Adapted from the white paper first published by the Christian Economic Forum in 2022.
There is an opportunity to deliver high-impact returns for the Kingdom of God, to share the Gospel and glorify Him through our work. Consider with me how investing in women entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa brings glory to God and alleviates poverty.
I first came to Kenya while studying abroad in 2016, and my heart broke for the millions of people living in abject poverty. I met hundreds of women who struggled to feed their families,[i] living in the masses of Mathare Valley slums, where over 800,000 people (or approximately the population of Denver) live on less than one square mile in sewage and filth.[ii] In Mathare, it is common to see women selling vegetables or ready-made foods on the side of the road, men hauling hardware or stumbling the streets drunk and high, and children roaming the streets. The overall environment of the Nairobi slums is organised chaos.
I was gripped by the extreme poverty of these families. As a seeking Christian at the time, my experience in the slums strengthened my faith and led me to Christ. This ultimately led to the founding of ROSE Women’s Foundation in 2018 when I quit my job working with startups and investors in San Francisco and moved to Kenya to establish the organisation.
Globally, over 700 million people live in extreme poverty, which as the World Bank defines it, is living on less than $1.90/day.[iii] In Kenya, 8,9 million people are still living in extreme poverty, out of a total population of 55 million.[iv] To put this in perspective, two dollars a day isn’t enough to pay a daily water bill in the United States, it’s not even enough for a coffee at Starbucks. It’s a phenomenon that people survive on this scanty amount. For example, a woman in the slums of Mathare might buy two tomatoes for $0.20 and maize flour to make ugali for another $0.80, and this is enough to feed her family of five, one meal that day. The other $1 goes to rent her tin sheet shanty home where her family sleeps on straw mats.
The global problem of poverty is nothing new, but the innovative solutions to alleviating poverty through Christ-centered entrepreneurship are shifting the paradigm. Where traditional aid falls short, capacity building and impact investing can fill the gap and change the way we serve the poor. The World Bank describes the solution to extreme poverty as economic growth that creates sustainable income-generating activities for the poor.[v] ROSE Women’s Foundation seeks to achieve this through a high-impact accelerator for women-led micro-enterprises and impact investing.
The Lord tells us that the poor will always be among us, so I believe that we won’t ever solve the complex problem of poverty. “For there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy in your land”.[vi] The Bible refers to how we should care for the poor over 2,000 times.[vii] Even though the poor will always be among us, poverty alleviation is a priority of God. I believe it is our duty as believers to be proactive in the fight against poverty and to alleviate suffering for the poor.
I had the opportunity to research entrepreneurship as a means of poverty alleviation for women in the Mathare slums of Nairobi. I taught some of them very basic business skills, and most importantly, we gathered in small groups to read the Word of God, pray, and discuss business challenges in an open forum. I was amazed at the dreams and potential of these women micro-enterprise entrepreneurs. I listened to a group of women discuss soap-making. They had challenges with branding, another struggled to make the soap with materials that wouldn’t burn their skin, and together they solved one another’s problems with group prayer and support.
So we started a community-based organisation that the women called Restoration of Sisters in the Extreme (ROSE) with 10 small businesses run by 150 women who were mothers of children in an extremely poor primary school. The purpose of ROSE started and remains to build a community of sisters to bring hope for the future through the worship of God and creating economic opportunity.
ROSE is alleviating spiritual and physical poverty for families by supporting these women to start and grow small businesses in the name of Jesus Christ. According to our baseline data, when women join the ROSE program they are destitute, earning $2/day. Through biblically-based business training, women find hope and restoration in their lives and their work. They learn to glorify God by recording their finances faithfully, serving their customers with respect, and lifting the name of the Lord with dignity. Women find hope for the future, as described in Proverbs 31:25, “She is clothed with strength and dignity and laughs at the days to come.” This is the vision of ROSE, to see women thrive as Proverbs 31 describes.
At ROSE, we measure income growth and jobs created monthly and write stories of the spiritual growth of the women and their families. We see the women in our programs increase their incomes on average 830% from baseline in the first year, and create on average two new jobs. The average ROSE woman supports four children, and we hear stories of many children going to school for the first time or going to college because of their mother’s income growth. We also hear that children are being encouraged to be entrepreneurs themselves as they see their mothers providing for them through business.
ROSE has become a micro-enterprise accelerator program providing training, coaching, and microfinancing for women in extreme poverty living in Kenya. We equip, disciple, and empower these women with biblically-based business training for six months, followed by six months of business coaching and access to capital. We have an opportunity to scale because the market for our programs is far beyond our reach. There are almost 244 million women and girls still living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.[viii] Sub-Saharan Africa also has the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs in the world.[ix] Most of these women entrepreneurs are stuck in the informal economy, but they have the potential to formalise their businesses and create employment. We want to see that happen at scale.
