Kenyan co-operatives preparing for 15,000 new female board members

In the coming months, Kenyan co-operatives will see big changes in their boardrooms. Under the new national constitution, women must occupy at least one third of representation in...

In the coming months, Kenyan co-operatives will see big changes in their boardrooms. Under the new national constitution, women must occupy at least one third of representation in all elective bodies. Given there are over 10,000 co-operatives in Kenya, at a conservative estimate around 15,000 women will take up positions of leadership on co-operative boards.

With funding from the ILO Coop Africa programme, the Co-operative College from the UK is working with the Co-operative College of Kenya on a short research and consultation exercise in relation to the impending changes.

Staff from the Research team at the Co-operative College travelled to Kenya to identify, in collaboration with the Swedish Co-operative Centre and the Co-operative College of Kenya, relevant women’s leadership programmes which could help ensure the smooth incorporation of women into governance structures. Mr Wanjobi from the Co-operative College of Kenya comprised the third member of the team. Interviews took place with a range of stakeholders in Nairobi as well as field visits to consult with members of rural co-operatives on the challenges for women’s leadership.

As part of the consultation, a workshop was held at the College in December. Over 20 participants attended the workshop from a wide range of co-operative organisations including CIC Insurance, five SACCOs, the Ministry of Co-operatives, a local councillor as well as college staff. Discussions were wide ranging and lively. As well as discussing the barriers to women’s participation, participants also highlighted the skills and expertise that women leaders can bring to co-operative boards and shared examples of good practice.

Overall it was found that women can bring balance to co-operative boards as they bring a range of transferable skills which have been developed through their several roles as mothers, wives, community members and workers. It was felt that women tended to have good communication and time management skills as well as showing patience and perseverance. Typically women were better savers than men and often had a more long term perspective. Most women were good multi taskers and flexible in their approach. Bringing these qualities to co-operative management would enhance the leadership and effectiveness of co-operatives.

There were many cultural barriers which inhibited women’s participation in leadership. Even in many SACCOs where women were often the majority of members, they still tended to hold back from leadership positions. This was variously attributed to a range of cultural practices and beliefs such as those which limited women to the domestic sphere and discouraged them from public speaking, travel, getting a decent education and leaving the home. Unfortunately many women did not support or vote for women candidates for management committees. As a result, women lacked confidence in their own abilities. Working with men and travelling to meetings with them could damage women’s personal reputations.

For agricultural marketing co-operatives such as coffee co-ops, there were additional barriers. Membership of these co-operatives was restricted to those who owned the coffee bushes and this was traditionally men. Women might tend the bushes but it was their husbands and father who were the co-operative members, received the dividend and participated in the democratic processes. In other co-operative sectors, such as financial co-operatives, this was not the case and here women were members in their own right.

Several examples of existing good practice were shared. They included the Swedish Co-operative Centre’s training for prospective women leaders, training for members and election of women board members by new tea co-operatives in Kericho, initiatives to support women in the SACCO sector by KUSCCO, sponsoring women to attend international conferences and holding an annual women’s conference and board level national workshops. The next steps are the development and delivery of specific training programmes for existing and prospective women leaders, and the scaling up of existing programmes.

Beatrice Okeyo of the SCC said: “The challenge is to ensure that the new women board members play an effective role in their co-operatives.”

Linda Shaw, Head of Research at the Co-operative College, added: “Tackling the barriers to women’s participation in co-operatives will certainly not be easy but we look forward to working with our colleagues in Kenya on this vitally important issue.” 

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