Source: Global Press Institute
Nancy Acieng stands outside the door of Pride Microfinance Limited, a bank in Kampala, Uganda's capital. A fairly educated woman, she works hard to earn money selling fresh food and fruit from a roadside stall.
She says her hard work used to go to waste because her husband routinely stole her ATM card and withdrew the contents of her account. But thanks to the bank's new security measure that requires customers' fingerprints to withdraw money, she now has full control over her finances.
"He still beats me sometimes," Acieng says. "But he cannot steal my money anyhow, anymore. Using the fingerprint technology changed and improved my security both physical and financial."
Pride Microfinance recently introduced ATMs featuring a biometric fingerprint system. Not only has this innovation increased her security, but Acieng says it has also increased her worth in the eyes of her husband.
"Now, when he asks for my money, he has to ask nicely or I refuse to go with him to use my fingerprint," she says. "He cannot also know how much is on my account at any given time. This has increased my financial value to him."
She smiles mischievously and continues on her way to use her hard-earned money she has just extracted from the ATM to buy groceries at a nearby market.
Women who run businesses in Uganda say that more opportunities are available for them to assert control over their money, from mobile banking to added ATM security. But they still face exclusion when it comes to higher-level finances, like obtaining a business loan. Bank officials say they are working to expand women's access to financial opportunities, but that government policies need to restructure the system to encourage banks to invest in businesswomen.
Ugandan women owned about 39 percent of registered businesses as of 2008, yet they received only 9 percent of commercial loans, according to an International Finance Corporation report. Half of Ugandan banks named lack of adequate guarantees as an obstacle to lending to small and medium enterprises, according to a 2012 paper by the African Development Bank Group.
Bank of Uganda, the nation's central bank, requires all loans above a certain amount to be adequately secured, according to the paper. But only 6 percent of land – the preferred collateral – was registered with district land management offices by women, compared with 94 percent by men as of 2000, according to the Ugandan government.
Three women are working as food vendors in Kitintale, a Kampala suburb. They are selling in-season vegetables and fruits, frying small snacks like cassava and potato chips and baking chapatti, a type of flatbread. They say their working capital is about 10,000 shillings ($4) or less each.
Of the three small-businesswomen, only one has a bank account. The second woman says she is waiting for the right time and economic circumstance to open one. The third says she prefers to keep the money concealed in her house because a bank account would be a bother.
Other women say they aren't aware of their eligibility to open bank accounts. Still others say they intentionally avoid opening bank accounts in order to conceal their worth from their partners and avoid violence related to their earnings.
In light of women's mixed feelings toward banking, Ugandan banks are beginning to develop women-friendly policies.
In a recent Facebook forum on the women-friendliest banks operating in Uganda, a pair of the more than two dozen banks operating in Uganda received unanimous votes.
Thirteen women responded in the forum that Development Finance Company of Uganda was the best bank for women because it has a woman-specific financial policy.
"They have a special facility to support businesswomen," Patricia Achiro, a finance auditor, responded in the forum.
The other seven women responded that Centenary Bank was the best because of the loan facilities it grants to women as well as its short loan-processing time of four days.
Cissy Namyalo says she is also a member of Centenary Bank. She says that new mobile money options have enabled her to save more because she can send herself money at the end of her business day without taking a trip to the bank.
"I keep the money on my phone by sending it to myself," she says. "When I get time, I go and bank it at Centenary Bank."
She points to a mobile money agent who sits at the matatu stage, or bus stop, until about 9 p.m. every night.
"That way, I avoid the temptation of using my 'ka' profit," she says proudly.
Ka is a word in Luganda, Uganda's major language, for something valuable yet vulnerable.
"I only retain my working capital at the end of my day for the next day," she says.
Richard Paitum, a middleman, trades in grain and food crops in northern, eastern and central Uganda. He says that mobile money has created the most prudent option for secure transactions in rural Uganda.
He says this is especially true for women, citing multiple incidents in which he has paid a woman in cash for her produce and watched helplessly as her husband grabbed the cash from her and walked away. He says that it breaks his heart to see a woman's hard work abused.
"The wiser ones have since bought phones," he says.
The women he does business with call him discreetly when their harvest is ready. He sends them their pay through mobile money.
Other banks have launched new ATM networks to expand citizens' banking opportunities.
Last year, Finance Trust became Uganda's first microfinance deposit-taking institution to launch its own ATM network across its 28 branches in Uganda, which serves more than 140,000 customers. The majority of transactions still take place over the counter in Uganda.
Pride Microfinance followed in its footsteps with the launch of its ATM services in February 2012, along with an enhanced feature of a biometric fingerprint system. The system aims to avoid signature forgeries. But many women, like Acieng, say they are also using it to protect their accounts from their husbands.
