Kenyan women on the cutting edge of business and diplomacy in SA

Upendo Women Investment group members in South Africa. PHOTO| BOB WEKESA

What you need to know:

  • Lunch done with, the vice chairperson, Ms Mary Mbulika, a mathematics teacher at a high school in Pretoria, calls the room to order and spells out the agenda.
  • The informal atmosphere gives way to formality as the social gathering morphs into a company board meeting. 
  • My entreaty for an interview is top on the agenda. But if I thought I would emerge from host Ms Mwaura’s home with a notebook brimming with details, I quickly realise otherwise.

It is a fine summer’s day when I arrive at Ms Nanzala Mwaura’s home in the Midrand suburbs of the greater Johannesburg-Pretoria metropolis, South Africa.

Seated in a relatively large lounge is a group of a dozen or so women engaged in free-flowing Saturday afternoon banter. In the background, children are engaged in a series of fun activities. Their husbands – or what one of the women refers to jokingly as “the people” – will be joining in in the evening to complete the family bonding with a glass of wine or two, Kenyan food and, perhaps, loads of politics.

But ethnographic observation of the good women socialising is not my only mission. I’m here to unravel the nitty-gritties informing the social, diplomatic and corporate exploits of a Kenyan women’s group. Under the banner of Upendo Women Investments Pty (simply Upendo in Kiswahili or love in English), it is common knowledge in the Kenyan diaspora in South Africa that the women are not only on the cutting edge of the Johannesburg social-corporate scene but also the diplomatic circles.     

My plan is to cut to the chase and launch into the interview, but the course changes once I take in the light-hearted atmosphere. The buffet lunch offers Kenyan culinary delights for these “diasporans”: chapati, ugali, managu, minji, boiled maize … the works. The sumptuous, extended lunch goes down with a couple of titbits about living as a Kenyan in South Africa interspersed with nostalgic stories of happenings “back home”.

Lunch done with, the vice chairperson, Ms Mary Mbulika, a mathematics teacher at a high school in Pretoria, calls the room to order and spells out the agenda. The informal atmosphere gives way to formality as the social gathering morphs into a company board meeting. 

My entreaty for an interview is top on the agenda. But if I thought I would emerge from host Ms Mwaura’s home with a notebook brimming with details, I quickly realise otherwise. I’m asked to step out as my request is deliberated. The verdict is that as per the company’s constitution, I would have to speak to Dr Mary Mwaka, the group’s chairperson-cum-spokesperson. This will have to be at a later date as she is away during this month’s board meeting.

The blend of the congenial and the official in conducting business is a deliberate operation style for Upendo, since formation in 2006 as a savings club, and formalisation as a registered full-fledged company in 2012. For instance, Upendo is at once a corporate entity and a family get-together as seen in the practice of meetings being held at a member’s house while the hosting expenditure is budgeted for and borne by the company.


“We are not just in business for ourselves but look to build future capital and a legacy for our children. Yes, we do business; but we also support each other during bereavement and indisposition,” Dr Mwaka would explain when I eventually met her at her home on the outskirts of Pretoria a couple of days later.

“The group started when three of us organised a family get-together out of loneliness as Kenyan emigres in South Africa,” said Dr Mwaka, a programme manager with an international development organisation in Pretoria who has spent some 21 years in South Africa.

“We wanted interactions between ourselves, our children and husbands given that we were far from home. We needed to maintain our Kenyan roots,” she told Lifestyle, invoking the patriotic thirst that motivated the embryonic steps of what would become a budding social entrepreneurship.

Over the past 11 years, some of the group members’ children have matured and moved on to college and formal employment. In fact, some of the children have started their own social entrepreneurial investment group that fosters a Kenyan identity and support system for the children and succour for peer role modelling. In the course of the interview, I heard more about the support system in the mould of diaspora solidarity that undergirds the group’s past and present and inspires the future. 

