The Village Matriarch, From 'Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories'

Venture is a rich and readable collection of true microfinance stories. It is written for anyone who would like to better understand the realities faced by the the aspiring middle class in the world's least developed countries, the range of factors that affect their prospects for working their way out of poverty, and how microfinance can impact their lives.

The entrepreneurs featured in this book are all members of Zidisha Microfinance, a web-based crowdfunding platform that allows low-income, computer-savvy entrepreneurs in developing countries to share their stories and negotiate microloans directly with individual lenders. As the world's first person-to-person lending service to eliminate intermediaries and connect individual web users and entrepreneurs across the international wealth divide, Zidisha is uniquely positioned to offer an undistorted depiction of the variety of individual stories and circumstances that come to play each time a microfinance loan is disbursed.

Each story paints an unforgettable picture: A seventy-year-old goat farmer who relocates his home to better care for his ailing father, carrying the sticks and metal sheeting it was made from across the mountains on his back. A plump, beaming detergent saleslady who lives in a home no larger than an ordinary bathroom but has adopted five orphans. A cancer survivor who supports herself and two children by pounding millet for $1.58 per day. An irrepressible lady who supplies half of her neighborhood with much-needed IVs and other medical supplies by day, and by night checks into the local cybercafe to chat with Facebook friends on the other side of the world. A young man who has no arms but insists on working to support his able-bodied parents out of filial duty. An accounting student who pays for his university tuition by purchasing a taxi and splitting proceeds with a hired driver. A bright young lady who renounces college to care for her orphaned siblings and overcomes gender stereotypes to launch a thriving construction business.

At its heart, "Venture" is a tribute to the remarkable community of Zidisha Microfinance entrepreneurs and countless others like them -- a tribute to their grit, ambition and indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming obstacles. We hope this book will help translate the statistics about poverty and the opportunities afforded by microfinance into human terms, and inspire readers to reach out and connect with their counterparts on the other side of the international wealth divide.

Story 2: The Village Matriarch

Serah Wanjiku Mukuria works at the Mugaa Village Secondary School, a rare rural high school nestled in the highlands of Kenya's Rift Valley, as a secretary (many people affectionately call her "Madam Secretary") and also takes care of her farm and animals. I was a little startled when she said to me, "Zidisha will start giving milk from next month." I later found out that Zidisha is the name of her cow. With her first Zidisha loan Serah started a photocopying business. The business didn't do too well, so she sold her photocopying machine and bought Zidisha. With her second loan of $424 she has bought a little plot of land near the earthen road leading to the village. She intends to build on this plot and rent out the premises.

I am always curious about the ages of people here, because they never look their age, but I avoided asking Serah about hers because she's a lady. Then she told me that she has only four years left to retire and that she will shift to her new plot after retirement. I couldn't resist asking her age and was surprised to find that she is 52.

Serah is a little bundle of energy. We walked from her home to the school together (it's a forty-minute uphill walk) and she literally floated. She is also one of the most pleasant people I have met here. She is always smiling (I think what helps is that she is not a teacher in the school and thus doesn't need to scare the children) and comes across as very warm and generous (on the way back she kept asking if she were walking too fast for me). She insisted on carrying my laundry with her, using a strap across her forehead to lighten the load in the customary style of Kikuyu women.

Serah and her husband, Jackson, live in a two-room house. Their kitchen, "guest room," and latrine are made of mud and sticks. All of these buildings are new; the original ones were destroyed during the 2007 post-election violence that swept through the country following the announcement that incumbent Mwai Kibaki had won despite opposition leader Raila Odinga's consistent edge in opinion polls. The people in this area call this period, which resulted in the death of about 1,300 people and the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands, "the clashes."

Serah's village was particularly affected because of its close proximity to areas populated by members of the Kalenjin tribe, who were disillusioned what many believed to be a plot to keep the Kikuyus in power. Political leaders exacerbated the violence by supplying youths with weapons, transport, and angry slogans. Serah and her husband were forced to flee their farm and most of their belongings and animals were lost. Now an area that once had many houses and shops is sparsely populated. The village market is nearly nonexistent but for a few shops made of mud and sticks.

The political crisis in Kenya preceded an economic downturn and severe drought that dramatically affected the region. This is the first year since the crisis that the farm has actually been able to grow maize. Serah's husband, who had been employed as a truck driver from 1977 up until the outbreak of the violence, has been unable to find work for months. He plans to help Serah start her business in order to maintain a more reliable source of income. He also hopes to someday buy a mill to grind maize for a profit.

Serah is an extremely hard-working lady. Even on the weekends she is constantly in motion, whether she is walking seven kilometers to the nearest market, working in her small farm, cooking, cleaning, or entertaining visitors. She never sits down to rest except for at mealtimes. She is always pushing herself to help everyone in her family and community in any way she can. Perhaps that's why she has about a million friends.

When we were on our way to the market she passed an old lady who was struggling to carry a twenty-pound bag of beans to the market to sell. Serah promptly took the bag from the lady and slung it over her own back to carry it. When we got home she had a visitor, Joshua, who suffered from a brain injury and now has difficulty walking, writing and talking. Serah gave Joshua a hug and some chai (Kenyan tea made with lots of fresh milk and sugar), explaining to me that she assists his mother, who is also disabled, to take care of him. Every Sunday she pays for a pikipiki, a motorcycle taxi, to help him get to their church located seven kilometers away.

Over the weekend she was constantly visited by friends and neighbors. She was always happy to entertain them and offer them chai, no matter how busy she was at the moment. On Sunday, she had about ten relatives from Nairobi who came to enjoy nyama choma (roasted meat - her husband slaughtered a goat for the occasion). She insisted that they return home with bags and bags of maize, beans, and charcoal.

Two of Serah's daughters stay with her with their children and Serah takes care of them and the children's school fees. Serah has studied through secondary school, but her daughters have only finished primary school due to financial constraints. Serah understands the importance of education and wants her grandchildren to finish their education.

Serah's Words:

"After changing my first business from photocopying, typesetting and selling stationeries to dairy farming, am now contemplating good milk production. A liter of milk sells at KSH 40 [$0.50] and am planning to produce about 45 liters of milk every day after I manage to buy two more cows each at KSH 35000 [$437]. Hope I will get a fat loan."

You may view the latest news and photos of Serah's business at her Zidisha Microfinance profile page.

From Chapter 2 of Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories by Zidisha Microfinance.

Next time: How a single mother from a war-torn village in West Africa drew inspiration from Bill Gates' biography...