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Une économie solidaire peut-elle être féministe ?

Christine Verschuur
Isabelle Guérin
Isabelle Hillenkamp

Solidarités, reproduction et production

Exploring conceptions of the social and solidarity economy: informal financial groups in Kenya

Susan Johnson

Texte intégral


1While the term social and solidarity economy (SSE) is now increasingly used, definitions present a spectrum of conceptualisations. These range from those that describe and seek to understand the social dimensions of collective economic activity as non-market activity to those that examine how forms of collective action are a response to the rise of capitalism involving transformations that seek to “resist the growing commodification of social life” (Laville 2010a, 81). This latter definition suggests a notion of economic democratisation as a counter-movement (in the Polanyian sense) re embedding the economy through a political principle. This implies a degree of agency and political intention in the development of these responses which also therefore poses particular challenges for the processes through which equitable gender relations are worked out both within the forms of solidarity economy and the processes through which they are transformed.

2These perspectives on solidarity raise questions as to the actual nature of mutualistic organisational forms of economic action in developing countries which have strong social elements and how they are to be understood and ultimately theorised. This requires a dedicated enquiry into their forms and practices. Most recently the literature on SSE has referred to community-based savings groups as a space which allows for financial intermediation in an alternative frame outside of the mainstream capitalist financial system (UNRISD 2013). This paper therefore examines the case of informal groups in Kenya in order to evaluate how they relate to conceptions of SSE and its gender dimensions. Informal groups are probably the most prevalent form of collective economic activity in Kenya, with 34% of women and 21% of men belonging to them (FSD Kenya and Central Bank of Kenya 2013). While NGOs do promote and support them, it is the broad swathe of self-organised groups which is the focus here.

3The paper therefore addresses the following questions: first, how does the form and nature of informal financial groups in Kenya correspond to the range of definitions of social and solidarity economy that have been proposed? Second, how can their actual nature be explained? Third, what does an analysis of them contribute to our understanding of the SSE and its gender relations?

4The paper proceeds as follows. I first review conceptions of the SSE, and its relationship to the informal economy, also raising key points on the discussion of gender relations within it. Second, I present an overview of literature and evidence on informal financial groups in Kenya. Third, I then assess solidarity in these groups by examining this evidence with respect to the definitions of SSE previously reviewed. This assessment suggests that these groups present little in the way of solidaristic activity that can be viewed as a re-regulation of the economy through democratic principles. However, this approach neglects a perspective on their activity within the wider social, economic and political context. I therefore then present this context in order to re‑evaluate their role. I conclude that this enables an understanding of their pro‑social nature within the challenging context of a wider moral political economy which involves corruption, malpractice, and opportunism.

Conceptions of social and solidarity economy and the informal sector

5Conceptions of SSE are many. Here I do not seek to review the extensive variety of definitions or to critique them in terms of their definitional usefulness but to give an idea of the range, in particular with respect to the issue of the nature of solidaristic activity. This is particularly important in order to use them as a basis for discussing the nature of informal financial groups in Kenya.

6Many definitions seek to establish the principles on which SSE activity is based. The SSE Reader suggests that SSE entities have an objective of producing goods and services though not with the primary objective of maximising profits even though surplus is an essential feature of sustainability (Fonteneau et al. 2011, 7-8). Common operating principles of the SSE are then: first, democratic and participatory leadership. Second is solidarity and innovation in which operating methods are based on the solidarity principle aiming to include rather than exclude with goals that are not limited to accumulating capital or generating profits but include using resources to achieve objectives that will benefit the initiators as well as the workers and the users/beneficiaries involved, this in turn allowing for constant adaptation to respond to needs of users. Third is voluntary involvement and autonomy of the individual. Fourth is a collective dimension in which it operates to meet members’ own needs or those of others.

7In this quite broad definition solidarity appears to involve a more social than political dynamic. By contrast Dacheux and Goujon (2011) bring out a more political dimension. Principles that they cite arising from discussion in “Globalisation of Solidarity” meetings are – similarly to the above – the link between productive activity and social needs rather than profitability; and the role of participation (both men and women) in the production of goods and services. But going beyond these, this approach highlights the building of local national and international social networks based on consensus and cooperation, and working towards the democratic regulation of economic activity. This then takes us into the wider view of its political dimension. It identifies going beyond separate activities to a wider movement and identifies the joint agenda of such action as being the re-regulation of the economy – the re‑embedding of the economy in the political principle of democracy and the way in which this results in particular character of regulation of the economy. The elements of an enterprise that are seen as underpinning these principles are: the indivisible collective ownership of property; the distribution of wealth to meet the needs of people rather than capital; freedom of association and democratic management and, finally, autonomous decision making and management in relation to the state. These elements do not however identify or go beyond the individual enterprise to the nature of the politics and re‑embedding, that is, whether such re-regulation is the result solely of the immanent process of solidaristic enterprise and its networking, or of a policy project of change generated by the collective action of these organisations themselves to affect an alternative regulatory structure of the economy as a whole.

8Moulaert and Ailenei (2005) on the other hand also pursue a more empirical and context specific approach suggesting that there is no specific definition but a family of hybrids which are sited between market, state and civil society. In this case the phenomenon under scrutiny must be analysed within the context of specific forms of capitalist development and interpreted within their own social, economic and political contexts. “Social economy develops as a permanent stream of inventions of various social mechanisms, mixing market exchange, state intervention, collective civil sector organisation based on social movements driven by solidarity and reciprocity” (Moulaert and Ailenei 2005, 2049). This allows for a much more nuanced analysis which suspends an externally imposed vision and instead requires analysis of the ways in which the organisations and forms that manifest themselves may be in their own terms responding to local dynamics.

9Laville (2010a; 2010b) takes a Polanyian approach which recognises the plural dimensions of economic activity as not just based in the market principle, but also in redistribution and reciprocity. This allows for empirical enquiry and an inductive approach into the way in which these principles have combined in actually existing economies across space and time. It also engages the political dynamic through the relationship between these initiatives and public authority in terms of both non-institutional politics – the freedom for action –, and institutional politics – how power is exercised.

