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Beth Muthui On How SBM Bank Is Enabling Women Entrepreneurs

by Femme Staff
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Women entrepreneurs in Kenya and indeed the world over are ambitious and determined to succeed. Given the right tools, there is no doubt that they will continue to be movers and shaker in the business world. One of the strongest pillars for business growth is access to finance and towards this, we sat down with Beth Wanjiru Thuo of SBM Bank and she told us how the bank is coming through for women. Read on…

Your name please and what you do at SBM Bank?

My name is Beth Wanjiru Thuo and I am the Head of Consumer Banking at SBM Bank. Consumer Banking refers to banking for individuals and the businesses that the individuals own.

What does it take to be in the position of Vice President for Consumer Banking? That is in terms of education and additional skills.

As a bare minimum you need a degree. And then beyond that you need a great attitude and passion for what you do.

What does your typical day at the office entail?

The typical day at the office changed because of the environment we are in. We have now had to virtualize our engagements and so my day begins with check-in meetings with my team. To find out whether they are well, whether they are present, and any specific challenges they may have. Thereafter we move on to the normal management meetings that happen on a daily basis and the day rolls from there.

The format and the structure of the day is typically the same in the first two or three hours but obviously we apply a lot of situational leadership which involves a lot of people engagement. By people I mean the staff and other stake holders like customers.

How is the women SME landscape in the country in general and among SBM Bank clients in particular?

I will address this from two different perspectives. First, what is the overall GDP contribution by women? Secondly, the industries that women play in.

Kenya’s MSME sector contributes approximately 40% of the GDP with the majority falling in the informal sector. While there are about 7.41 Million MSMEs, only a paltry 1.56 Million are licensed, whereas 5.85 Million are unlicensed. Women owned businesses account for about one half which is 48% of all MSMEs. This contributes to around 20% of Kenya’s GDB.

I will also look at the job creation associated with women owned businesses. Of the 462,000 jobs created annually since the year 2000 in Kenya, 445,000 have come from the informal sector where 85% of women businesses are found.

The strong message here is that a lot of women are playing in the informal sector where they are earning only 57% of income compared to that of male business owners. This has hardly changed as we speak and so we see the disproportionate contribution of earnings with women owned businesses compared to male owned. Women also have fewer employees, with the average number being 1.54 in 1999 compared to 2.1.

Despite the potential there is for women owned businesses, we have learned through various published reports that their businesses in Kenya are smaller, less likely to grow and twice as likely to be operating from home. I got this information from the Voices of Women Entrepreneurs in Kenya report that was recently published by IFC. The report is known to give good perspective in terms of the role played by women entrepreneurs.

Women businesses in Kenya play in food processing, clothing, agro-processing, horticulture, retail, entertainment and recently manufacturing sectors. But the trend that we are observing is that women are expanding to non-traditional sectors like manufacturing and telecommunication.

Coming back to SBM Bank, 35% of our overall loan portfolio last year was advanced to women in the personal and household sector. So, a lot of cottage industries here. 32% goes to the transport and communication sector, 20% to the trade sector, 8% to building and construction sector, 3% to manufacturing. Other sectors contributed less than 1% of the total portfolio.

What are some of the entrepreneurship challenges that are unique to women and what specific products and facilities does SBM Bank offer to help them overcome?

One of the biggest barriers for women entrepreneurs is unequal access to property and land. The reason we talk about property and land is because when you are trying to access a loan from a bank, the issue of property as collateral plays out.

I will speak about Kenya in particular and say that here, only 1% of land titles are owned by women, with 5-6% held in joint names between husband and wife. Not surprisingly therefore, you find that the low rate of finance access for women is their key constraint because without financing, women are unable to grow their businesses. They remain at the micro enterprise level.

Look at the Agriculture sector for instance. Even though women are a force here and provide 70% of labour, they only hold 1% of registered titles. This situation of lack of titles continues to be a constraint across various sectors.

What then does this mean in terms of the credit that is available to women?

