Chamas, Kenyan colloquialism for investment groups, have been, for the longest time, a sure path to financial freedom. While a good many of them fizzle out before making any substantial gains, several others grow to become financial institutions of power, influence, and wealth.
Many of these investment groups are helmed and populated mostly by men, and many women’s chamas restrict themselves to merry-go-round activities. However, more women’s groups are starting to go big, pooling their money to reap substantial profit.
Saturday Magazine spoke to three such women’s investment groups. These groups illustrate the financial strides women can achieve and also celebrate their strength as women.
If ever there was a poster child for sound investment, Milele Alliance would be it. The eight-member investment company — started with 10 members in November 2007 — has an investment portfolio worth Sh35 million. Rose Mbanya, a director of Milele, shared its history.
The 10 founders of the group came from diverse backgrounds, on a who-knows-who basis. It mattered not their age or professions. What mattered was their shared goal: To collect their resources to achieve financial independence.
For eight months, the group met every third Saturday of the month, with the agenda to align its members’ synergies and to lay its foundation. They contributed a minimum of Sh30,000 every month.
They also agreed on objectives, rules and a constitution, its banking, accounting and auditing partner, and its legal adviser. Members committed to the group’s mandate by signing it.
In August 2008 the group registered Milele Alliance as a limited liability company. The money collected thus far became its share capital. Its first investment was the purchase of two parcels of land — 1.25 acres in Juja and two acres in Elementaita.
Member contributions were sufficient to finance the investment. To date, the land has been held in its books for speculative and collateral purposes.
Next, and in line with its five-year strategic plan, Milele focused its resources on one income-generating activity: The purchase and letting of residential property in Thika and Mlolongo. “The finances came through member contributions and a mortgage from our banking partner,” says Rose. So far the mortgage has a small balance remaining.
The second five-year plan started in August 2013. It has focused on a car-cleaning service located in Mountain View. A manager on site oversees its operations. Milele’s plan is to automate the service. To spread its risk, Milele has also invested in the stock market.
So what factors have contributed to Milele’s longevity and financial success? “First, we engage professional services. Accountants and auditors maintain our books. And before we make any investment, our lawyers conducts due diligence. Professionals also give us an objective opinion of the state of our affairs,” says Rose. Milele has also employed a full-time investment manager for its portfolio.
Second, Milele’s rules are clear on how to handle matters. “The two members who exited the group in August 2012 left without acrimony. Accurate records allowed us to settle their entitlement, plus extra.” Rose illustrates. These Milele rules also explain why the group has escaped the pitfalls that many a women’s group fall into, like personal conflicts and whimsical decision-making.
Lastly, Milele does not view itself as a chama. Milele views itself an investment company. Planning for the next five-year investment cycle is underway, a process the group takes seriously.
As women, how has Milele changed the lives of its members? “The investment company has taught us a lot about having a powerful vision and being confident to execute it in a professional manner while working with and learning from the correct professionals.
“On a personal level, we have bonded as investors and enjoyed seeing our company grow from strength to strength. More importantly, we have remained friends and can still challenge each other in the best interest of the company. Milele is something we are proud to have built,” Rose says.
Mapato Group is four years old and has defied the challenges of its size to make substantial financial strides. So, where did this group of (now) 17 women begin?
The idea for a chama was first conceived as a merry-go-round for six women in our social circles, says Janet*, a board member who declined to have her identity revealed. After four months, the women realised that the merry-go-round was not working for them. They decide to recruit friends — working women in their 30s – to join as members. The idea was to pool their resources and invest.
The group of 20 members, three of whom live in the diaspora, congregated for its first meeting in March 2010 and registered with the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Services as a women’s group.
As it considered its investment options, Mapato elected its office bearers, documented its constitution, and started making monthly contributions of Sh5,000 (later upped to Sh7,500) and an annual subscription of Sh2,000.
Its monthly meetings involved team-building activities for members to bond and talks from investment professionals and managers for inspiration and to educate them on investments and internal management structures.
