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Beyond Borders: Kenyan Women On the Rise in International Trade

Often doubted by friends and rejected for bank loans, women entrepreneurs in Kenya are challenging stereotypes and finding success in the male-dominated business of import/export.

Written by Daniel Sitole Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The directors of Exotic EPZ Limited join an employee sorting out macadamia nuts at their factory in Nairobi. Operations director Charity Ndegwa (left), external relations director Loise Maina (second from left), and managing director Jane Maigua (far right), run the only women-led company in Kenya processing and exporting macadamias.Daniel Sitole

NAIROBI, Kenya – Among the many residents of the industrial business parks that lie along the outskirts of the Kenyan capital, Exotic EPZ Limited could be just another exporter. The company, which processes macadamia nuts before sending them out to Europe and beyond, launched in 2012. The difference is that it is owned by three women: Managing Director Jane Maigua, Charity Ndegwa, the director of operations, and Loise Maina, the director of external relations.

“We are the only women processors and exporters of macadamia nuts in Kenya,” Maigua says.

Not long ago, international trade from Kenya was dominated by men and multinationals. But by finding success in trading with countries outside of Africa, companies like Exotic are challenging the old stereotype of African women being unable to reach their potential beyond the villages in which they live.

“These were perceptions of 19th century,” economist and consultant Joseph Omondi says. “African women are now the best corporate managers, entrepreneurs and leaders, devoting their energy and skills to changing the world to making it a better place to live.”

Building a Business That Works for Women

When Maigua, Ndegwa and Maina originally decided to go into business together, nobody took them seriously. Not their friends, who said they would never get the funding nor build the networks to compete in the male-dominated sector of international trade, and not the banks, who said that as women with no property or land for collateral, they were too big a risk for a loan. Even the farmers they contacted told them women would never survive in international trade.

By pulling together their savings, borrowing from friends and family and convincing a prospective client to put down a deposit on an order, the three managed to raise enough to process their first consignment.

At first, they started small, processing and exporting 7.5 tons of shelled nuts each month, then increased production to fill a 15-ton shipping container. By the end of August 2018, they expect to be producing double that.

“When we started, we thought it was easier to buy from farmers, aggregate and sell to processors. But we decided to bring in the processing component so as to create jobs for women and empower farmers”

“Today, many people are surprised to find us doing well and expanding. They never believed we could get that far, but for us, it is just the beginning,” external relations director Maina says.

The three friends are now using their success to help other women grow financially and become self-reliant.

“When we started, we thought it was easier to buy from farmers, aggregate and sell to processors. But we decided to bring in the processing component so as to create jobs for women and empower farmers,” Maigua says.

Today, Exotic has a workforce of more than 100 in its factory and at various collection points in the Mount Kenya region.

And women who are ready to take on the risk of the import/export business can end up making much more than their counterparts who stay local. Despite its complexity, Omondi says, international trade is more profitable than domestic trade in Kenya, because transactions are conducted in U.S. dollars, a stable global currency compared to the fluctuating Kenya shilling.

Taking on the Big Players

The number of Kenyan women in international trade started increasing in the mid-1990s, when the country’s economy became more liberalized. At the time, women were mostly traveling to Asia to buy goods in small quantities for local markets.

In 2000, women entrepreneurs got another boost with the launch of the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), a U.S. law that allows sub-Saharan African countries to export specific goods into the country duty-free. These days, women exporters most commonly trade in coffee, tea, fresh produce, clothing and handicrafts, sending them to Kenya’s traditional trading partners in Asia, Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East.

“I started my business by going to Dubai to buy cosmetics and footwear in small quantities for sale locally,” importer Esther Nyambura says. She launched her venture in 2010, with $350 she raised by selling her second-hand clothing business.

When Nyambura tried to get a bank loan she was rejected because, like so many women in Kenya, she had no property or land to put up as collateral. But in 2014, she did get an unsecured overdraft of $5,000 to help grow her business. She says she only got that money because of her savings record: Each day, she would deposit every shilling she made, even if she was going to withdraw the same amount the next day.

By 2015, she was traveling beyond Dubai to find goods in India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, and China. Nyambura now has 30 employees, 22 of them women.

Barriers to Doing Business

While some Kenyan women are finding success doing business internationally, within the country there are still great challenges for women trying to access funding to start or expand their businesses.

“Research has shown that countries that fail to address gender barriers are losing out on economic growth. Certain barriers, such as women’s unequal access to property and land, have a negative effect.”

One major hurdle is their lack of collateral to secure loans. Traditionally, family land is held in the name of the male head of household, and very few men will release land titles to secure loans for their wives or sisters. The Federation of Women Lawyers says that while 32 percent of households in Kenya are headed by women, only 1 percent of land titles are held by women on their own, and 5 percent jointly with men.

“Research has shown that countries that fail to address gender barriers are losing out on economic growth. Certain barriers, such as women’s unequal access to property and land, have a negative effect,” says Phyllis Wakiaga, CEO of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, which recently launched its Women in Manufacturing program.

The Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KNCCI) is also trying to support women in business by networking with financial institutions in the country to help women access unsecured loans.

Maina, the external relations director at Exotic, says access to funding and information on trading rules and procedures are both crucial if more women are going to have the chance to expand their businesses beyond Kenya’s borders.

“International trade requires a lot of money for equipment and working capital,” she says. “It also involves big orders that most women find hard to meet without financial support from banks.”

Having overcome those obstacles, the three women behind Exotic now have their sights set on even greater accomplishments.

“We have made it, despite numerous discouragements and financial constraints,” Maina says. “Our focus now is to get going as we target our vision of becoming the top women-led macadamia exporting company in Kenya and East Africa.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the titles of Jane Maigua and Loise Maina and clarify some details about their company, its history and operations.

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