Women in Kenya only have 9% of the available credit despite the fact that they own nearly half of the MSMEs. At SBM Bank we realized that this is an area that we needed to figure out how to go about enabling women achieve what matters most to them especially as far as getting financing for their businesses. So, last year we launched the first unsecured business loans with a limit of upto 5 Million, to benefit not just women but also men. This is a big deal because to get 5 Million credit without security is simply unheard of. People talk about it, but it does not exist.

Since we started off in March, we do not have a single defaulter. And yet we see defaulting in secured loans. It is a big deal and I see this is a facility that we will be able to continue to share with our customers especially women.

The second barrier is lack of knowledge on things like tax, compliance, selling and prospecting. I am very proud to announce that in 2020, we partnered very early on in the year with the SME Founders Association to train our women. The trainings were weekly and we were able to train in excess of 3000 women on various topics. Pre-Covid19 we were training in our regional SME hubs across the country but with Covid-19 we had to virtualize them.

We have observed that low education levels and a curriculum that does not emphasize entrepreneurship skills decreases the chances that women can run successful businesses. As private sector we do have an opportunity to be able to upskill our women entrepreneurs to be able to compete just as well with men.

This is why within our value proposition the issue of education is huge. You cannot be able to disassociate it from financing because you will not even know how to borrow well if you do not have the right skills to run your business.

The third one is the ability to manage work and family. This one became a bigger issue during Covid-19 because women are working from home. Your husband is expecting you to make lunch and the kids want you to help with homework. This issue became huge. On average, Kenyan women work 12.9 hours per day which is 4.7 hours more than men work. This statistic is from the Voices of Women Entrepreneurs report I mentioned earlier. There is also the issue of unpaid family work. Women constitute 68% of unpaid family workers, so women entrepreneurs are both mothers and entrepreneurs. Time spent on family leaves women with less time to run their businesses and to network and even having a moment to leverage on the trainings becomes an issue because of this.

The fourth challenge is lack of access to markets and procurement opportunities. I was shocked to learn in a forum that in a certain institution, there were certain opportunities that were reserved for women and there were those that they were advised not to bother.  Opportunities reserved for women were such as catering, cleaning, flowers, décor, you know – soft issues. I learnt in this forum that this institution would not allow women to participate in things to do with infrastructure and such other businesses. This is not just in Kenya but in other countries across Africa and other parts of the world.

In partnership with one of our market access partners SheTrades we were able to make a commitment that as SBM we were going to reserve 10% procurement opportunities for women owned businesses. With our partnership with Safaricom Women In Business for instance, we invited an odd 200 women to apply for these opportunities even after our procurement calendar had closed. Last year we were able to get quite a number pre-qualified in the various categories that we have in the bank so that they can be able to participate.

The thing here is about being intentional to give women opportunities so that they can supply the bank. Trade and not aid. It is not aid that women want. They want to be able to trade so that they can empowered.

Finally, few business associations in Kenya effectively and meaningfully target women. The word here is effectively. There is a myriad of associations for women but the one thing that I listen and hear when I attend these sessions is that there are very few that actually go beyond and meaningfully create value. Women have benefited from business associations in certain sectors such as trade, agriculture and textiles. One example I have is OWIT which has successfully been linking women to international business opportunities and lobbying on behalf of women exporters in Kenya.

The Association of Women in Agriculture also provides useful information on product innovation and trade opportunities. In general, many women who were interviewed even through the Voices of Women Entrepreneurs report consider business associations as weak, ineffective, and overly political bodies that are not worth their time. Women entrepreneurs would benefit from well-coordinated associations that effectively address their needs.

One of the associations that they mentioned is the Kenya Women Entrepreneurs Board that has the potential to become a very effective gathering for women in business.

In summary, Kenyan women in business are determined to grow. Despite the obstacles, women are ambitious, and they are looking to grow their businesses through value partners.

Other than offering women friendly banking products, is SBM Bank involved in any other women empowerment activities? Like CSR?