Still, ATM initiatives leave many women in rural areas out of banking, as the majority are illiterate and can't operate the system.
Women also voice difficulties obtaining loans. Land ownership is usually a requirement for obtaining loans from banks. But women rarely own land in Uganda.
Women can get loans without owning land if they have other financial indicators that show they are credible, like receipts of water bill payments or proof of car ownership. The security necessary depends on the size of the loan being requested. But the average woman doesn't own a car or may lack these receipts.
"Many women like the food sellers at the market do not know how to apply for loans either due to a lack of financial education," says Richard Tumusiime, marketing manager at Pride Microfinance. "Neither do they keep financial records in the matter in which banks want them to keep them."
Namyalo, who vends food at a local market, says that she has never applied for a loan because she lacks collateral and credibility.
Namyalo sells more than 50 plates of food per day to her customers, but she does not issue receipts for each plate of food she sells.
"Bikoya naawe!" she says in Luganda.
This means that issuing receipts for her food sales is tedious.
"At the end of my business day, I simply count my money and subtract from it the amount I used in the morning for operations," she says. "If I used 100,000 in the morning and realized 132,000 that evening, the 32,000 then is my profit."
For a bank to verify her creditability for a loan, it would need simple indicators such as receipts for water bill payments and rent payments in the applicant's name. Namyalo makes all these payments, but they are not documented.
In any given month, Namyalo handles at least 600,000 shillings ($240) for her business. She buys five sacks of charcoal, each at 60,000 ($25) shillings, every month. Her food items for each business day costs her about 60,000 shillings ($25).
She employs four women to cook, wash and supply food to her various customers on a casual basis. Each woman earns 5,000 shillings ($2) per day and gets breakfast and lunch on the house.
But despite these various financial transactions, the only receipts she has to prove her business viability is her rental payment receipt of 80,000 shillings ($30) a month and her operational license receipt. She does not even have receipts for the cooking pans and benches she owns for the business.
Namyalo's dented aluminum saucepans covered in soot are the reason she has educated six children through secondary school, with one starting joining university this year. But the pans wouldn't suffice as collateral.
"Banks do not lend money to people who need money," she says. "They loan money to people who want money! Women don't usually want money. They need money in order to transform their lives and thrive. Unfortunately, banks in Uganda are yet to qualify a woman's needs and not her capital base as a basis for creditability."
Kunle Majekodunme, Uganda's country treasurer for United Bank for Africa, says this lack of documentation would make it difficult for Namyalo to obtain a loan at a bank.
"A cooperative union would probably work better for her," he says.
Namyalo and her workers do operate an informal credit circle. They save 10,000 shillings ($5) per week and loan each other money on a rotational basis out of their personal initiative.
Pride Microfinance has tried to make it easier for women with admirable business skills to acquire loan facilities and to access banking services by not requiring their customers to fill out paperwork, Tumusiime says.
Pride Microfinance also introduced the agricultural loan facility in February 2012 to improve access to agricultural loans for farmers so they can buy fertilizer, seeds or farming equipment. But although many farmers in Uganda are women, the majority of farmers accessing this loan are still men, Tumusiime says.
"Men are mostly the middlemen, buying the agricultural produce from the woman farmer and selling it to the trader in town," Tumusiime says. "This inadvertently pits them against women as creditable because they handle more business transactions and interact with more influential business players."
Paitum, a middleman, confirms that accessing a loan is no problem for him.
Tumusiime adds that women are good clients but too shy to take loans – even if they are better than the men at honoring their payments. He says that men, though bad at honoring payments, are bolder at taking loans.
Majekodunme agrees that women have proven themselves as faithful and consistent in paying back loans in all of the 26 African countries where United Bank for Africa operates. But he says that it takes a direct government commitment for banks to change their policies to recognize the advantage of targeting women in business.
He adds that across Africa, something as simple as a reference or guarantor for a "grassroots woman" seeking a bank loan is next to impossible for her to get. He suggests that banks at a higher level can start by subsidizing the interest rate charged for agricultural loans, which will encourage more women to apply for them.
He gave the example of Nigeria, his country of origin, where government policy has enabled grassroots women to access bank loans through cooperative unions. In the case of Uganda, he says that he has yet to encounter a policy directly targeted at supporting the grassroots woman.
Until then, he says that banks will continue to invest where there is profit opportunity. This is not a crime, as making a profit is the business mandate of any bank, he says.
Paitum says it is going to take a total overhaul of the man's psyche across Africa before a woman becomes secure in her agricultural earnings.