10This context specificity is particularly important for the analysis of social and solidarity activity in developing countries where the informal sector is a major part of the economy as a whole and in particular of poor people’s economic activity. Informality raises particular issues for SSE analysis as solidarity within the informal sector is frequently a “reaction against specific risks and based on the possibility of developing relations of mutual aid at family and community levels, within informal organisations and sometimes in relation with governmental policies or support provided by NGOs” (Hillenkamp, Lapeyre and Lemaître 2013, 11). As Favreau (2000, 184) points out, the “informal sector is not a real development mechanism. It is mainly a survival mechanism”. By contrast he also suggests the intentional nature of social economy as a “definite development strategy rooted within a long term development project and in which stakeholders become fully conscious participants” noting that in the South this is mainly due to development NGOs. This seems to raise a new set of questions – especially in the context of African development with the extensive role of NGOs (many of whom originate externally) – as to the underlying intentionality involved, its nature and origin and how the role of the mutualistic forms of economic organisation that are present may be understood.

11Rather more critically, Hillenkamp, Lapeyre and Lemaître’s (2013) neo-Polanyian approach brings a vital focus on the analysis of power with a concern for the way it is patterned through embedded social and cultural rules and norms. This they argue requires a focus on interdependencies between human beings and with the environment such that a neo-Polanyian framework “should carefully distinguish between different types of interdependence from the point of view of domination and emancipation” (Hillenkamp, Lapeyre and Lemaître 2013, 11), since power dynamics in these forms can be hierarchical and exclusionary in a multitude of ways.

12Feminist economists have long pointed out the way in which such power relations and social and cultural norms discriminate against women and position them in the economy. Its agenda is to make women’s contributions visible and valued recognising that mainstream economics fails to do this. It analyses extensively the causes of these invisibilities and seeks approaches which validate women’s work, especially in the reproductive sphere. However, Guérin and Nobre (2014) point out that solidarity economy approaches have largely failed to recognise these dimensions. Even within Polanyian analysis, reciprocity is favoured rather than the house holding dimension which is rarely engaged with. They argue that solidarity economy has the potential to first, help to redefine the productive and reproductive spheres citing how local feminisms see the reproductive sphere as a development resource in terms of its potential for emancipation and development. Second, they point out that the debates within feminist movements often see local action as insufficiently radical or transformatory, and failing to adequately engage with strategic interests (Molyneux 1985), while local feminist initiatives strive to emphasise the importance of operating within context and may resist in more subtle ways. Third, the means through which organising and action takes place frequently involves action which links the reproductive sphere to political struggle, for example, through demonstrations about food prices. But they point out the constraints of these engagements and the time they take to develop, their risks of reinforcing gender inequalities due to their interaction with class, caste and so on; in their attempts to reappropriate means of production; and in being appropriated by interventions of larger organisations, networks and so on. This recognition of the complex and potentially contradictory nature of feminist solidaristic activity raises specific questions for feminist analysis of the solidarity economy regarding how reproduction is made visible; what are the dynamics of local feminisms involved and what are the risks faced.

13As this brief overview shows, there are core elements that definitions of social and solidarity economy contain regarding the motivation to serve members and needs rather than generate profit, the nature of participation, and the degree of autonomy and voluntaristic involvement. However, such lists of principles do not adequately capture a deeper discussion of the nature of the transformatory intention that such initiatives might have in relation to a wider political landscape. The idea of a plural economy (Laville 2010a) seeks to address this in a deeper way and to recognise the multiple dimensions of economy. It recognises what exists rather than an abstract and ideal definition and also enables the question of the political dynamic of their engagement in non-institutional or institutional politics to be raised.

14The discussion of solidarity economy is clearly seen as particularly problematic by some authors in relation to the nature of mutual aid and co-operation within the informal economy. This seems to itself run counter to the idea of the plural economy. In this context, survival and risk management as a motivation for solidarity is not seen as enough and lacks the intentionality of wider development or transformation.

Context and Methodology

15In this paper, I use the term informal financial groups to refer primarily to two basic forms of financial organisation. Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) are groups in which funds are pooled and given to members on a periodic basis (eg daily, weekly, monthly, etc.) until all the members have received a payout. In this form, funds are not accumulated in a central pot. In Kenya, these are often referred to by the English term “merry‑go‑round”. A further version is the Accumulating Savings and Credit Associations (ASCAs) which involve a central pot of funds and is an informal and small-scale version of a savings and credit co-operative in which members borrow from the pot at interest and the pot grows as a result and dividends may be paid. While laying out these two basic forms, the variations are many and varied as they are used to flexibly respond to different purposes and needs (Malkamaki 2011). ROSCAs may co-exist in the same groups as ASCAs and may also go as far as having an investment function in which funds are jointly collected and allocated to a particular investment purpose. Group assets may simply consist of chairs or tents which are hired out for events such as weddings and funerals; or may go as far as buying company shares on the stock market or collective land acquisition – an issue I will discuss further below. A further type of group is the welfare group, which makes a payout in cases of severe illness or death. These groups are not included in the core of the analysis, but ROSCAs and ASCAs usually also have a welfare dimension to their operation.

16Groups were promoted by the British Colonial government from the 1930s and more broadly have become the subject of some enchantment in the wide anthropological literature, both in Kenya and across the developing world (Ardener and Burman 1995). Their widespread presence also fuelled the development of the microcredit movement, which saw them as a community foundation for group-based microfinance schemes. However, the mainstream micro-credit model has largely moved away from seeking to lend to them as autonomous entities, rather using groups as a means to cost-effectively access individuals and seek peer lending guarantees. Even the more recent approach of promoting savings groups funded by internal rather than external funds1 does not necessarily seek out indigenous groups as a starting point, often preferring to start new groups that may find it easier to adopt a pre-determined methodology.

  • 2 Some of this research has been funded by the Financial Sector Deepening Trust, Kenya, a multi-donor (...)

17This paper is based on both secondary and primary data. Secondary material encompasses the wide range of studies in economics and anthropology of informal groups since colonial anthropological studies of the 1920s and 1930s and extending to recent national surveys of their prevalence. It is also based on the author’s own extensive primary research on these groups, in Kenya, over 15 years, in the context of wider research into the development of the financial sector.2 This research has gone beyond a focus on micro-credit driven largely by NGOs and the now commercial microfinance institution sector to examine the whole range of financial services in use, and has therefore not been linked to any particular NGO or micro-credit scheme. Since this extensive primary research involving hundreds of in-depth interviews has been primarily focussed on rural and low-income people, this material has been supplemented by a small number of focused in-depth interviews using a convenience sample in order to give insight into a middle-class perspective of professional and urban Kenyans.