Let me start by saying that one of the things that today’s entrepreneur does not want is for their products to be feminized and given a colour. Making them pink. They do not want pink notebooks and pink pens. They want functional solutions.

Towards this, I will start with the partner angles because collaborations and partnerships are our thing. You cannot do this thing on your own. You have to find like-minded organizations to be able to provide real value to women.

SBM has three kinds of traditional partners. One is the Market Access Partners who help women in business find opportunities in new markets. Two we have Financial Access Partners who collaborate with organizations such as ourselves to be able to provide affordable credit. We also have Brand Partners who are good for your brand.

I am going to showcase 4 partners that are very strong for SBM.


The first one is SheTrades which provides resource tools for SMEs and helps to connect women to markets. Most importantly and this is the one I really like, was to internationalize. I was able to attend some of their forums and you find women who are in tea or avocado for instance are taken through steps to break into markets that they would otherwise struggle to get into.

We partnered with them very early on and the mandate was as follows. Number one is to create a sustainable ecosystem where women owned businesses can grow and thrive. Here the message once again is trade and not aid. In 2020 for instance, we were able to train 120 women in SMEs with skills to help them increase participation in international trade. One of the things that we were looking at were trade paths and how to deal with investors. In addition, women owned businesses got access to the first ever global digital exhibition which involved in part 6 months free training in readiness for this year’s Dubai expo. The bank was trained by SheTrades towards becoming very aware of how to support women owned businesses. That was a huge one because you see, you have your procurement committee and we say we want to move procurement spend from 1% to 10%. SheTrades were able to partner with us to internally train our procurement team so that then we can offer meaningful participation.

Safaricom Women In Business

The second partner is Safaricom Women in Business. Here we are collaborating to provide procurement opportunities. The bank supplier diversity and inclusion program in collaboration with Safaricom WIB program was kick started last year and we were able to create a window for these women to participate in the procurement opportunities. Quite a number were already pre-qualified by the time we were coming to the end of the year.

Africa Women Entrepreneurship Program

The third partner is AWEP. Africa Women Entrepreneurship Program. The purpose of this partnership is to provide access to the AGOA platform and the big story here is really giving access to international markets to women.

Even amidst the pandemic we were able to hold sessions. I remember one such session we held at Capital Club and we had about 15 women in business and specifically in Agriculture. We got people from the US to see how we can be able to connect them. That was very powerful. So, the B-To-B networking forums are very useful and we have held them every year, sometimes in our premises.

We also opened a new financing line called Covid19 Commodities Financing for women owned businesses which happened in 2020. We linked women owned businesses to other partners such as Bidco which we did in conjunction with AWEP, so that women can be able to leverage on opportunities within the Bidco production line.

Finally, still in conjunction with AWEP we partnered with counties specifically Machakos and Bungoma where we have forums to support economic initiatives at county level.

UN Women

The second last partner that I would like to talk about is UN Women where two and a half years ago we became signatories. The big picture here is to be able to support women not just at the market place but even staff members internally and the community at large.

What we do is that we have all these activities that are aligned to the seven principles that we drive. Every quarter we report both internally and externally on the efforts of the initiatives that we have applied to ensure that we are actually promoting women empowerment principles. They cut across from training initiatives to CSR to the things that we are doing internally to ensure that these principles are adhered to and that we are actually positioning the woman in a way that they’re not disadvantaged.

SME Founders Association

Finally, SFA which is the SME Founders Association is an association that is led by Frida Owinga of Passion Profit. This has been one of the most successful initiatives that we have had. Every week without fail we have trained women on various topics. SFA has positioned themselves as our valuable knowledge partner and we continue to train on a weekly basis.


A lot of activities happen around the CSR sector and we did quite a bit last year. First, we participated in the community sustainable bamboo tree planting held in Ruiru dam. This was commissioned by the First Lady Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta and we came in on the invitation of Bidco.

