me your home and neighborhood. I wish you much success with your growing business!

Investing in the next generation

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By Nikhil Srivastava, Kenya Ambassador Volunteer

This morning I met with Judith Lukaka, the owner of a custom tailor shop in downtown Nairobi, who has used three Zidisha loans to expand her business and to support and educate her extended family.

For the last six years Judith has run Jarx Enterprises, a tailoring shop located in an indoor shopping complex near the Nairobi City Market. Judith’s store is located in the western or “uptown” region of the central business district, but she lives in Ongata Rongai with her husband and two sons. Her commute can take up to 3 hours each way, so Judith wakes up at 5 AM to beat the rush hour and spend a full day working downtown.

Judith’s store displays a small collection of clothing for walk-in customers, but the majority of her business comes from custom, made-to-order dresses and skirts. These orders are solicited from clients she visits in person to take measurements and perform fittings. Judith initially established her customer base from a small set of friends and acquaintances, and it has grown through referrals to spread across the city and its suburbs.

Jarx Enterprises focuses on modern women’s clothing that appeals primarily to the younger generation, differentiating itself from neighboring clothing stalls that sell traditional African wear, Arab or Indian styles, or shoes and handbags. The store makes dresses for one-off occasions such as weddings, funerals, and graduations as well as everyday and business clothes for young professionals.

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Judith employs a young designer, Kevin, who uses his knowledge of current fashion to design custom pieces for women looking to match the latest styles seen on TV or the internet. She has also recently hired a tailor who can complete two dresses a day, cutting and stitching sheets of raw fabric that Judith buys wholesale from cloth factories on the outskirts of town.

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Judith is on her third Zidisha loan and has maintained a 100% repayment rate. She used the first two loans, of $100 each, to add to her inventory of fabric and to buy a sewing machine and hire a tailor. In addition to creating employment, she reports that these investments doubled her profit.  Her current loan of $219, however, has been used to open a new clothing business in Eldoret, a town in western Kenya, that is operated by her four orphaned nephews.

Judith’s motivation for building and expanding her business is primarily to support these nephews, children of a younger sister who died when they were very young. As Judith’s parents have also passed away, she assumed responsibility for her nephews. All of the boys are currently in or soon entering college, requiring large payments of school fees and associated expenses for transport, rent, and pocket money.

After visiting Eldoret and seeing a market opportunity there, Judith decided to open a second-hand clothing store there and employ her nephews to operate it. And so far they have been quite successful, each week remitting to her enough to repay the Zidisha loan while using the retained profits to pay for their schooling.

With future loans, she hopes to upgrade the Eldoret store’s location and change its inventory from second-hand to custom-made goods. Judith is hopeful that her nephews and sons will be drawn to entrepreneurship after college, because she feels there is no better way for a young person to acquire a practical education and develop a sense of responsibility.

After spending time with Judith, it is clear she has a deep love for children – regardless of whether they are her own. Toward the end of our conversation, she spoke earnestly about her dream of one day starting an orphanage, partnering with local officials and policemen to identify and enroll high-risk street children across Nairobi. She feels the current support system is severely lacking, with a handful of orphanages that are often filled with children who have parents and that return children too quickly back into the streets. Judith fears what her nephews’ lives might have been like if they had lacked family support, and she wishes she had the capital to help others in need.

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Judith, thank you for teaching me about your business today. I wish you the best in your clothing business, and I hope that one day you are able to start your orphanage – I can think of no better person for the job!

“Change the History”

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By Nikhil Srivastava, Kenya Ambassador Volunteer

It’s not every day you meet an individual who is a student of math, computer science, and theology; a men’s clothing entrepreneur; a social activist and community organizer; and an aspiring self-help author!

This morning I met Stephen Mungai, a 25-year-old student and business owner from Juja who has used two Zidisha loans to grow a clothing store. Stephen is also a social activist and the founder of “Dream Vision,” a group of like-minded Juja citizens who provide food and counseling for underserved members of their community. Stephen is a true social entrepreneur: one who considers his business a tool primarily for social uplift rather than personal advancement.