Mapato’s first investment was the money market fund in July 2011. Later that year, the group purchased shares in the Kenya Association of Investment Groups, through its Amalgamated Chama Limited. In November 2012, the group purchased four acres of land in Kagundo. Its last investment was the purchase of shares in Safaricom Sacco, in July 2013.
The group’s total investment currently stands at Sh4 million.
Mapato’s progress was steady… until the challenges it is now battling put a pause to it.
What are some of these challenges? According to Janet, its size is a huge stumbling block. “We started with 20 members. Early on, the professionals we invited to speak warned us our number was unmanageable, that members would fall off the wagon as we progressed. That happened.”
The group started to shrink when some members failed to make their monthly contributions on time or to make them at all. Having a constitution in place and a valuation of the shares worked in the group’s favour as it was clear on how exiting members would transfer their shares. Three members exited the group without severing ties.
Other members failed to participate in group responsibilities like bookkeeping and administrative duties. Janet says such inactive members were elected into the positions to spur their participation. Sometimes this spurring worked, other times it did not.
Divergent views on how to finance its investments also challenged the group. Most of the members voted against bank loans, others supported sacco loans. Capital calls were made to boost the cash reserves. Not all members welcomed this decision, however — some thought the calls too short a notice, others felt it too great a financial strain. Yet some members gave way above the set minimum.
Due to these challenges, Mapato has been dormant since December 2013. Janet says the group will meet end of March to deliberate on what to do next. She is hopeful that everything is not lost. She says, “This is a fantastic group of women, focused and committed to what they are doing.”
Given its success in the past three years, it is almost certain that the women of Mapato have it in them to overcome these challenges and strive towards their goal of financial empowerment.
The group calls itself Awesome. Misnomer or not, this investment group has changed the lives of its members in its three years of steady growth.
Awesome started off as a group of friends from the University of Nairobi. A year out of campus, in 2008, the women, like most friends do, considered contributing money to invest.
This idea stewed for another two-and-a-half years. Then in August 2011, the eight women made Awesome official by starting monthly contributions of Sh2,000. The motivation behind contributing was not to invest in land and property only but — primarily — to invest in each other.
And judging from their mood and conversation during the interview, it is evident that they have achieved this goal: These newly-weds and young mothers have tagged their babies and toddlers along for their monthly meeting at a picnic site in Tigoni.
Awesome’s first investment was in March 2012, and it was the purchase of a one-year government bond at Sh100,000. The favourable market that year gave the chama a return of Sh16,000.
While the bond matured, the chama shifted its focus to the short-term cash needs of its members and started lending loans. The loans are at a simple interest rate of 12 per cent, with a repayment period of six months. The minimum lending amount is Sh50,000. The cap is based on the availability of funds.
To date, the group has made just under Sh150,000 from interest on loans only.
Members share the chama’s roles: The treasurer maintains its books. A secretary documents meeting minutes. Since Awesome’s constitution is not documented, these minutes are tooled for its decision-making. The investment adviser, a research analyst by profession, steers its investment decisions.
What does it attribute its growing success to? “First, it is the consistency in members making their contributions,” says Bianca Oyula, the treasurer. Individually, Sh2,000 (now Sh3,500) may not seem much. But collectively, it is substantial for an investment.
Also, the priority and discipline of members making contributions and attending meetings.
Last, it is how the chama has uplifted its members. Through its loan facilities, members have financed their dreams and personal projects without seeking costly bank loans. This has been the greatest measure of success for the group so far.
Being an all-women group — and friends — one cannot help asking whether there have been any personal conflicts that have arisen out of these? “Yes, they have,” says Wanjiku Muchiri, the chairlady. “But we have learnt to accept each other’s personalities. We are friends first and we want this chama to last a lifetime. We need each other for that.”
Plans for the future? “To register the group as a company and to grow our asset portfolio,” says Joy D’ Souza, the investments adviser. “Our agenda for this month’s meeting is to discuss an investment in the stock market.” Most importantly, to continue to invest in each other. Not only in financing its members’ ambitions, but also be there to hold each others’ hands through life.