Turbulent times for chamas

A self-help women's group during one of their sessions. The groups are a source of social and economic empowerment for women. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Groups overwhelmingly made up of poor or rural women in low-paid, or irregular income jobs.
  • They offer women an economic growth opportunity, and is a source of social solidarity and a safety net for many  in vulnerable situations.
  • Pandemic poses key health and economic risks for chamas as markets falter, mobility is restricted, and community gathering restrained.
  • With reduced interactions and less income from their businesses, women are exposed to more stress.

Savings groups, also known as chamas locally, offer women financial, social and emotional protection against turbulent times.

The groups are overwhelmingly made up of poor or rural women in low-paid or irregular income jobs. Chamas offer  women an economic growth opportunity, and is a source of social solidarity and a safety net for many  in vulnerable situations.

Most women in these groups save money on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, and take loans that are refundable with as little as one per cent interest. The meetings also offer women an opportunity to bond, share their struggles and successes.

Coronavirus has put at risk this safety net that offers thousands of women in Kenya, access to unsecured loan for their children's school fees, boost their business, buy land, build homes and even buy livestock.


The pandemic poses key health and economic risks for chamas as markets falter, mobility is restricted, and community gathering is restrained. The government banned group meetings as a precautionary measure to stop the spread of  the virus.

Low income women are particularly affected by the slowdown in consumption, caused by Covid-19, as they tend to be employed in the informal sector. These women do not have contracts and the pandemic has meant they do not receive any income - if they do not work, they do not get paid.

Others are small scale traders and the numbers of their clientele has dwindled, leaving them with dead stock and little, or no income.

Furthermore, Covid -19 guidelines require people to stay 1.5 metres apart, further complicating women meetings since they usually converge at a member’s homestead.

Some groups have more than 30 members, a number which can only be accommodated in some large open field, if social distancing rule was to be observed.

Ms Rahab Wairimu, a member of Jiweze Women Group says they have withheld weekly remittances until things begin to pick up.

Her 30-member group mainly draws membership from merchandise hawkers in Nakuru town and business has been slow since March 13, when the first case of coronavirus was reported in Kenya.

Each Friday afternoon, they would meet in a member’s house with their last meeting being March 13.

"We analysed the situation and realised all of us would be stressed if we continued with our Friday contributions. Whatever money we have or are making now is spent on food. Nothing to save," says Ms Wairimu, who abandoned hawking merchandise in Nakuru town for performing arts. She earns her living through entertaining people with songs in social and political events.

Such events are among those banned by the government.

She says her group allows members to contribute as little as Sh20.

Previously, most of the women hawked their wares in town till 9pm, making enough profit to put aside as savings, she says.

"Now business ends as early as 3pm because they must leave town to avoid being caught up with the curfew that begins at 7pm. It is really hard and some of the women are single mothers," she notes.

Those who were repaying loans have also been excused from doing so till business normalises, she says.

She notes that the members took loans to restock their businesses, clear school fees for their children, buy food or pay rent.

Other groups have, however, adopted a different strategy to ensure continuity of its operations.


The 32 members of Nyiseme Women Group based in Kibra, Nairobi County do not meet weekly as they did before outbreak of Covid-19 in Kenya.

However, each of them sends their savings to the treasurer and any member who needs a loan is given.

"Our members are food vendors and we are still selling even though customers are few," says Ms Evaline Swila, a member of the group.

Fewer customers means less income making it difficult for some members to make their weekly contributions.

"If a member is unable to contribute or is not consistent in repaying her loan, we understand. It is a difficult time for everyone," says Ms Swila who runs a roadside cafeteria in Kibra.

In Samburu County, a semi-arid part of Kenya, women practice ‘Ngumbacho’. Women make their contributions, the money is counted and locked in a safe. Then loans are issued to members who request. The balance is banked.

Their physical meetings have stopped, but savings and loan disbursement are so far, uninterrupted.

Most table banking groups collect money and give to members on a rotational basis, or as allotted.  Others pool resources and issue out as loans, then later share dividends from interest accrued.

Although some table banking groups now have bank accounts, some still keep the money in a locked box (three padlocks) and no one knows who keeps the keys apart from the key holders. The table is usually the teller for sharing out the money.

Every last Saturday of the month, 52 members of Vumilia Women group could meet for their ‘Ngumbacho’ but restrictions attached to Covid-19 has forced them to change the management of their group activities.

The group constitutes of village women in Samburu West, most of whom run small shops in the villages, says Anne Kanai, a member.

“Members take their contributions to the treasurer or send by Mpesa. Those who need loans can go see her," says Ms Kanai, who has started a community-based organisation seeking to economically empower the village women.

She says although women are still running their businesses, they lack masks, which are now a mandatory for anyone within the public space to limit spreading of the disease. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic deepens economic and social stress, coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, many women have been forced to ‘lockdown’ at home with abusive spouses.

With reduced interactions with other women and less income from their businesses, women are exposed to more stress. Chamas are among the places they seek solace but this too, has been disrupted.

According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 32.4 per cent of households in Kenya are headed by women. These households would greatly suffer if the women is stressed and lack savings to meet future needs of the family including investment, education and medical expenses.