Sometimes entrepreneurship isn’t planned for, it emerges. For Victoria Kisyombe, entrepreneurship emerged after tragedy. When her husband died unexpectedly in 1991, life seemed to come to an end for Victoria and her three young children as well. It was the darkest time she can remember, marked by social and economic challenges.
Victoria didn’t own property in her name. She didn’t have collateral or credit history. She was left with a single cow, called Sero. But Victoria managed to turn Sero into a source of consistent income; she sold the cow’s milk and sustained her family. Slowly, she was able to accumulate savings and rebuild her life. In Sero, Victoria had one asset – but it was a productive one, and that made all the difference.
Victoria is educated and resourceful, but she knew that many women find themselves in difficult circumstances without access to productive assets like Sero. “I saw that there were other women, other widows—some of them had not been to school like I had been and they were less privileged than I had been—and I thought: ‘How are they managing?’” Globally, women’s entrepreneurship, economic independence, and ability to contribute to economic growth is often restricted by customary law and financing regulations that require tangible collateral. In Tanzania, where 33 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, women struggle to open and grow businesses without the collateral needed to qualify for loans. More than 90 percent of women do not own property due to the country’s customary laws, which in most cases supersede other laws; this exclusion propels many women into a cycle of poverty.
Victoria saw an opportunity to circumvent the restrictions that limit women’s economic participation. She redesigned the traditional model of micro-finance to work for Tanzanian women. In 2002, she opened SELFINA in Dar es Salaam and began loaning and leasing productive assets. The leased assets enable women to generate income sustainably, and at the end of the lease a client owns the asset in her own name. It becomes collateral that qualifies her for a traditional bank loan.
Twelve years later, Victoria and her team have provided 25,000 leases to women, USD $16 million in credit, impacted more than 200,000 people and created 125,000 jobs. A repayment rate of 95 percent enabled the company to keep growing; to serve more women and their families.
SELFINA is named after Sero, the cow – Sero Lease and Finance Limited– and has been a catalyst for women’s entrepreneurship, responsible for the launch of a range of small businesses and enterprises. Victoria leases just about everything – tractors, photocopiers, ovens, and livestock – and her clients are a diverse group including florists, caterers, clothing designers, and farmers.
A majority of Victoria’s clients, 60 percent, live in rural areas. Many are widows and young women who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the opportunity SELFINA provides. Victoria has designed a solution that meets her community’s needs, and she has built a model recognized by the World Bank and World Economic Forum.
Her entrepreneurship fuels bigger dreams, bigger goals. “If I can change the life of one person it makes a whole difference because behind that person there is a whole family. It’s a family, it’s a society, it’s Tanzania.” Victoria plans to open offices across Tanzania and has her sights set on expanding to other countries in East Africa.