18The paper focuses on the financial dimension of the groups, even though these may co-exist with a range of other development activities in the form of self-help group activities, because groups that have finance at their heart are extremely widespread. These interviews have not therefore systematically enquired into a wider range of self-help group activity undertaken for community development and organisation.

19The next sections therefore first, use evidence from national surveys and this extensive primary research to describe the motivations for people’s engagement in these groups, along with evidence of their dynamics and their visions for the future. It also discusses the underlying features and dynamics of gender-based solidarity that they involve.

Informal financial groups in Kenya

Historical context

20Financial groups have their social and economic origins in patrilocal marriage and the gender division of labour. Women worked jointly on each other’s farms in turn using them to set up a basic system of reciprocal working. With gendered patterns of labour migration arising under colonial policies, in which women were left on the farm, the colonial government encouraged women to “hide” a little money out of what they were given by their husbands so that they would not be “short” in the house when the husband was away, as one elderly woman reported.

21Anthropological sources offer evidence of the social and economic role that groups have played in Kenyan society in the past. There is extensive evidence of the role of work groups of either sex involved in agricultural and other tasks in the central highlands (Fisher 1954; Stamp 1975). Stamp also notes the existence of women’s lodges, involving an age-grade system which gave women power ‘‘apart from’’ men rather than over men, and Robertson argues that their functions both legitimised and perpetuated patriarchal values while also defining a women’s sphere and forbidding male entry (Robertson 1997, 243). But in reviewing changing patterns of women’s collective action over 70 years, Robertson argues that these groups have moved away from the role of ‘‘producing properly socialized adults to a more class-based women’s solidarity involved with promoting women’s economic activities’’ (Robertson 1997, 240). It was after independence that ROSCAs clearly became one of the activities of these groups and in the 1970s and 1980s that women’s groups expanded hugely. This expansion was in part spurred by the broader ideology and practice of Harambee (Kiswahili for “pulling together”) promoted by the government and often supported by donors (Mwaniki 1986; Udvardy 1998). These groups undertook a wide range of activities: joint farming, or joint selling of their labour in agriculture; water projects; accumulation of funds to buy land for cultivation or building; setting up their own cooperatives and so on. Savings funds and ROSCA activities were often a core activity or necessary feature to enable the projects to take place (Maas 1986; Nelson 1995; Robertson 1997).

Contemporary use and dynamics

22Recent national surveys of financial service use have captured the extensive use of these groups. As table 1 shows, some 24% of the adult population were using either a ROSCA or an ASCA in 2013. Women are the predominant users of ROSCAs while the proportion of men using them appears to have dropped. ROSCAs are both an urban and rural phenomenon. For ASCAs the proportions are similarly biased towards women, and again they appear to be both rural and urban though with some rise in the urban figure since 2006.

  • 3 The drop between 2009 and 2013 is likely exaggerated because the timing of the 2012/13 survey at th (...)

23Table 1 also charts the substantial increase in the use of banks during the period since 2006, and the rapid rise of the mobile phone based money transfer service, but also shows how informal group use has remained strong3 in the face of these changes suggesting that they have an enduring attraction.

24Regression analysis on socio-economic variables shows that women are significantly more likely to use ROSCAs than men and men are more likely to use bank accounts ((Johnson and Arnold 2012).

Table 1: Informal group and formal financial service use in Kenya

Financial service
% of adult pop (weighted)

FinAccess 2006
(n =4418)

FinAccess 2009
(n =6343)

FinAccess 2013
(n =5849)

Informal financial groups
















































Mobile money transfer
(registered users)



Source: FSD Kenya and Central Bank of Kenya, FinAccess surveys 2006, 2009, 2013.

25Moreover 54% of users of banks in the 2013 survey were also users of groups, showing how these are by no means mutually exclusively used. This points to one of the key motivations for belonging to groups that is the ease of access to funds. Whereas getting a loan from a bank can be like trying to “milk an elephant” (Johnson 2004b; 2013) the ease with which payouts are received from ROSCAs and loans from ASCAs makes them a ready source of finance. Even though the discipline of such groups is important and often lauded (Gugerty 2007), this frequently comes with extensive built-in flexibility in terms of access to liquidity – either for the need or emergency to be heard in the group and funds allocated accordingly or because the group gives access to others of similar status with whom side borrowing arrangements can be made. The groups therefore enable both men and women to turn small income streams into useful lump sums available when they need them. However their gendered use can also be explained through the differences in gendered incomes involved. Women often receive very small but more regular incomes whereas men’s participation in larger enterprises – both agricultural and off‑farm – often lead to the demand for quite large loans for investment as well as lumpy income streams which are often seasonally co-variant. This in turn makes men’s demands on group funds co-variant and these forms therefore more difficult to participate in (Johnson 2004a).

26For women, access to funds through these groups enables them to accumulate funds to dress appropriately and to be able to provide utensils and household goods for the house ranging from cooking pots to bedsheets as these are their responsibility: “Men just need to see the woman in the house… so its upon her to get the way to dress and manage the house. Beyond this, the long history of women in business means that these also offer places to save and accumulate funds for women’s businesses” (Robertson 1997).

27However the social as well as economic dimension of gendered relations matters. As discussed above, women’s groups have and still are a form of socialisation that can teach younger women to “become” women (Johnson 2004a), through the opportunity to ask for and receive advice and guidance from other older women. Whereas historically men lack norms of co‑operation: “Helpful agemates become rival householders” (Lonsdale 1992, cited in Johnson 2004a). But in recent years men report how they recognise what women are achieving through belonging to these groups and feel they are losing out so are keen to join.

28The difficult task for their members is to find a group that functions well over time. Their functioning has been over-idealised in some of the anthropological literature which has taken claims of no default at face value, failing to probe them further. Groups do fail as a result of non-payment, but research is often focused on those that have survived and hence by definition operate reasonably well. Deeper investigation has shown that the enduring nature of relationships means that default is only recognised when someone refuses to pay, not when they delay payment, even though this might be for a very long time, such that funds are effectively lost. Indeed the flexibility that is their strength is also one of their key weaknesses as it makes them open to internal power dynamics.