Before Covid-19 set in, SBM in partnership with SheTrades held the first market expo where 120 women owned businesses showcased their goods and services. The most important thing is the observation that this platform was able to provide ability for women B-To-B engagement so that women were able to do business with each other.

We also partnered with AWEP and Metropol Credit to train women in Machakos on how to keep records and maintain great credit scores to make them more bankable. We also partnered with SheTrades for the launch of the Future Females Kenyan chapter. In addition, we were able to leverage on our SME hubs to c0-train women in business on matters IT and business processing. This also gave rise to discussions on how to pitch to investors during expos.

In August last year, again in partnership with SheTrades, we held virtual trainings and provided a crisis management toolkit on how to cushion women in businesses as they cope with the pandemic. This was quite powerful.

SBM was also represented in Adis Ababa SheTrades Global and World Development Forum. Here, four of our partners were able to get international trade opportunities.

In April we sponsored a series called What Women Want. This has become quite popular. The reason for this is to help women cope with the effects of Covid-19, help them navigate the VUCA world and to address psychosocial issues.  We were able to come up with panelists who would be able to come and speak. Women were able to plug in and get a wealth of knowledge and support in the journey that they were going through.

This actually earned us an award from MSK for Covid19 response and this was because of the virtual sessions that were ongoing and are still ongoing as we speak.

Those are some of the few initiatives I would like to mention.

What is the SBM Women Market Program

The SBM Women Market Program seeks to do three things. The first one is to educate. By educating we mean equipping women owned businesses with the right skill set and knowledge to enable them build solid businesses.

The second pillar is about empowerment. By empowerment we mean ability to help women owned businesses grow through relevant, innovative financial and non-financial solutions.

The third pillar is around protecting the woman through advisory services, investment, insurance, and wealth management.

These solutions are hinged on a financial and non-financial perspective. In defining our women banking customer, our value proposition was built around three main criteria. The first one is women in business and their needs, then we have salaried women, and then we have family women. There is no one we miss out in these three areas.

Some of the financial solutions available for women in business are the unsecured business loan of upto 5 Million. We have term loans upto 100 Million, and other traditional products like overdrafts, asset finance for purchase of things like machinery and motor vehicles. We have corporate credit cards in the event that they would like to purchase things on behalf of the business. Additionally, we have mortgages because you need a roof over your head.

For the salaried women we do have products like unsecured loans through our workplace banking value proposition where if you are an employee of a certain company, you can come here and access loans upto 7 Million Shillings. 

We also opened up our unsecured credit cards. This is an interesting one especially for shopping. Before, the only people who would qualify for this were the existing SBM customers. Now we have opened it up to the entire population for as long as you have an income and are able to show proceeds from your business.

For the salaried women we also have vehicle financing and just a couple of days back, we launched our first very attractive savings account known as SBM Platinum Saver Account. This pays rates that are not available in this market, at 6% as long as you have Kshs.100,000/- and you’re able to only withdraw once in a quarter. This is a big deal. We started working on it last year because we realized that in this environment, people need to save in case of the next crisis. This is for any lady who would want to save for her children’s education or for business hard times.

For the women and family, housewives and mothers, we offer non-financial solutions such as financial planning, investment advisory services, savings accounts, and access to local and global investment options through our mothership in Mauritius. Business toolkits are available as well as children investment accounts.

Those are the three predominant categories. Women in business, salaried women, and women in the family.

As a woman banker, what would you say to young girls who would like to join banking as a career but have self-limiting beliefs about their abilities?

Why banking? It could be anything and all dreams are valid. At this point and especially in the world that we live in today, you could be the best DJ, photographer, or a dancer. If that is your thing, pursue it with passion. The message I would share is that limits only exist in our minds. If you truly want to achieve something, believe it, work hard towards it, and never give up.

For our young girls the main thing that I would say is that there are no short cuts to success. You have to go through the motions to get to where you want to get. You have to be able to go through the steps and the loops to get to the top.

It does not have to be banking. Anything that you have a passion for and that you are good at can drive your economic engine. Just go for it.

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