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Women’s leadership in the Kenyan informal economy

Women in the informal economy are particularly likely to feel the brunt of the economic impact of  COVID-19. Lynda Keeru summarises what was discussed at an ICRW webinar on leadership in the informal economy in Kenya. There is much to learn about how these women can be supported in the pandemic response.

Building capacity and strengthening women’s leadership in both the formal and informal sectors fosters and boosts economies and increases women’s participation within the public space. It increases women’s equal participation in leadership, political, social and economic arenas.

This webinar, ‘Women and leadership in the informal economy in Kenya’, shared some of the lessons learned from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)’s ReBuild project whose focus is analyzing the impact of COVID-19 policies on women working in the informal sector.

The webinar coincided with Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) whose theme was could not have been more apt: Women’s full and effective participation and decision making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender and equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. To this end, there is an urgent need to have candid discussions on the gaps and opportunities available for women’s leadership in the informal economy especially in Kenya and the larger East Africa. It is important to note that the informal economy makes up a large part of the economy in the region.

Women in the informal economy

Ruth Randa from the State Department for Gender explained that 60% of the world’s population earns their livelihood from the informal economy and it is more prevalent in developing countries. Globally, it is a greater source of income for men, but women are more often found in the more vulnerable categories of work including as street vendors, domestic workers and subsistence farmers.

The Government of Kenya has put a number of strategies in place to bridge the existing gaps in the informal economy but is aware that these strategies will not work for everyone. As a result, the Ministry of Public Service and Gender has put in place programmes aimed at enhancing the productivity of women entrepreneurs by increasing asset financing.

Obstacles faced by women working in the informal economy

Leadership and decision-making

Women’s leadership remains invisible in both formal and informal contexts. While women make up 50% of the global population, only 24% of them are in senior positions and only a further 4% occupy CEO positions globally. The process of onboarding more women into positions of leadership and decision making remains very slow at the global level and even lower in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is overrepresentation of women in lower cadres and functions. These positions tend to have low pay and lack social protection.

Cleopatra Mugyenyi, ICRW Africa, reiterated that discriminative social and gender norms will continue to hold women and girls from leadership and decision-making processes both at the local and global levels. Lack of education, the digital divide that exists between the two genders, overlooked care burden on women and girls remain important elements of a woman’s life that often lock her out of leadership.

It is evident that where women are leading, they are seen to improve lives and inspire young girls into thinking about leadership positions. Speakers argued that we have seen this during the COVID-19 pandemic where women government leaders have been effective in the management of the pandemic. They care about the surrounding environment including making changes in the economic sphere and pushing for social protection that protects all members of the communities and population.

Skills deficits

Inadequate technical skills, illiteracy and lack of opportunities for acquiring new skills are some of the greatest challenges for women in the informal sector. Often when men are moving up the ladder and acquiring skills, women are held back by their traditional roles especially within the families and homes. Lack of information on opportunities they can capitalize on and take advantage of incapacitates women. Legal and policy environments are also very punitive to women in the informal sector and a lack of collective bargaining power means that they do not have the unity of one voice meaning this is difficult to challenge. Women experience greater vulnerability due to a lack of workers’ rights and social protection measures especially because many of them are not covered by labour organizations and trade unions.  A lack of knowledge, tools and skills to advocate at policy level is also a huge hurdle. An example of this is a lack of knowledge to analyze data which would enable them to articulate the issues they face.

Access to resources

Many people use soft loans to bolster businesses but women’s difficulty in accessing land and property rights puts many in a disadvantaged position. Most women in the informal sector, in addition to having very little capital, have very little access and control over property. Most policies don’t recognize and favour women in these situations. Women also face the challenge of insufficient capital for investment.

Opportunities for the future

Significant effort has been put in creating more awareness through conversations on gender using different channels as well as attracting and developing more women into the leadership roles by sensitizing companies.

If women unite and speak in one voice, they can gain good representation in associations that can thrust them into work opportunities and can also be used as a tool for advocacy. Strategic thinking, innovation and self-development are core skills in leadership position that women must invest in acquiring. Leadership is a team sport. Women must share common goals and unite to have a voice and demand visibility.


Speakers in this webinar included:

Cleopratra Mugyenyi – Director, ICRW Africa

Ruth Randa – State Department for Gender-Marketing Research and Communications, WEF

Carol Ajema – Senior Gender and GBV Specialist, ICRW Africa

Sarah Nduta – Gender and Health Specialist, ICRW Africa

Mary Muthoni – President and CEO, Women in Business Community Network

Naome Wandera – Senior Gender and Research Specialist ICRW Africa

Fridah Mwaniki – National Secretary, General Micro and Small Enterprises Federation

Samuel Mogeni – Deputy Director of Industries, Field Service Directorate, State Department of Industrialization

Photo credit: “Kenyan saleswoman selling African Leafy Vegetables” by Bioversity International is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Gender Working Group

We meet online every month to discuss key issues, activities, opportunities and ideas for collaboration. We have a long and growing list of resources on gender and public health emergencies.



Gender Working Group

We meet online every month to discuss key issues, activities, opportunities and ideas for collaboration. We have a long and growing list of resources on gender and public health emergencies.