Apart from Dr Mwaka as the founding chairperson, the other two pioneers are Dr Beatrice Akala, an educationist and postdoctoral researcher at University of Johannesburg and Ms Betty Amunga a programme associate at Nepad. The group has since grown to a capped number of 14 directors which is also a close-knit and extended family that pursues business in unison.


The membership is diverse and straddles Kenya’s ethnic and political spectrum, yet manages to stay focused and united. It attests to Upendo’s unity of purpose that only one member has left since establishment and only “due to loss of income and incapacity to keep up with contributions”. Such is the gelling and bonding that four of the members who have relocated – one to Canada and three to Kenya – remain active members (social media, especially WhatsApp, keeps them connected). Indeed, those who have returned home to Kenya – Ms Catherine Oduor a banker, Ms Waturi Matu, a director at TradeMark East Africa and Ms Mary Maina, a medical technologist – have established a Kenyan affiliate, ZA Upendo Limited. 

Kenya-based members (from left), Mary Maina, Cathy Oduor and Waturi Matu. PHOTO| BOB WEKESA

“We decided to cap the membership at 14 to sidestep the perils of large, unmanageable organisations. We advise those who want to join in to form their own groups and many have come to us for such advice,” Dr Mwaka said, adding that though divergent views are not only expressed but encouraged, no irreconcilable altercations have occurred, unanimity always carrying the day.    

The idea of saving was born out of the initial loose get-togethers. “We started saving money collectively and then dividing it among ourselves at the end of the year,” Dr Mwaka said.

She added: “There was the challenge of spouses who relocated to South Africa bringing along their wives who were professionals in Kenya but could not immediately work or engage in business due to challenges emanating from immigration policies. The savings club became an alternative.”

Soon, the diligent monthly contributions started accumulating spurring ideas for formalisation.  

In line with the constitution, officials hold positions for a rotational period of four years. Apart from Dr Mwaka, the other current executive officials are Ms Mwaura, a director at global research firm Ipsos (treasurer) and Ms Hellen Kabuya, an interior and fashion designer (secretary).

The diverse educational, career and professional backgrounds pools together a variety of skill sets that are drawn on in strategy and management. Ms Mary Ndung’u, a former treasurer is an accounting technician while Ms Grace Karanja is an administrator-cum-entrepreneur. Ms Roselidah Aluha has done a stint at the Johannesburg-based Pan African Parliament while Ms Lynnette Sunguti is a banker and researcher as Ms Loice Alusala is a manager of Pretoria-based educational programme. Besides, the women can always count on their spouses who straddle an equally wide range of professional and corporate fields.  

Thanks to the group’s diversity and knowledge base, it has thrived with neither permanent employees nor physical office-space — in other words, low administrative and overhead costs. With such a wealth of professional and academic capital, it is no wonder that the group relies on research to inform investment decisions rather than gut feelings.        

In the formative years, the monthly contributions were loaded onto the bank account of one of their spouses. With the passage of time, the group opened its own bank account and started investing in money markets. Ultimately it diversified into events management and real estate, the two lines of business that, in the words of Dr Mwaka, “are core, strategic and icing on the cake”. In conjunction with the Kenyan money transfer company Instacash, the group ventured into diaspora remittances.


At a nominal registration fee, it may seem that Upendo is any small-time chamaa or Stokvel in South African lingua. However, as Dr Mwaka explained, “members contribute share capital which depends on each member’s financial status”. This share capital and the group’s assets have grown substantially over the years although the women wouldn’t divulge their net worth. For now, the group is foregoing dividends to build up capital in furtherance of an ambitious vision: “To become an economic powerhouse locally, regionally and globally”.  

By far the most visible activity for the group is the Kenya Night event which has been organised towards the end of the year annually since 2009. Modelled on community (ethnic) themed extravaganzas popular in places such as Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi, the Kenya Night is essentially an elevated innovation on the group’s monthly family meetings. It has become a must-attend networking event for most Kenyans based in the Gauteng region of South Africa and beyond, providing not just entertainment but also inspiring speeches on dedicated themes.

