Dr. Victoria Kisyombe, Director of SELFINA

Dr. Victoria Kisyombe pic

Mambo from Dar es Salaam! Mambo to the staff at Kiva, my fellow Fellows, our MFI partners, kiva lenders, and anyone else who wants to jump on the kiva rollercoaster. My apologies for failing to share my impressions of SELFINA, Dar es Salaam, and Tanzania for almost two months. The only excuse I can give is that kiva.org has been too generous with its posting limit, kiva lenders have been too generous and quick with their support, and the subsequent workload has kept me too busy to even think about blogging! 

Perhaps the best way to introduce SELFINA (Sero Lease and Finance Ltd.) is to introduce its founder, director and ‘Mama’, Dr. Victoria Kisyombe. Originally from Mbeya, a beautiful and cool mountainous region in the South-West of Tanzania, Victoria completed her primary and secondary education first in Mbeya, followed by Morogoro, and finally Kenya. She returned to Tanzania to attend the University of Dar es Salaam, where she completed a bachelor degree in Veterinary Science in 1983. After completing her degree Victoria returned to her hometown of Mbeya to work as a vet, where her skill in dealing with livestock made her very popular amongst the largely agricultural community. In 1986 she was awarded a scholarship by Edinburgh University to complete a Masters degree in Veterinary Science.


Upon her return to Tanzania in 1987, Victoria began working on an intergovernmental project, which involved providing livestock to disadvantaged individuals and families as a source of income generation or subsistence. This position provided Victoria with an insight into the difficulties faced by many Tanzanians, particularly women. As is the case in much of Tanzania, many of the women she came across did not own any assets; their land, houses, household items, and agricultural equipment and produce, were inevitably owned by their husbands or a male family member. Consequently, it was, and remains, difficult for Tanzanian women to access finance.


Victoria and her colleagues tried to incorporate into their program, strategies to address the gender inequality and poverty they encountered. They began to insist that the women hold joint ownership of the livestock the program provided, and also encouraged widows and single mothers to participate. In addition, they expanded the program and began providing small loans, marketing advice, and business training to women running non-agricultural businesses.


In Victoria’s own words, all of this was an ‘eye-opener’ to the volume and variety of problems faced by women, but also to what a big difference just a little support can make. This is where her vision of an NGO to foster women’s empowerment began. In 1995 she established Sero Business Women’s Association (SEBA), named after a cow called Sero that was left behind by her late husband. Sero the cow supplemented Victoria’s paltry salary and provided milk for her one year-old daughter. Victoria hoped that SEBA (and later, SELFINA), would provide the same support and source of hope to the many women it served as Sero the cow had to her and her children.


SEBA’s first programs included providing business training, legal advice, health workshops, and forums on gender issues such as Female Genital Mutilation. But after providing business training to over 7000 women, Victoria realised that a lack of capital remained the major impediment to women’s empowerment, progression, and escape from poverty. SEBA needed a finance wing.


In 2002, Sero Lease and Finance Ltd (SELFINA) was born (or, to be more accurate, incorporated as a Limited Liability Company), following the successful implementation of a pilot microfinance project by SEBA. During the early years SELFINA struggled to access finance, not only because it was a new organisation, but because it loaned only to women and was directed by women. An important initial source of funding was the Tanzanian Government’s Small Enterprise Loan Facility (SELF). Efficient management and repayment of these funds made attracting further capital a little easier, and slowly but surely SELFINA has established an excellent credit history and large portfolios with institutions such as Bank of Africa, CRDB Bank, FBME Bank, ETIMOS of Italy, and the African Development Foundation (ADF).


SELFINA’s loan products are an innovative alternative to standard loans. In response to the fact that many women lack tangible collateral assets, SELFINA introduced a product called microleasing. Using microleasing, SELFINA, after consultation with the client, purchases a piece of equipment required for the client’s business. SELFINA owns the piece of equipment and leases it to the client until the final repayment is made, at which point ownership of the item is signed over to the client. SELFINA recently introduced a new product called ‘sale and leaseback’, in response to a need for working capital by many of its clients. Under this system, SELFINA purchases assets or equipment from its clients, in essence extending a loan to them, and then leases the same items back to them. Fortunately for the clients, the items are only physically seized by SELFINA if the client fails to make her repayments!


SELFINA now has over 6,000 clients and a portfolio of over US$3 million, and this is due to the tireless work of Victoria and a number of dedicated staff members (I should mention, so as not to be too biased, that we do allow men to work here and that many of them are extremely hardworking – a big shout out to Robbie Mageta). However, it is Victoria who is usually the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave (late at night). Even then, she frequently brings work home with her and regularly works on weekends. And despite the constant stress of never-ending loan applications for which there is not enough funding, meetings with bank managers to negotiate funds for these applications, phone calls day and night from clients, partners and staff members, Victoria always manages a big smile and always has time to discuss any problem, personal or professional. As Robbie once said to me, “she’s a strong woman”. That’s an understatement! Simply put, there are not enough synonyms for ‘inspiring’ to describe Victoria and what she has achieved.


The future? “To loan to more and more women!” says Victoria excitedly. And with her in charge, you can be sure it will happen.


View From SELFINA’s office

 The view from SELFINA’s Office (now you know why we don’t mind working long hours!).


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