29This means that the process of arriving at what might be claimed as fully democratic decisions is one that requires a process of “institutionalizing suspicion” This phrase is taken from Ronald Dore’s analysis of co‑operatives (1971) cited in (Johnson and Sharma 2007): co-operatives are expected to work well because of the extent to which people know each other in a local context and have relationships of solidarity and co-operation. However, this traditional solidarity at the same time faces patterns of traditional authority, and while such societies may be cohesive they are not necessarily egalitarian. It is the tension between this solidarity and authority that lies at the heart of the problem. Attempts to strictly enforce the rules are likely to create discord while if the rules are overtly flouted then the organisation can no longer function. Groups cannot be expected to effortlessly be able to “institutionalise” the “modern” notions of accountability and transparency that are embedded in NGO training for example. For Dore, the trick lies in retaining these elements [the sense of mutual trust between members and the sense of loyalty to the group] while at the same time introducing the rationalized accounting methods…[which allow] a strict apportionment of benefits to contributions and…the devices of institutionalised suspicion which prevent the abuse of leadership powers. The trick is an immensely difficult one…” (cited in Johnson and Sharma 2007, 58).

30The idea of supporting group-run businesses or investments was very popular in development projects in the 1980s especially among women’s groups (Mwaniki 1986). But joint projects are difficult to manage and require a lot of technical and organisational capacity and hence while groups may attempt them they frequently fail leaving the financial function to become the core activity. Indeed it is because of these difficulties and the attempt to give credit to develop such projects that credit came to be directed at individuals within groups in microfinance interventions rather than groups as collective entities. Joint projects are often now therefore those that require minimal joint organisation. An example is the purchase of tents and chairs which can be hired out to members or other community members for social functions, a business that requires no ongoing maintenance and very simple management. Even so, groups offer visions of the future in particular for accumulation and shared prosperity and in the last decade joint investments have become a mode of operation mainly among better off and more urban based groups. Two main investment functions are shares in the stock exchange – partly as a result of the very widely publicised sale of the government’s stake in the telecoms operator Safaricom – and land purchase both for individuals to build homes on or simply as an appreciating asset in the context of high population growth and inflation. However, such investments are keenly recognised as being divisible amongst members.

31I have mentioned above that ROSCA and ASCA groups frequently involve a social welfare dimension. These usually offer payouts in the case of serious illness, involving hospitalisation, and death. They operate with varying degrees of flexibility, for example, either on a pay as you go basis where individuals agree on a certain payment on each occasion and contribute at the time, or with contributions on a regular basis which is then used to pay out, often with predefined payout rates for members, their spouses and children. Among the self-employed in urban areas this support can go even further covering loss of earnings due to sickness or other hazards. For example, a small group of business women would contribute 500 Kenyan shilling day to a member if she was sick as she would otherwise not be able to cater for the needs of the family that day. Or a taxi driver whose group members would help him to get out of jail by helping to pay the fine if he were arrested for a traffic offence, with an interesting difference that, if it was the vehicle that was impounded, he would have to take a loan from the group to sort out the situation.

32While this can be treated as an insurance function, this would be to overlook the importance of the social dynamics of the support that accompanies these functions. Apart from the financial component, group members attend funerals and provide moral support; they assist with weddings and other social events of their members either with labour or simply attendance. The social support of showing up is highly valued. Moreover, where these relationships are well developed and especially in smaller groups, fictive kin labels may be used to describe other members as eg. brother. In one example, the daughter of a member called her mother’s fellow group member as “mum” due to the level of social connection established.

33The role of advice and guidance from other members of the group is then also much valued and can be trusted as genuine, whether this is again to do with how to operate businesses or manage one’s social relationships with family and friends. Psychological support is part of this with the sick or bereaved or those going through difficult times being visited and cared for. For urban dwellers these connections become intimate friends as the group coheres and develops its material as well as its social functions over time. It becomes a locally available source of social and psychological support in the absence of family locally and this was found to be the case for some men’s groups as well as women’s groups. There are also contrasts in how these work in terms of urban and rural dynamics and class. Urban groups of better off people have strong aspirations for collaboration and a vision of accumulation and are more able to articulate these aspirations in the mode of Appadurai’s “capacity to aspire” (Appadurai 2004).

Assessing solidarity

34With this overview we can return to the criteria in the section above to consider to what extent these groups fit the principles for social and solidaristic activity laid out.

35Starting with the criteria of Fonteneau et al. (2011) first is the criteria of democratic and participatory leadership. The formal structures of power are avowedly democratic but nevertheless suffer the embedded and nuanced power relations of gender, age, social status, seniority and so on, which makes the “institutionalising (of) suspicion” an ongoing challenge. Involvement is voluntary although these embedded power dimensions frequently infuse how groups are formed. They operate independently of the state, other than the fact that many are registered with the Ministry of Social Services, as this is (i) needed if the group wishes to operate a bank account; (ii) aids their ability to either access support from the local government administration in the event of group conflicts, and (iii) enables them to access government or NGO support if the opportunity arises. In terms of their goals, it is certainly not limited to generating profit – although ASCAs offer a dividend on shares which is very much valued –, which is generated from members own interest payments, but the social welfare contributions certainly have no profit-making dimension to them. They clearly operate to support the needs of members though less frequently to serve the needs of others.

36With respect to the principles of Dacheux and Goujon (2011), clearly their members are involved in the production of the services, and while some groups may perform a very basic and minimalist financial intermediation function, more often than not they are responding to social needs even if this is the minimal extent of re-allocating the payout to the person who is most in need of it at a particular time, but the above account shows how this activity goes beyond this. However, there is usually little attempt to build connections between groups (apart from where this is inspired and facilitated by a NGO) or participate in a wider platform, and it would be very hard to suggest that there was any conscious political project for economic democratisation or re-regulation involved here.

37Further Dacheux and Goujon (2011) cite four principles underpinning the enterprise, first, the existence of indivisible property. This is the case where there are joint businesses, but as pointed out above these do not tend to be a norm due to the difficulties of collective operation and management. Where investments are made these are usually reasonably easily divisible and that is often the purpose – as is now frequently the case with shares or land purchase. However, while savings in ASCAs are frequently called “shares” and clearly identifiable in terms of ownership, it is important to note that in ROSCAs that “contributions” are made to the pot which have a greater sense of collective ownership (Johnson and Krijtenburg 2014; Shipton 2007), and this raises the issue of how ownership and property rights are understood across cultures.