The event is a good example of how citizen-based diaspora diplomacy can complement conventional diplomacy. “We conceived the first event with the support of the then Kenyan high commissioner to South Africa, Ambassador Tom Amolo (current political and diplomatic secretary). Subsequent events were supported by Ambassador Patrick Wamoto (current ambassador to Thailand) and the current Ambassador Jean Kamau and her deputy Ambassador Lemarron Kanto,” Dr Mwaka said, adding that companies such as Kenya Airways, Family Bank, Equity Bank, Stima Sacco Commercial Bank of Africa and Housing Finance have been sponsorship partners. The partnerships between Upendo, the Kenyan High Commission and companies gives vent to the Kenya diaspora diplomacy policy launched in 2014. Indeed, Upendo is a corporate member of the Kenyan Diaspora Association, which is the umbrella diaspora body in South Africa.

As the apogee of Kenyan diaspora diplomacy in South Africa, past themes and speeches at Kenya Night have included: inspiring women to invest, helping overcome investment barriers through building linkages, peace diplomacy and opportunities for the Kenyan diaspora attendant to Kenya’s 2010 constitution. An award scheme celebrating outstanding contributions by Kenyan’s in South Africa back home has also been part of the event.

“The Kenya Nights are popular because of the longing for Kenyans in South Africa to meet and network, enjoy Kenyan cuisine and dance to memorable music such as Lingala, Kenyan, East African and South African productions, mpaka chee (till dawn). We usually ensure that Kenyan bands such as Kayamba Africa and Kayamba Roots and high-level keynote speakers as well as representatives of companies are in attendance,” Dr Mwaka said.

This writer can confirm her words from attendance of the 2016 edition bringing together more than 400 Kenyans and their African and South African friends. Dignitaries at past events have included the ambassadors from Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Keynote speakers have included Mrs Ida Odinga — opposition leader Raila Odinga’s wife — Taveta MP and former cabinet minister Dr Naomi Shabaan, Ms Martha Karua, Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya and Mr Muita, former director of the Diaspora desk currently executive director of International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. Upendo has also actively participated in events attendant to Kenyan presidential visits to South Africa.

The members take to the floor to dance during one of their meetings. PHOTO| BOB WEKESA

A further instance of diaspora diplomacy is that the group underwrites the education of a number of visually impaired students at St Francis School in Polokwane, Limpopo, some of them going as far as gaining admission to South African universities. This form of corporate social responsibility promotes the image of Kenya in South Africa and therefore serves a public diplomacy function.

Thanks to the success of the Kenya Nights, the group has added event management to their stable and has in recent years acquired the status of the go-to organisation for Kenyan companies looking to penetrate the Kenyan diaspora in South Africa. They have organised events for companies as diverse as commercial banks and property development companies keen on penetrating the South African market.

While the Kenya Night is the group’s signature event, their investments in real estate is the crown in the jewel. They own property in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

“After undertaking research in 2008, we settled for the property market as property management is less tedious than investing in a business that requires many overheads,” Dr Mwaka said.  

The success story that is Upendo is not without challenges, a major one being the difficulties of accessing loans for business development since the members are foreigners.

“This has been somewhat mitigated by our good financial track record over the years and now some banks have shown confidence in us by giving us loans,” Dr Mwaka said.

Corporate regulation in South Africa is quite elaborate so much so that putting together operational documents is one of the management activities that consumes a lot of time. Such is the rising confidence in their capacity that their bank, Nedbank, has not only given them loans but also a business banker.  

Dr Mwaka attributed the group’s success firstly to the filial nature of the membership and the steadfast adherence to their constitution.

“We sometimes decide to support members in need from our own pockets rather than the company,” she said. 

It is a spirit that was indeed apparent at the Saturday afternoon event Lifestyle attended in Midrand that fine summer’s day.