Elevating Women Small Business Owners in Kenya

March 7, 2023

By Fatma Kassim

Mary Thuo is a small business owner who participated in IFC’s Sourcing2Equal Kenya Program. Sourcing2Equal is an IFC-led global program launched in 2019 in partnership with the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) and the Government of Norway. Sourcing2Equal Kenya is the first country pilot. The program seeks to connect thousands of women entrepreneurs to new market opportunities via corporate procurement. In this interview, conducted to coincide with International Women’s Day, Mary talks about the importance of networking, the value in bridging gender gaps, and how her grandfather’s influence led her to launch a highly successful cleaning business.

Tell us a little about yourself and your business, City Scape Trends?

I am a wife and devoted mother to two children. I am also a catalyst for change, a recipient of multiple sustainability awards, and the founder and CEO of CityScape Trends Services Limited, which provides sustainable commercial cleaning and maintenance services for offices and buildings. We are proud to use green-certified cleaning solutions and apply disinfectants only sparingly to help protect our environment.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

My entrepreneurial journey began in 2005 when I established a salon and barbershop in Nairobi. It started out as a side hustle but soon became profitable and needed my full-time attention. However, I was ill equipped with management skills and soon faced some serious problems. This is when I came across an ad calling for applications for the Goldman Sachs Foundation's Center for Executive Entrepreneurs Development Program (CEED). The program was aimed specifically at women entrepreneurs—and I was thrilled to be accepted. CEED proved to be a lifeline by equipping me with the knowledge and confidence I needed to grow my business. Upon completing the program in 2010, I opened CityScape. I chose cleaning because I grew up in a single-parent household. My mother worked and was unable to look after me and my siblings during the day. As a result, I lived with my grandfather, who instilled in me the significance of cleanliness in both the home and the surrounding environment.

Tell me about the challenges you faced when scaling up your business?

I faced many challenges, including delayed payments from clients, high taxes, and limited access to finance. Securing funding proved to be a constant obstacle. Banks were reluctant to lend to me because I lacked collateral, as all my assets were in my husband’s name. I turned to microfinance institutions, which helped me through some challenging periods.

The challenges have only strengthened my resolve to engage with policymakers to educate them about the hardships that women-led SMEs (WSMEs) encounter. I would also like to speak with policymakers about the benefits of dialogue between government agencies and WSMEs. By promoting dialogue and shared solutions, we can foster a more conducive business environment for WSMEs and contribute to the overall growth and prosperity of the economy.

How did you become involved in IFC’s Sourcing2Equal Kenya Program?

Previously, I participated in women-focused programs such as the UN Global Compact, United Nations Women Empowerment Principles (UN WEPs), and the Organization of Women in Trade (OWIT). This led me to discover IFC’s Sourcing2Equal Kenya program during COVID-19, when I lost nearly all my business because of lockdowns. I loved the program's unique approach of engaging with women SMEs and identifying the grassroots challenges that impede their growth. The matchmaking process with other firms was also very useful.  Today, I am working on three contracts thanks to the Sourcing2Equal Kenya match-matching process. The contacts I made thanks to the program and the knowledge I gained are pivotal in helping me revitalize my business following the COVID-19 pandemic.

How is the Sourcing2Equal Program, and networks broadly, helping you build new business leads?

Networking is very valuable for any entrepreneur. Through my involvement with various women's associations and Sourcing2Equal Kenya’s activities, I have cultivated a valuable network of business professionals. This has enabled me to consistently expand my business. By fostering relationships with the other women that participated in Sourcing2Equal Kenya’s ‘Gender Equality in Supply Chains Private Sector Forum’ last year and match-making sessions, I was able to establish a good standing within the business community.

Can you talk about the role that gender diversity and inclusion play in your business?

All our business operations are guided by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which call for gender equality and the empowerment of all women. I firmly believe that fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce contributes to a balanced exchange of opinions, ultimately resulting in a more receptive society that is less fearful of differences. I remain committed to promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace through the mentorship groups under my purview, and I strive to uphold this mission as a priority.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

International Women's Day is an occasion to celebrate the notable social, economic, cultural, and political accomplishments of women. It is my firm belief that women are the chief architects of society, and as such, it is essential to pay tribute to their unwavering efforts and significant contributions to society.

Published March 2023