38Second, is the distribution of wealth to meet the needs of people rather than capital. Certainly the primary objective of these groups is to provide access to liquidity for their members and they clearly go beyond this to support them at times of need. However, it is also clear that accumulation is still a core driving force especially in urban groups that are now getting involved in land speculation. In this sense these groups appear to be participating in quite the opposite of a democratic re-regulation of the economy but rather contributing to the rampant demand for land and its use as a speculative investment in the context of Kenya’s growing economy.

39Finally, the last two principles of freedom of association and democratic management and, autonomous decision making and management in relation to the state have already been discussed.

40Turning to the gender dimensions, it can be seen that, as a means of obtaining payouts or loans, these support women in their investment in productive enterprises as well as offering networks of contacts and support through which these enterprises can operate. The use of funds to obtain household assets such as bedding, utensils and furniture enables them to fulfil their reproductive roles. The social support – both financial and moral – of group members at weddings, childbirth, illness, funerals and so on also consolidates and supports reproductive roles. Overall where these groups involve women, they are not usually part of wider collective action for women’s rights (see further discussion below) and they can be seen as supporting practical gender interests rather than a strategic realignment of gender interests (Molyneux 1985).

41This leaves us with the issue of whether these groups, as part of the informal economy, are predominantly about survival. In many senses they are, though there are clearly elements in which groups have visions of development which involve accumulation. To the extent that they go beyond the survival economy, they may not be seen as developmental in an alternative sense of promoting norms and values that offer new routes to a democratic economy.

42Overall, there are clearly a variety of forms. The nature of embedded-ness in wider economic relations varies. There are clearly groups that are still strongly embedded in rural social relations and gender roles while those in urban areas may operate with more accumulative oriented motives with the pressures of market engagement. This may lead them to become stricter and more business-like in their operations and seek to serve their members with timely payouts in order that they can survive in a very competitive economy.

43Where groups have invested in public share offerings or land, this requires new levels of registration and organisation, for example as a land buying company, so bringing new levels of formality. At the same time those in towns in particular find the social connections very important, and even though they have a strong dynamic of intended accumulation which fits with this, it was notable how important the fictive kin and wider aspects of social relations and the aspects of reciprocity they engage were.

44Overall therefore, it appears that they certainly contribute to survival. There is a large element of social economy in the operation of these groups but it is not clear that they tend to promote solidarity in the sense of promoting a democratising alternative to the dominant model of capitalist development. Indeed where groups are speculating on land they seem to be contributing to the worst of such a model.

45However, this assessment has taken the principles of these two definitions of SSE at face value and not challenged them in terms of the contextual dynamics involved. It would seem problematic to stop here and conclude that because these groups do not exhibit the criteria of seeking a clearly political agenda defined above they do not have any relevance to the discussion of the solidarity economy. Two questions arise, taking a Polanyian view of the always embedded economy: how and in what ways are these groups embedded in social relations and how are their current forms – especially those among the emerging urban middle classes – seeking a combination of financial and social dimensions? For these people, these groups seem at one level to seek to recreate the social dynamics of the village in the urban context, especially in terms of support at times of crisis and emergence of fictive kin relations such that while they are subject to the wider forces of a competitive economy which fragments kin relations through migration they are also re-embedding themselves in new social dynamics.

46These questions lead us to the perspectives of Laville (2010a; 2010b) and Moulaert and Ailenai (2005) that the phenomenon must be analysed with the dynamics of the process of capitalist development in a particular context and its social, economic and political dynamics. Addressing this question of what it is embedded in requires a description of the political economy context and in particular a review of the past history of group and solidaristic activity in Kenya.

Self‑help and the political economy context

47This section discusses three important contexts within which the use of informal financial groups needs to be viewed. The first is the history of self‑help and its articulation to the state which addresses the underlying context for principles of voluntarism and autonomy. Second, I specifically focus on self-help and the activity of the women’s movement in Kenya as a further dimension. Third, is the impact political liberalisation has had over the last twenty years and the backdrop this offers for an understanding of the scope for action at the grassroots level. Fourth, I discuss the impact of economic liberalisation and the implications this has had for self-help activities. These together present the wider context for understanding informal group activity and in particular I draw on the idea that liberalisation has had an impact on the underlying moral economy. This presents a case for seeing informal group activity as seeking to preserve spaces in which moral norms can be pursued and defended against processes that are more broadly undermining collaborative activity in the face of rampant corruption, deceit and malpractice. Of course informal financial groups are not un-problematically situated in this wider scenario and are subject to these same pathologies, but where groups are formed and work well they offer a collective vision which is both different – in the sense that there is a sense of collective endeavour and support – in the face of the undermining of moral norms in the public sphere.

Self‑help in historical political context

48Collective action in the community in Kenya has a long history with a strong political resonance. “Self-help” has been both a tool of resistance, and used by both colonial and independence governments for their own agendas.

49In the 1920s, self-help in the form of the establishment of independent schools was a form of protest. It had close links to the Kikuyu Central Association which was a mass political movement, and in this sense was its educational and cultural wing. As a result, the schools were closed down by the colonial authorities in the 1950s, when their association with Kikuyu political opposition and the Mau Mau struggle was very strong. The colonial state then used self-help in the form of community development schemes as a way of winning over opposition and Holmquist (1984, 75) argues that these establish the “double-edged political sword of self-help” with an indigenous oppositional variety and a state dependent variety such that is was a vehicle of opposition as well as a vehicle for state control.

50After independence, the State evolved its own variety in the 1960s and 1970s termed Harambee – meaning “lets pull together” in Swahili – which was a combination of self-reliance and state support. Community initiatives for the development of local infrastructure for example, such as schools, would involve communities organising themselves and mobilising resources which would then also receive external support if not be ultimately controlled. More technically complex projects were more likely to come from the outside and be initiated by administrative officials or MPs. Holmquist (1984, 73) argues that this has a confused character that he calls “half-way” neither full self-reliant nor fully initiated by the state. Over time, the approach came to be synonymised with corruption and loss of money to the leadership, and local efforts being co-opted by politicians for their own purposes. The success of projects was dependent on having good outside links to politicians and government resources. Projects were popular because they appealed to “personal morality of community identity, service and obligation. While one should not exaggerate the element of altruism that may exist, it is also apparent that time, effort and personal financial contribution cannot be understood solely in terms of crass calculation of personal political advantage ” (Holmquist 1984, 80).