Today, ROSE is registered in Kenya and in the United States. What started as just 10 small businesses in 2016 has grown to over 400 small businesses in 2022. We praise God for the growth of our staff from just three staff in 2018 to 18 full-time staff today, with many of these being women from the Mathare slums themselves. We partner with the local church and the senior leadership of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa to vet and hire new women and trainers. Our work is also evangelistic, including reaching out to Muslim communities and regions surrounding local churches where we run our programs. Churches invest in the growth of ROSE by providing free training spaces wherever we grow. We are committed to seeing the local church strengthened by the spread of the Gospel throughout our programs.
Through working alongside and investing in women-led micro-to-small businesses at ROSE, we see the problem we are solving is more complex than poverty alleviation alone. We see the gap in access to capital for women entrepreneurs, particularly in Africa, and how this stifles the growth of SMEs. Going forward, ROSE seeks to expand its footprint into impact investing. We will continue to grow our support of women entrepreneurs through our non-profit accelerator, but we seek to provide high-impact investment capital for those with greater potential.
For example, Theresia is a graduate of a 2021 cohort in the Mathare Valley slums. Theresia joined ROSE with a small meat-selling business, but this business collapsed at the onset of COVID. Theresia says that the sales and marketing classes and startup grant that she received after her first ROSE pitch competition helped her to launch her next business venture – a recycling business that has transformed her life and community. Theresia now has 10 full-time and 15 part-time employees and is on track to earn $50,000 in revenue this year. She is a superstar in the ROSE alumni program, and hundreds of other women like her have been transformed through the work of ROSE.
But how do we continue supporting a woman like Theresia to reach her God-given potential as a Christ-like business owner? Theresia’s options are to take a bank loan, self-finance her growth slowly over time, take a microfinance bank loan, or receive a loan from a local loanshark charging exorbitant interest rates. How does a woman like Theresia escape the stigma of the slums and grasp formal economic opportunities?
A major challenge and opportunity that our graduates face is limited access to growth capital. This is particularly a problem for women entrepreneurs earning less than $50,000 in revenue a year. Angel investors and seed funders are writing cheques that are too big for Theresia, and they often don’t want to take the risk to see her reach the next level. Trust is one of the most important qualities that an investor looks for at this early stage. There is a natural hand-off between the ROSE accelerator program and an impact investment portfolio. We have financial records for one year and a track record of trust between our leadership teams and the women we serve. ROSE is committed to see women like Theresia break the glass ceiling of poverty and become the entrepreneurs they are created to be in the formal market economy.
For me personally, before the Holy Spirit began His work in me, I would have looked at the poverty of Mathare slums with judgment and pity. My worldly standards might have blocked me from even noticing the potential of these entrepreneurs as creators in the image of God. Now, I look upon my sisters of ROSE with unity and see that they have an important role to play in the Kingdom. I don’t just see physical poverty, I also see born entrepreneurs – women with potential, grit, and stamina for the marathon of running small businesses that solve real customer problems. My role is to serve alongside them to see women entrepreneurs fulfill their God-given potential, dreams, and aspirations to bring glory to the Kingdom of God through their work and their lives.
Allie Amoroso is the Founder and Executive Director at ROSE Women’s Foundation. She graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in Biology and Global Culture and Commerce, and earned a certificate of Business from McIntire Business Institute. She worked as a Financial Analyst for J.P. Morgan Asset Management and then for Oracle in Silicon Valley, where she helped launch their Global Startup Accelerator. In 2018, Allie moved to Kenya to start ROSE as an international non-profit organisation serving women in extreme poverty with spiritual and economic restoration.
[i] Azcona, Ginetter (1 February 2022) “Poverty deepens for women and girls, according to the latest projections”. UN Women. https://data.unwomen.org/features/poverty-deepens-women-and-girls-according-latest-projections
[ii] Missions of Hope. “Standards of Living – Mathare Slum”. Givewell. https://files.givewell.org/files/DWDA%202009/MissionsHope/TechnicalReport2%20-%20Standard%20of%20Living.pdf
[iii] The World Bank. (8 June 2016). “Ending Extreme Poverty”. The World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2016/06/08/ending-extreme-poverty
[iv] Faria, Julia. (9 June 2022). “People living in extreme poverty in Kenya 2016–2021, by area”. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1229720/number-of-people-living-in-extreme-poverty-in-kenya-by-area/
[v] The World Bank. (8 June 2016). “Ending Extreme Poverty”. The World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2016/06/08/ending-extreme-poverty
[vi] The Holy Bible ESV. Deuteronomy 15:11. Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy%2015%3A11&version=ESV
[vii] Zhang, Alice. “What does the bible say about poverty?” Food for the Hungry. https://www.fh.org/blog/what-the-bible-says-about-poverty/#:~:text=There%20are%20over%202000%20references,the%20Bible%20says%20about%20poverty
[viii] Azcona, Ginetter (1 February 2022) “Poverty deepens for women and girls, according to the latest projections”. UN Women. https://data.unwomen.org/features/poverty-deepens-women-and-girls-according-latest-projections
[ix] Toesland, Finbarr. (November 2018). “Women-led tech startups on the rise in Africa” United Nations. Africa Renewal. https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/august-november-2018/women-led-tech-startups-rise-africa