FEATURED: Banking women – Why Access to Finance Rwanda thinks women are the future

Mbishibishi Desange, pictured is a Bank of Kigali (BK) client who is set to receive a Zamuka Mugore loan to inject into her banana selling business in Nyabugogo market, Kigali.

Women in Rwanda have long been left out on financial inclusion efforts and have not been able to take advantage of financial products and services that are tailored to their roles as mothers, entrepreneurs, employees and in some cases, breadwinners.

Financial institutions are waking up to realise there is untapped potential in this sector to develop and design products and services specifically for the female market.

“According to the 2016 FinScope survey, there was an 11% gap between men and their female counterparts whereby men who access formal financial services account for 73 percent and women are at 62 percent.

“At Access to Finance Rwanda (AFR), we wanted to look into that gap in more detail and work on initiatives that can help us understand women and their financial habits better so that we can support  them through the design and development of financial products and services that we know will appeal and be well used,” says Waringa Kibe, the AFR Country Director.

AFR is a Rwandan not for Profit organization,  with a strategic focus of stimulating financial sector development by collaborating with financial institutions and other stakeholders to increase access to and use of financial services.

We do this by identifying and addressing constraints that prevent the financial market from reaching Rwanda’s low-income population, and promote innovations and learning that result in sustainable change in the financial sector. Improving access to financial services for the rural poor and women is a particular focus for AFR in 2019.

“With an increase in our female client base, currently making up  about 35% we are actively looking for new ways to work with more female clients and to develop relationships to inform them about products and services that will help them in their varied roles from mothers to employees and entrepreneurs . We see the benefit of working with them, to retain them as lifelong    customers especially as they make up the majority of the population”, says Bank of Kigali, Chief Commercial officer, Vincent Gatete.

“Much of the money women have access to circulates informally through saving groups. We need to find a way to channel it into the formal banking sector,” says Gasigwa Festus, the Managing Director of COPEDU, a local microfinance institution.

Whatever their need, low income women excluded from formal financial services are extremely resourceful when it comes to sourcing money.

Dukunde Jeanne, a wedding decorator in Kigali explains, “Whenever I needed money for my business, I would go and borrow it from a friend but the interest is very high. If I got 500,000Rwf, I would pay back 650,000Rwf.”

AFR conducted research that clearly  highlighted that women like Jeanne often have limited or lack of access to collateral that formal financial institutions require for giving out a loan and also lack confidence on how to approach formal financial institutions for such loans.

How AFR stepped in to demystify product design

AFR has responded by acting  as a catalyst to kick start-banking services for women and issued an expression of interest  to financial institutions that wanted to embark on the journey of developing female centric financial products. This done through designing, piloting and testing, with the end result being to roll out innovative financial products and services  to the market with an intended result of improving uptake and usage of financial services by women.

Three financial  institutions expressed their interest. The trio include a teachers’ SACCO branded as Umwalimu SACCO, Bank of Kigali and a micro finance institution called COPEDU.

“We were looking for pioneering financial institutions to pave the way by supporting the development of women’s financial services. As women in Rwanda account for 52% of the population, there is huge scope for  financial institutions to explore and serve.” said Roselyne Uwamahoro, the AFR Head of SACCOs and Saving Group Development.

Referring to the information from the Women’s FinScope thematic report of  2016,  AFR highlighted the gap between women and men in the formal uptake of financial products; with an intention to  support Financial service providers understand and realise the opportunities available and how best to move forward in this new sector.  

AFR country Director, Waringa Kibe,  comments: “Women need to feel understood and the products must be developed based on their needs now and in the future. We have to consider convenience, cost and we need to ensure that the product is explained in an easy to understand way to ensure good uptake in the first place.”

For technical training and knowledge transfer, AFR partnered with MicroSave, an international financial inclusion firm that specialises in market-led and scalable financial services and products. MicroSave worked with AFR to train and certify staff from financial institutions, local consultants on market research for product development using Market Insights for Innovation and Design (MI4ID) approach. The MI4ID approach relies on behavioural diagnostics to guide the interviews and analysis of data.

“The training sought to demystify product design. We trained the staff and local consultants with the aim to enhance their understanding of the behavioural insights of women when they are selecting financial products”, says Joyce Murithi, a Financial Inclusion Specialist at Microsave.