51By the 1980s harambee became a means through which the president could access the peasantry in large fundraising meetings which operated as political platforms (Kanyinga 1994) while also a means of receiving funds from wealthy politicians. Indeed Holmquist (1984) argues that with this contradictory character in which people were competing for its control and as an arena of both class collaboration and conflict as well as state intervention, the state dedicated more resources to the peasantry than might otherwise have been the case. He concludes that self-help contains within it the contradictions of Kenya’s political economy in that it was not only a tool of the peasantry but also of the leadership and politicians. The politician J. M. Kariuki who used it to voice a set of populist protest politics and build a network of alliances was assassinated in 1975. Ngau (1987, 534) argues that it became a vehicle for larger scale and more costly projects that were further from the grassroots support and that it led to “departicipation or disempowerment at the grassroots level”.

52As Moi closed down political space after the coup attempt of 1982, selfhelp of this variety was increasingly seen as a tool of the state. Harambee fundraising events became the site of displays of political support and the corruption involved in contributions increasingly problematic. Later commentators argue that the political elite became increasingly divorced from the need to initiate projects and develop resources in this way, instead seeking ways to compete for resources in the context of Kenya’s ethnically divided politics without actually channelling any of them back to their local constituencies or poor supporters (Ogachi 1999).

Self-help and the women’s movement

53Earlier commentators have indicated that the women’s movement in Kenya is difficult to identify as a coherent ongoing force (Oduol and Kabira 1995). The origins of women’s collective activity outlined above were the basis of extensive self-organisation in the rural areas in pursuit of improvements to their own welfare. This included breaking gender norms through involvement in business activities and the accumulation of individually owned assets such as land. It is only at particular moments that a more concerted single cause has led to its greater cohesion and identity (Oduol and Kabira 1995). Oduol and Kabira identify three strands: first, this myriad of spontaneously self-organised activity based mainly in rural areas; second, more formalised organisations and associations that have historically been urban based such as Kenya Finance Trust (original name), the National Council of Women of Kenya, the Kenya chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, and the heroic deeds and campaigns of individual women.

54The contradictory dynamics of community collective organisation and its articulation with the state discussed above has similarly been the case for the women’s movement. What became the largest women’s organisation – Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO, in Swahili, literally, Progress for Women) – was founded in 1952 by the wives of colonial settlers and administrators with the intention of bringing Western values as a means of supporting them (Oduol and Kabira 1995). By the 1980s, it had a nationwide network of 20,000 women’s groups undertaking self-help projects and was essentially co-opted into becoming the women’s wing of the ruling political party KANU by 1987, espousing the domestic role of women as childcare, domestic care, handicrafts, literacy, agricultural techniques and sports (Tripp 2001). Tripp explains that – as happened in a number of African countries – the Maedeleo ya Wanawake women’s movements was taken over by the placing of individual elite women in positions of power and especially the female relatives of politicians thus engaging them into their patronage networks, such that self-help community projects became increasingly the subject of clientelistic manipulation (Tripp 2001, 42) in which resources were given in return for political backing.

55Tripp argues that by the end of the 1990s women’s movements were challenging these neo-patrimonial politics in Africa. This as a result of the opening up of politics but also of the economic decline and women’s position in labour markets (Tripp 2001, 51) which led them to have to cope with these changes. In Kenya, the Green Belt Movement led by Wangari Maathai was the clearest example of the challenge and one of the moments at which the women’s movement as a whole came into greater visibility. It focused on planting trees and encouraged women to set up tree nurseries to generate income as well as improve the environment. Maathai remained autonomous and independent and her outspokenness was a thorn in the politicians’ side during the 1980s when, as head of the National Council of Women of Kenya, she challenged in court Moi’s attempt to introduce queue voting (Oduol and Kabira 1995). She was arrested on numerous occasions and the movement’s activities were severely curtailed as the Government made it hard for her to get external funding and support (Maathai 2007).

56Tripp (2001) reports that in the mid-1990s, 40% of all human rights groups operating in Kenya were women’s organisations. Drawing parallels with the earlier struggles of Mau Mau, Brownhill and Turner (2004) term these challenges of the late 1990s “feminism within the Mau Mau resurgence”. Pointing out that the earlier Mau Mau was not homogeneous but containing a wide range of class and social forces, they argue that the opposition to the Moi regime similarly contained a wide range of forces. Born of increasing economic austerity, women’s claims to land in the face of rampant land grabbing and appropriation by elites were part of this. Their use of the terminology of Mau Mau is also to link the ethnic origins of past and present struggles since Mau Mau was an ethnically Kikuyu led movement based in and around Mount Kenya and Central Province. Kikuyu-based opposition to the Moi regime also surged in the late 1990s after two multi-party elections which Moi was able to win, not least by dividing and ruling the opposition. Wangari Maathai was herself part of this Kikuyu opposition and stood in the 2002 election and became the Environment Minister in the new government.

57Women’s organisations have played a role in negotiations over the 2010 constitution where women’s rights to land and property were a controversial focus of debate (Cooper 2012). The inheritance of land by women is a deeply controversial issue since many communities fear that allowing daughters to inherit would mean that ancestral land could find its way into the hands of outsiders. Despite seeking to entrench a principle of non-discrimination, an early draft had a “claw back” clause. This allowed for customary law to be applied in cases of adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, devolution of property on death and other matters of personal law and hence provide exceptions to non-discrimination. When the draft for the 2005 referendum was being prepared, the “claw-back” clause was removed and this was used – amidst increasingly divisive politics – to derail the draft which was defeated in the 2005 referendum. Subsequently, the constitution passed in 2010 has ultimately enshrined non-discrimination, Alongside the National Land Policy (2009) and a landmark legal case of 2008 (Ntutu) which affirmed land inheritance by daughters against tradition (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Women 2013), these reflect an underlying shifting environment regarding women’s treatment in property rights in part brought about by extensive campaigning and pressure from women’s groups.

Political and economic liberalisation

58The trajectory of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank supported economic reform in Kenya, through the 1980s and 1990s, was a fraught one. While a range of liberalisation and privatisation measures were implemented, the Kenyan government was far from being a compliant reformer – it frequently promised reform without implementing it (O’Brien and Ryan 2001) and privatised on the one hand while creating parastatals on the other.

