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Jennifer Riria, head of one of the largest women’s financial institutions in Kenya

Businesswoman, entrepreneur, banker, academic researcher, gender specialist, Jennifer Riria’s career has been multifaceted, but centered around the same leitmotif: promoting women’s development and empowerment in her country, Kenya.

From a young high school student mother at 19 to a leader of one of Kenya’s largest microfinance institutions, Jennifer Riria’s journey has been one of hardships, resilience, perseverance, but also success and achievements. Today, she is committed to the empowerment of women in her country and the promotion of girls’ education, especially in rural areas.

Born and raised in rural area, in a poor family, she managed to study thanks to her mother’s will. She had to walk miles barefoot every day to reach the primary school where she was enrolled. Studious and determined to succeed, she successfully completed her primary education and was offered a place at « Precious Blood High School » in Nairobi, 700 km from her village. She seized the opportunity, despite her parents’ opposition.

At the age of 19, she completed her secondary education. Pregnant and shortly afterwards a mother, she decided to continue her university studies, thanks to a scholarship for the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. In 1975, she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in education. She went on to do a Masters in Administration, Education and Development at Leeds University in the UK. On her return to Kenya, she enrolled at Kenyatta University for a PhD, which focused on women, education and development. She then taught for almost 10 years at Jomo Kenyatta University and soon after joined the United Nations, before moving into microfinance.

Empowering women through microfinance

In 1991, she took over the reins of the Kenya Women Finance Trust, now the Kenya Women Microfinance Bank, a subsidiary of Kenya Women Holding, when the organization was on the brink of collapse. With no financial background, she set out to revitalise the business. Under her leadership, over time, the bank became a model microfinance institution and impacted the lives of many Kenyan women.

Thanks to her efforts, hundreds of thousands of women in Kenya now have access to funding that was previously unavailable to them and can now realise their potential and dreams. Today, Kenya Women Holding works with over 900,000 women and employs over 3,000 people. Since its inception, it has provided over $1.3 billion in loans to women, an average of $600 per woman.

Today, Jennifer Riria is the CEO of Kenya Women Holding. Thanks to her commitment to promoting women’s empowerment, she has received several awards. In 2011, she won the inaugural Women’s World Banking Excellence in Leadership Award for her leadership and performance excellence.

In 2014, she won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Kenya.

She was also CEO of Women’s World Banking, a global microfinance network of about 50 microfinance institutions from about 30 countries.