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I met Stephen in the town of Juja which lies 40km northeast of Nairobi, along the major highway connecting Nairobi with the industrial town of Thika. Juja is home to the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) where Stephen is completing his studies in mathematics and computer science.

Two years ago, Stephen began a small business by buying men’s clothing downtown and selling the apparel to university students via “door-to-door hawking” at dorms and hostels. Starting with just $200, Stephen established a loyal group of customers and expanded the business until he was able to rent a storefront on the main street outside the JKUAT campus.

Two years and two Zidisha loans later, “Elite Boutique” now employs three people and carries a large selection of shoes, suits, jackets, scarves, pants, and women’s accessories. Stephen bought an automatic sewing machine with his second Zidisha loan that allowed him to expand into tailoring services, as well as a large fridge that stocks drinks and snacks.

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Stephen keeps his stall open until 10pm most nights to accommodate his main customers: university students and employees. Although the quiet summer season from May to August can be challenging for financial planning and loan repayment, demand has been strong recently and Stephen is confident in sustaining and expanding his business with additional Zidisha loans.

After talking with Stephen for only a few minutes, it becomes evident that his passion and responsibility extend beyond the walls of his clothing store to the community around him. Stephen insists on walking me around the streets of Juja, particularly through an area of dilapidated tenements and stores along a winding dirt lane called Gashororo Road. As we pass through the low-income neighborhood, Stephen points out telltale signs of community alcohol and drug abuse and child neglect: broken vodka and beer bottles amid piles of trash and young children working or idling instead of attending school.

Stephen tells me anecdotes of various community involvement projects: just yesterday, when he worked with officials to confiscate and burn illicitly brewed alcohol; last week, when he provided meals for needy children. Digging further, I come to learn that Stephen is the organizing member of “Dream Vision,” a community group that provides counseling for victims of substance abuse, mentorship for children without schools and homes, and free lunches and dinners for the poor. Dream Vision, though small, is entirely self-funded; as Stephen insists, “charity begins with you”. Dream Vision works with church officials, community organizations, and the town government to advocate and organize events for societal improvement.

Stephen’s passion for social work is informed by a powerful world view shaped by a difficult childhood and religious upbringing. Stephen is a devout Christian who practices at a local church and actually has a diploma in theology. He grew up in a poor and rural town near the Aberdares mountains in western Kenya, raised by a single mother who went through a divorce when Stephen was very young. Stephen never knew his father but is incredibly grateful to his mother, who not only sent him and his siblings to high school by taking a series of odd jobs but also sold the family’s small farm plot to pay for his university fees. Stephen has forged a strong philosophy of self-actualization from his past challenges; he speaks often of the conscious decision he made to leave a life of hardship by succeeding in business. Stephens considers it a responsibility to help others in his community make similar, self-motivating choices through counseling and mentorship.

Stephen also introduced me to some of the many Zidisha members that he has invited onto the platform. He trains and counsels his fellow borrowers and advocates for their loan applications as strongly as his own; when they succeed, he argues, they can create jobs for the unemployed and help support the local community.

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In fact, Stephen is writing a book to share his advice and mentorship with those he doesn’t have the time or resources to reach. In the back room of his clothing store, he showed me a frayed notebook containing the hand-written manuscript. The near-finished book is called “Change the History,” and it stresses the power of choice and self-determination in overcoming life’s challenges. Full of quotes from the Bible – “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7) – and from authors like Paolo Coelho, it contains sections on dark themes of poverty, drug abuse, and suicide, as well as positive inspirational guidance. Stephen is confident he will publish the book one day, despite the considerable cost, and he plans to dedicate it to his mother.

I asked Stephen what else he might do if he achieved financial security, and he immediately replied that he would enter politics as a social activist. Unlike many of his colleagues, who gravitate toward Nairobi after graduation where job opportunities are better, Stephen has no desire to leave the Juja area. He is well-versed in the local town governance and finances, and full of ideas for how the Constituency Development Fund (a Kenyan poverty-alleviation initiative) could be better used to improve his neighborhood.

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Thank you for introducing me to your business and your community, Stephen. I wish you the best of luck with your business and I know you have an amazing future ahead of you!