59Pressure for political liberalisation grew internally in response to the increasing grip of Moi on power while also becoming a call of the international community. The Constitutional Amendment (passed in 1982) banning other political parties was repealed in late 1991, paving the way for a multiparty election a year later. This change produced a “winner takes all logic” to elections which raised their cost (Branch and Cheeseman 2009) and made access to State resources central to the contest. Moi was able to win the subsequent two elections through his deft politics and access to the resources of the state. This period saw a rampant rise in corruption and looting by politicians and government officials – “eating” is the popular metaphor (see Wrong 2009) – leading Southall (1999) to describe it as a kleptocracy. At the national level there was a run of major financial scandals (Goldenberg; Anglo-Leasing) that were traced to the top of politics while these actors remained immune from prosecution.

60The election of late 2002 saw an opposition alliance under Kibaki win power. This appeared to herald a new dawn with euphoria that Moi had finally left power and with many looted assets actually being returned to the State. Kibaki appointed the ex-director of Transparency International, John Githongo as his anti-corruption “Tsar” based in State House. However, Githongo found that the Anglo-Leasing scandal penetrated to the very top and to the President himself resulting in him fleeing to London in 2005 (Wrong 2009), and demonstrating that the underlying nature of the political economy was in fact little changed.

61The subsequent election of late December 2007 led in early 2008 to the worst violence in Kenya’s post-independence history. Branch and Cheeseman (2009) explain that long trends in the fragmentation of the elites, the processes of political liberalisation and informalisation of the state were the underlying ingredients of this crisis. Constitutional reform was finally undertaken in 2010, after an almost twenty year process, which restructured some of the powers of the Presidency. Nevertheless Uhuru Kenyatta gained the Presidency in the 2012 election despite his indictment by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity conducted during the 2008 post-election violence – a case that has now been dropped.

62This brief overview of the wider political economy may appear somewhat distant from the activities of informal groups but it sets a vital background for the context of further enquiry into the effects of economic liberalisation over the past 25 years at the grassroots.

Economic liberalisation and the culture of the market

63Against the environment of corruption and the process of political liberalisation outlined above, we can consider the impact of liberalisation on the culture of the market and its underlying moral economy as a means to better understand the space and potential for its democratic re-regulation.

64“Soko huru” (free market in Swahili) was the rallying cry of the reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the removal of a range of state controls. In my own experience of living and working in Kenya at that time, this appeared to be understood as meaning that there were now no rules and that opportunism was the order of the day. However, this was not a result of an interpretation or aspiration to unregulated economies but of replication of the behaviour that was evident among politicians and elites as they grabbed land and resources.

65Liberalisation affected the viability of core agricultural markets such as tea, coffee and milk. Omosa (Omosa 2004) discusses compliance failure in the liberalised tea market in western Kenya noting how free market brokers collected tea and then did not pay farmers changing their collection routes to avoid them and leaving the farmers with no means of recourse. In my own research in central Kenya in the late 1990s, similar practices could be found in the milk sector. Liberalisation of the milk market led to traders coming to collect raw milk and offering high prices to entice farmers away from the cooperatives and existing traders only to drop the price or fail to pay after a few weeks. This undermined the viability of a vital source of income in the area, especially once the national dairy co-operative (KCC) had collapsed. Coffee and tea markets were similarly disrupted as leaders of coffee co-operatives were involved in corrupt deals with millers. In Nyeri a coffee war broke out as small farmers contested with those in control of their co-operatives which millers they should sell their coffee to (Branch 2011, 233). In Meru in the 1990s the soko huru discourse was appropriated by young men, whose broking activities had previously been illicit, to justify their roles (Lamont 1999). In this way soko huru was used to legitimate activity that was opportunistic and self-interested. Lamont (1999) points out how there was a debate within the coffee co-operatives of Meru to seek to ameliorate the transition to soko huru and to legitimate the role of the vertical co-operative system in the face of these activities, although they had many corrupt practices within them. Thus presenting the difficult and contradictory process that liberalisation set off in practices and in discourses regarding market activity. The moral framework of maintaining a co-operative system – which offered some degree of greater benefit both individually (through eg access to inputs and credit) and collectively for the community – was at stake in these transitions.

66In a study of agricultural market liberalisation in eastern Uganda (just over the border from Kenya and strongly linked in cross-border trade relationships), Wiegratz (2012) examines the underpinning practices of the market through its norms, values, orientations and practices (NVOPs). This approach sees market behaviour as “shaped by prevailing social institutions, which in turn reflect the dominant political orientation of society. What counts as acceptable behaviour is related to political decisions about dominant social institutions in a society in which the market is embedded” (Watson 2005, 179 as quoted in Wiegratz 2012). Hence the moral economy and their norms are part of the wider political economy and it is necessary to study the combination of actors, relationships, NVOPs, structures, relationships and distribution of power, structures of inequality of welfare and harm and so on. In an analytical context moral norms are not only those that are seen as “good” or “positive” but can be understood more broadly as those standards of interaction concerning others’ welfare (Watson 2005, 179 as quoted in Wiegratz 2012, 58) which can also be about the legitimation of harm and exploitation being pro self-interest rather than pro-social. In the context of Uganda, Watson shows how market practices have been fuelled by opportunism and deceit as the moral norms of the neo-liberal economy have become institutionalised.

The implications of a moral economy perspective

67With this wider perspective on the existing political moral economy we can re-examine the solidarity economy principle espoused by Dacheux and Goujon (2011) regarding the endeavour to work towards the democratic regulation of the economy.

68The above review has explained the history of self-help as problematically situated “half-way” between civil society and the state. It has shown how the wider political economy has developed over the last 25 years, such that it institutionalised corruption, with the perpetrators of grand corruption being the elites and highest echelons of government. Market restructuring led to the proliferation of malpractice, deceit and compliance failure in core sectors of the agricultural economy. In this context it seems important to pay attention to those forms of action which are pro-social in the face of this onslaught and which are actually feasible at the grassroots level.

