NZAIKONI, Kenya—After its soft opening in July, the Universal Traders SACCO (UTS) branch in the mountaintop community of Nzaikoni, Kenya, experienced a groundswell of interest from members in a community that never before had access to financial services. However, the steady member growth over the past 90 days was nothing like the rush that occurred during the branch's official grand opening Wednesday, when a member of Kenya's parliament pledged her support of the branch by joining UTS, as well as offering to sponsor the initial fees to enroll 20 new members.
UTS opened the Nzaikoni branch after several years of increased support from World Council of Credit Unions' (WOCCU) SACCO Growth Program in Kenya, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With WOCCU's assistance, the small credit union was turned into a regional powerhouse that has attracted involvement from the Kenyan government to administer its agricultural lending program, as well as establish additional branches.
The Nzaikoni branch, the fifth office for UTS, based in the city of Machakos, proved to be a surprise for all involved due the rapid rise in the number of members. Residents of the poor community, characterized by small storefront businesses and rutted dirt roads, appeared at the small branch during the past few months with jars of money that had been buried in the ground so long that the contents had acquired a musty smell. Hiding their funds at home was the only recourse for many members who lacked the means to take public transportation down the mountain to do business with other SACCOs. UTS had heeded multiple requests when establishing the remote branch, occasionally to the dismay of other communities closer to Machakos that also sought a credit union presence.
If the initial response weren't enough, the enrollment frenzy following the lengthy grand opening celebration proved to the UTS board and staff that they had made the right decision. "People say it is a miracle that a financial institution has opened here," said Isaiah Mutungi, chairman of the UTS board.
It was clear that the opening was more than a mere business activity. The crowd had gathered under a tent staked to the middle of the main road and people from the community lined the concrete sidewalks across from the branch. An eight-piece brass band entertained the crowd as they marched up and down the main street in an impromptu parade. Traditional dancers performed in the space between the tent for members and the one set aside for dignitaries, and many officials spoke, including Jesus Chavez, manager of the Kenya SACCO Growth Program.
The most prominent dignitary was the Hon. Wavinya Ndeti, an assistant minister in Kenya's parliament who represents the Kathiani Constituency in which Nzaikoni is located. Ndeti, who spoke both in English and Swahili, officially opened the SACCO. She also congratulated both the credit union and the community on coming together to provide affordable financial alternatives to people who need such things the most.
"Thank you for bringing UTS here," Ndeti said. "These people are the lowest of the low and don't have much. We will judge you by the changes you bring to our people. If I see good results, I promise I will give you 101% support in your efforts."
As a show of faith, Ndeti became a UTS member. She also agreed to sponsor 10 women members and 10 youth members, paying the 100 Kenyan Shillings (about US$1.20) each to enable them to join. Crowd members surged forward to become part of the new SACCO and take advantage of the services it provides.
"You can see that the people really need this office," said Stephen Kisili, UTS general manager. "It has come out very clearly how critical that need is."
World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 57,000 credit unions in 105 countries serve 217 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.