SMEP: Using Water Loans to Lift Up Communities in Kenya

Much of the world lacks access to safe water. Worse yet, even in areas where safe drinking water is available, access is often restricted due to a lack of available financing.

SMEP, one of Kiva’s field partners in Kenya, offers affordable WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) loans to borrowers looking to purchase water tanks. SMEP’s affordable financing has several major benefits. Since the loans are almost always repaid, the money can be given out to other borrowers after one loan is completed. In addition, the water tanks can store enough water for an entire community, so the loan benefits not only the borrower but also everyone around him or her.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Mary, a SMEP WASH borrower, who took out an 88,000 shilling (~880 dollar) loan back in 2013 in order to buy a 10,000 liter water tank. Mary lives in a slum area called Southland Village just outside of Nairobi. She is 50 years old and has four adult children, ranging in age from 23 to 30. Mary noticed there was a shortage of water in her area. At the time, Mary was struggling to live on 4,000 shillings (40 dollars) per month. Since taking out the loan, Mary has managed to increase her monthly income to 10,000 shillings (100 dollars) per month, most of which comes from her water business.
Mary sells water in 20-liter containers, charging between 10 and 20 shillings per container depending on the demand at the time. Mary herself gets water from the city council pumped into her 10,000 liter tank and is charged by the meter.

20 liter jugs that Mary uses to sell the water to neighbors

The only water in the entire town comes from Mary’s business. I’m not just referring to clean drinking water either, but to literally all water. Without Mary’s water tank, everyone in the area would still be unable to clean or wash clothes.

Mary using her water to wash clothes

All of Southland Village is owned by the government, which gives it out to the poor to build homes on. Unfortunately, this means that, should the government ever want to develop the land, its inhabitants will be forced to leave. Because of this, Mary hopes to purchase land somewhere in Nairobi that she can develop into her own home.

Mary has paid her SMEP loan back and continues to provide her entire community with water. In addition to running her business, Mary participates in several women’s groups promoting female livelihood opportunities and women’s empowerment. She notes the Good Will Ladies, an organization promoting women’s livelihoods, as one of her favorite groups to participate in.

With her higher income, Mary has been able to send her sister’s children to school. Mary claims that demand for clean water in Southland Village exceeds supply. Because of this, Mary hopes to purchase another 10,000 liter tank in the near future. I’m just not sure where she’ll put it. One 10,000 liter tank is pretty big already!

A 10,000 liter water tank

About the author

Will Putnam

Will’s first long-term travel experience was during a service trip to a village near Marrakesh, Morocco, where he saw the progress the village had made in rebuilding its elementary school. Will has had many divergent experiences since, as the Commodore of the Washington University Sailing Club, a clinical researcher at Barnes-Jewish hospital, a college counselor and test preparation instructor at an education startup in Bangkok, and a volunteer on an organic permaculture farm. These experiences showed Will common challenges facing small businesses and organizations as well as the importance of understanding cultural circumstances and open communication in any new venture. Will first participated in KIVA as a lender, but now brings his background in health care, education, and economics to the KIVA Fellowship, where he hopes to continue following his interest in international development and social entrepreneurship. An avid adventurer, Will enjoys traveling to new countries, running really long distance races, and seeing his favorite bands play live.