69In this light, the behaviours evident in these groups reflect a set of more pro-social norms in which people support each other both to survive and thrive through the facilitation of financial intermediation and the sharing of resources. This contrasts to the proliferation of pro self-interest norms in the wider market. What seems most important to their members is not simply that they enable them to access funds but that they operate as a source of support at times of need, of advice and guidance from others you can trust, of relationships that recreate the altruism expected among kin. The importance of social and affective dimensions of support is very clear (see also Johnson 2014) – especially the sharing of material resources and psychological support in times of crisis. This is not to deny that groups themselves can and do fail as a result of pro-self-interested behaviour, malpractice and deceit in their midst. While this leads to disillusion for some, the search for groups that can effectively operate remains.

70As pointed out some of the groups are investing to accumulate, eg. through land speculation, which is a behaviour that is highly pro self-interested in this neo-liberalised market context. The approach of investing through groups is a means of accessing information (eg about the availability of plots for sale and areas where future infrastructure development might take place which will raise land prices) as well as mobilising adequate capital to be able to access resources that may be otherwise out of reach. In this sense, these groups appear to echo Holmquist’s earlier analysis of self‑help as “half‑way” between self-reliant and dependent on the state, instead suggesting a “half‑way” between a more pro‑social form among group members while being collectively pro‑self interest in order to thrive in this hazardous economy.

71The wider national debate regarding the nature of the political economy and its pro-social or pro-self-interested behaviour is rarely discussed. The relatively rare case of food protests in Kenya in the wake of the food price spikes of 2011 failed to change policy but demonstrate the concern for fairness (Hossain and Kalita 2014). On the other hand, while corruption scandals in Kenya are extensively discussed in the media and frequently censured, the prevailing political institutions are under great stress as the political representatives of different ethnic communities contest access to office and resources. Bachelard (2010) explains for example how in the case of the Anglo-Leasing corruption scandal the dismissal of top politicians was followed by their re-instatement as the counter-pressures of domestic political alliances for the 2007 election were upper most in the calculation. Despite being elected on a wave of concern to reject Moi’s corrupt economy and politics and the initial return of many looted public assets after the 2002 election, Kibaki reappointed politicians doing the looting. Indeed we can also ask how the neo-liberal policy era has not just shaped the terms of the debate but how this has affected the capacity to aspire (Appadurai 2004) and how this is constrained not just by poverty but also by these wider ideological structures.

72Collective action in the economy is a gendered space, and men dominate in its more formal areas such as producer co-operatives and savings and credit co-operatives. Women have historically dominated in the space of informal groups and through these make their reproductive work more visible to themselves as well as to men who have increasingly recognised and valued the support they provide to their households. This has been a long process supported no doubt by the wider contributions of the women’s movement and NGO activities, as well as the crises of economic restructuring and austerity which increased the necessity for women to make effective economic and financial contributions. While this also brought them into tension with husbands, many also recognise that they would wish to collaborate in such activity themselves, but they frequently lack the associational norms that enable them to do this.

73The risks and “half-way” nature of women’s collective action is also evident in that local feminisms are diverse and far from coherent at a national level in a transformational intent. However, key moments of change are identifiable in particular legal challenges and change, but the new non-discrimination clause and the absence of the “claw-back” clause would be unlikely had not imminent change through small everyday challenges accumulated a wider consensus.


74This paper has sought to examine the relationship between concepts of the social and solidarity economy and the empirical case of widespread use of informal financial groups in Kenya especially by women. This focus is also justified given the frequent emphasis on savings and credit groups as characteristic of the SSE. It used two sets of SSE principles as a means through which to discuss the characteristics of these groups concluding that, while they conform to a number of features of the social economy, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that they are part of more solidaristic agenda which is seeking to contribute to the re-regulation of the economy in any overt or conscious way. Indeed some of them also practice economic activity that is highly market oriented.

75However, the use of these criteria neglects a deeper understanding of the context and its specific political, economic and social conditions and how this group activity relates to it. Laying out some of the wider political economy context offered a deeper perspective against which the concern for solidarity as moves to democratic regulation of the economy could be examined. It demonstrated the highly problematic nature of self-help in the historical political economy as one that came to be increasingly dominated by the state such that some forms of it became corrupted and redundant. With the trajectory of political and economic liberalisation, the paper showed how political contestation under conditions of economic liberalisation had led to rampant corruption and an increasingly divided ethnic politics. In this, links between elites and citizens have become less coherent in terms of the channeling of resources while perpetuating ethnic division. This was also seen to affect the women’s movement which similarly has little overall coherence, hence this has not been a consistent or progressive platform through which attempts for gendered re-regulation of the economy could be carried out.

76From a feminist point of view the process through which informal financial groups have made women’s reproductive provisioning more visible – both to their men-folk and more widely – has in the main been a long slow and subtle one with moments at which wider agendas could be articulated and embraced by the women’s movement. Moreover, in this context they can be seen as preserving and developing spaces for more pro-social interaction, both for social and economic survival.

77Viewed together with a discussion of how market liberalisation led to interpretations of soko huru as a space for opportunism and a significant degree of “compliance failure”, malpractice, deceit and corruption, I outlined the importance of analysing the moral economy within this political economy. In order to be able to analyse it in a more nuanced way the nature and extent of more pro-social or pro self-interested norms can be seen alongside their embeddedness in this wider level of social and political institutional restructuring. This leads us to view this apparent failure of solidaristic activity in the light of these deeper influences and offers an alternative framing of what solidarity and the pursuit of pro-social norms in fact means.


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1 See

2 Some of this research has been funded by the Financial Sector Deepening Trust, Kenya, a multi-donor body concerned with increasing financial inclusion for poor and low-income people through all types of financial institutions and services.

3 The drop between 2009 and 2013 is likely exaggerated because the timing of the 2012/13 survey at the end of the year coincides with a time when many people finish their ROSCA in November and resume in February. Since the questionnaire asks for “currently using” this has probably therefore resulted in significant under-reporting. It is notable that the figures for 2009 are rather high, but the ASCA figure for 2013 is close to the 2006 figure.


Susan Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath and Director of the Centre for Development Studies. She has a background in economics and agricultural economics and worked in development organisations for eight years before joining academia. She has researched and written extensively in the field of microfinance expanding the analysis in this field to the institutional analysis of local financial markets, in particular examining their social embeddedness. She has undertaken extensive research into microfinance and financial access, particularly focussed on its gender dimensions, the role of informal financial services and the impact of interventions on poverty. She has worked on a number of major impact assessment studies for DFID and the Ford Foundation, and undertaken research on financial access and the development of decentralised financial systems with the Financial Sector Deepening Trust in Kenya.


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