This week the CED team held the second annual all member meeting for the KAPESA group savings and loans program. Attendance and participation were high, a good sign that the program is strong as it heads into year three. I had my doubts; attendance last year at the weekly KAPESA representative meetings was low and groups weren’t meeting. Many of our best members had graduated to individual credit lines in April, which was great progress for them but often left a leadership vacancy in the groups.

However, after months of hard work by CED Field Officers there has been a lot of improvement. The normal KAPESA weekly regional meetings are attended only by five to ten group representatives bringing in savings or loan payments for their group members. I’m used to those sleepy, low-key weekly meetings so it was a bit of a shock to see over 90 members descended on the Nuru office for the All KAPESA Member meeting. More importantly, members were actively contributing, raising issues, questions and giving suggestions for the coming year.

KAPESA Meeting

I thought the meeting was great, but the true catharsis came the next day. I needed to make a deposit at a certain major commercial bank. Despite its location on the border, Isibania is still relatively isolated and doesn’t have many branches of formal banks. So after traveling for 20km crammed in a matatu with nine other people, I was finally standing in line at the bank in the stifling noon heat. There were only a dozen people ahead of me in line, but the wait made the line at the DMV seem like a McDonald’s drive-through. Every transaction seemed to require 53 different steps. Type, count cash, type, stamp something, shuffle paper, stamp something else, staple, type, print and sign, stamp something, walk away, return with a different stamp, staple and file paper, stamp (what in the world are they stamping?!), type. One hour passed, then two. At one point, I counted eight people in line in front of me. It remained eight people for the next hour and a half. It wasn’t just the 53 steps; a steady stream of well-dressed, portly men would swagger/waddle in the door, exchange a few words with the branch manager and then saunter to the front of the line. I was livid. I snapped my head around wildly to see if anyone else was noticing this. The other bank customers in line were obviously irritated too, but could only sigh or grumble quietly.

Three hours later, I reached the front of the line. The bank clerk smiled sweetly at me. I smiled (snarled?) back, wondering what percentage of the 23 million men and women in Kenya that aren’t served by the formal financial sector remained unbanked due to distance, cost, or pure unwillingness to stand in line for half the afternoon.

KAPESA Meeting

I thought wistfully of the contrast between the bank and the KAPESA Annual Meeting. In the hot, quiet room I suddenly felt much more hopeful. Many people think of a bank as the ultimate picture of security and the end goal for rural financial services. But we’re building a different kind of financial services organization, in which a farmer can access mobile-based financial services, receive tailored training in credit management, and gather with 90 other community members in a breezy clearing under the trees to tell their service providers how to improve. Ninety farmers is a start, but I hope it’s not long before a very different picture of financial security develops in rural Kenya.