What started as a merry-go-round to tackle socio-economic challenges among a group of women in Nandi has turned into a giant enterprise which has transformed livelihoods.

When members of the Cheptarit Star Women group in Mosoriot pulled resources together, contributing Sh2,000 monthly to invest in the cultivation of beans and trade in the produce as an alternative source of income to maize, little did they know that their determination would see them conquer the regional market.

Five years down the line, the investment is proving a life-changer to the 15 members of the group after they tapped emerging business opportunities to expand to the East Africa Community (EAC) markets.

“Land and other properties like livestock are owned by men as the heads of the house, limiting women on how to succeed as entrepreneurs. Under such circumstances, we had to plot how to eliminate restrictions on women’s participation to start their own enterprises to attain economic growth,” said Irene Samoei, the group leader.

Initially, the women contributed Sh2,000 each totaling Sh30,000 which they used as start-up capital to cultivate beans alongside other food crops for subsistence and commercial purposes.

“The idea was to create a platform to mobilise women and provide opportunities to start their own businesses and access the market at competitive rates,” explained Ms Samoei adding that after two harvest seasons they had enough maize and beans stocks to seek tender to supply the produce to learning institutions.

“We won our first tender to supply grains to two schools in Nandi which comprised 40 bags of maize and 20 bags of beans,” disclosed Ms Samoei.

The deal boosted their working capital to Sh600,000, more than enough to enable them to secure another tender to supply the cereals to 10 schools in Uasin Gishu in 2016 under a school feeding programme. They later expanded their supplies to Kisii and Nyamira counties in 2018 under a similar scheme.

The group’s major turning point was when the East Africa Grains Council offered to train members on market information and the value of operating as a company under one shop.

“We had to hire experts who guided us on how to register as a company to facilitate the expansion of our market share but finances to meet increased orders from our clients remained the main challenge,” disclosed Ms Josephine Bungei, the group secretary.

They turned to shylocks who offered them a ‘soft’ loan at 30 percent interest.

“Apart from supplying schools that we had won tenders, we continued trading in cereals at the local markets after securing rental stores at the strategic Mosoriot market along Kapsabet-Eldoret highway,” explained Ms Bungei.

The group made a breakthrough in 2020 when they won a two-year renewable tender with Mary’s Meals, a charity that sets up school feeding programmes in poor communities, to supply beans and maize to 392 schools in Turkana.

“The tender came with its challenges in terms of financial capacity and marshalling sufficient quantity of beans and maize to supply a total of 415 schools. But operating as a company enabled us to access an overdraft of up to Sh4 million with the Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB),” explained Ms Bungei.

The group has gained recognition among humanitarian agencies and businesses in the region for its role in promoting cross-border business opportunities access to women entrepreneurs.

Major boost

The group recently received a major boost after Kilimo Trust offered to create market linkages with 30 cooperatives in Uganda.

“We have established business networks with cooperatives in Uganda and Tanzania. This enables us to access market information and expand our business ties,” disclosed Ms Bungei.

To cut down on operational costs, the group has embraced e-commerce.

“Last month alone, we imported 300 tonnes of beans from Uganda worth Sh2.1 million and paid Sh1.2 million for hired trucks to transport the commodity to schools in Turkana,” said Ms Bungei.

On a monthly basis, 10 trucks loaded with beans valued at Sh20 million, orders placed by the group cross over to the country from Uganda while others full of maize cross from Tanzania, promoting cross border trade.

They also source beans locally, mainly from Bungoma, Elgeyo Marakwet and Mt Elgon, spending an average of Sh210,000 on the produce.

“Doing business online has enabled us to cut down on costs and concentrate on creating more market linkages and efficiency in serving our clients,” added Ms Bungei.

According to Kilimo Trust Country team leader Antony Mugambi, partnership with the women group has expanded their investment in terms of quality and quantity.

“We have negotiated businesses links with 30 co-operatives in Uganda to enable the group to attain a steady supply of beans,” said Mr Mugambi adding that doing business online has helped the group to expand its market scope.

“The group that started with six employees in 2016 has advanced over times and it now has 43 employees-22 men and 21 women while trading capacity has increased from 100 tonnes of beans to 300 tonnes while the quantity of maize has increased from 100 to 500 tonnes monthly,” disclosed Mr Cheboi.