As part of their training with Microsave, the financial institutions were engaged in a market survey to understand  the background issues affecting financial inclusion efforts targeted at women. The survey revealed a very limited range of financial products for women overall, poor customer care, tedious loan application processes and high interest rates as reasons why many women choose to avoid working with formal institutions such as banks. 

The product designed by Bank of Kigali

“A number of women provided input for the product development process  which helped us design the Zamuka Mugore (loosely translated as – Woman, Progress) product,” Ms. Rita Kanyana, the Product Development Manager for Bank of Kigali said.

The product targets a visionary entrepreneur with a well-articulated growth plan for her business as well as being a member of a saving group to demonstrate the woman’s commitment to the principle of saving and investment.

Bank of Kigali has embraced a direct selling approach with this product, contrary to waiting for walk-in business.

“Traditionally we waited for women to come, but something needed to change,” said, Mr Gatete, the Bank of Kigali Chief Commercial Officer.

“We go to a market in teams of three to five and just preach about Zamuka Mugore.”

Women with small businesses are glad that the formal financial sector  is listening, and they are already taking advantage of the new product” said Jimmy Ndabaramye, Business Manager for Bank of Kigali.

“This product will enable us to work for ourselves and be our own bosses,” said Mbishibishi Dusange, a Bank of Kigali client. Mbishibishi Dusange explained further that previously she borrowed her capital from a loan shark weekly and had to repay  with half her profit. Now things have changed  for the better now that Mbishibishi Dusange is using the services of a formal bank. 

Umwalimu SACCO

Following their own market survey with AFR support, Umwalimu SACCO set out to address the needs of female teachers through the Nzigamira Niige (Saving for education) product.

“We interviewed a number of female teachers who told us they need a product that allows them to save money and borrow against savings to pay school fees for their children,” said Seraphine Uwimbabazi, the Marketing Manager for Umwalimu SACCO.

“The teachers told us they already have a saving group and monthly they borrow money at 10%. We informed them of the  SACCO product and  are  encouraging them to save for three months and borrow three times their savings at an interest rate of 11% per year.”

Teachers countrywide got wind of the new product during the commemoration of the International Teachers’ Day and the feedback by the end of 2018 was  impressive with 225 female teachers taking up the new product offering after only two months of the product being available on the market.

“Umwalimu SACCO have really thought about us and our needs. Now my children don’t have to miss school when I have no money”, said Bugenimana Marie-Rose, a teacher at GS Bitsibo in Kamonyi.


As a result of the AFR drive for developing human centred financial using market insights for Innovation and Design (MI4ID), COPEDU discovered that clients especially women needed quick loans to meet emergency needs. The response to that demand was Umurabyo Uratinda (quick business loan).

“For our client base who already have loan products with us  but may need access to emergency funds, we  now won’t require any further collateral from them so the loan process takes just three working days,” said Caritas Uwamariya, the Head of Marketing and Credit in Copedu.

The emergency loan product is as popular with clients as it is effective for COPEDU.

“Working with AFR on developing human centred financial products has enabled us to get back clients that had become inactive”, the COPEDU MD, Gasiba Festus said.

The manager of the flagship branch, Jean Paul Bugirimfura agreed, saying there had been over 1,000 applications for Umurabyo Uratinda loans in the first month.

“I no longer worry about clearing my goods from Magerwa. All I need is to fill out a form and in three days I get money to clear my goods,” testified Dukunde Jeanne, a COPEDU client based in Kigali market whose business has benefitted from the loan.

Lasting impact

To ensure continuity and sustainability of developing human centred financial products, local consultants were part of the entire training process and were eventually certified by MicroSave as trainers that will continue to support financial service providers and institutions.

“AFR is really supportive in making sure that the impact of the training spreads and is sustained” comments Francis Ndayiziga, a  local consultant working for  COPEDU.

From a social impact perspective, the project will enable low and middle-income women to access financial services in a way that reduces vulnerability to financial shocks and increases their capacity to make productive investments and contribute to economic growth.

If the project is scaled up, the end result will be to increase the usage of financial products by low income members of society especially women and the end goal is  to improve their livelihood and confidence in working with the formal financial sector.