On a recent trip out of Nairobi, we arrived in Eldama Ravine, a small town of around 15,000 people in Kenya's Rift Valley Province. On our arrival we were greeted by Benson, the local loan officer for SMEP Microfinance Bank, who proudly walked us down Eldama Ravine's main street, into a building containing a general store and an education center, and up two flights of stairs to a small office overlooking the busy local market.
That morning Benson was just beginning his second day in SMEP's newest branch, and despite a lack of electricity and furniture, he was proud to finally have a place to call his office. Benson had been working for SMEP for just over a year without one; accessing emails in a local internet cafe, coordinating operations from his mobile phone, and in that time, despite the obstacles, had grown SMEP's presence to encompass 36 groups of borrowers, ranging in size from 8 to 30 members and covering an area of over 75km.
The opening of the office in Eldama Ravine represented the latest step in SMEP's continued expansion across the country, extending its reach further into rural Kenya and improving financial access for Kenya's hardest-to-reach citizens. As is true of so much of Kenya's rapidly growing economy, SMEP has embraced technology and is using it to reach more communities and help more people. In recent months SMEP has issued customized handsets to all its loan officers across the country, allowing them to take borrower photos, report repayments directly to the head office, and even to print receipts for borrowers via small handheld wireless printers.
As we sat down in Benson's office, he took his seat behind a desk he'd borrowed from a neighbor, retrieved his mobile phone, loan officer handset and wireless printer from his bag and got to work. In a country that invented M-Pesa, a mobile banking system whose transactions now account for over 40% of Kenya's economy, it's great to see technological innovation continuing to increase access and opportunity for everyone.