A Discussion with Valentine Gitoho, Financial Managament Consultant and Entrepreneur in Kenya
July 31, 2015
What has been the path to the diverse work you do today?
A long and complicated one! I went to school here in Kenya, graduating in 1979 from Nairobi University. I continued my studies in the U.K., as a chartered accountant. I then worked for Price Waterhouse from 1983 to 1989 back in Kenya (and, the real milestone in my life, married in 1986!). I then moved to the Diner’s Club group as group financial controller, and grew within that organization to be general manager of Diner’s Finance. But, within six months of my taking that post, it went down! There were major political issues that resulted in a run on the Bank in 1993. All in all it was a traumatic experience. Diners Club International entrusted me with the franchise for the card whilst they looked for a suitable partner in Kenya and found none, as the environment was highly corrupt then.
I lived through the experience, sucking everything in and with my eyes opened. I realized, among many other things, that the credit card companies like Diners Club were giving small loans to rich people. Why not small loans to poor people? That would do so much more. This is where my interest in microfinance started. I joined the inaugural board of Faulu, a microfinance organization owned then by Food for the Hungry. It had USAID funding. My understanding of the microfinance industry was sharpened at the 1997 first World Microcredit Summit. With the expansion of the industry in Kenya, there was a recognition that the microcredit methodology was not working for individuals that had grown beyond the microfinance level. The original idea was that they would be able to “graduate” to normal banking but in practice they rarely could mainly due to collateral required by banks. Microfinance funding was expensive.
A few of us with this understanding registered ZAKA. It is designed to help them in packaging ideas so they are credit ready. A defining moment in my life was when I became a born again believer in January 1990. I had joined Diner’s in April 1989, and my second child was born later in that year. I had the ideal family; a boy and a girl, and my husband, who is an architect, and I had good jobs. We were secure and in senior positions although we were still young. One day during my maternity leave I woke up and during my time of Bible study and prayer, I realized that I wanted to live every day with Jesus. Before, I had thought my religious obligations were satisfied if I sent a check to church when I felt like it and of whatever amount, but I realized I had to do far more. I had to tithe and was concerned that I would now lose control of what I wanted to do with my money as I knew it all belongs to God anyway and He gives me the ability to create it.
I decided to change. One change was in my relationship with my mother. She had me when she was only 14, so we were friends. She had been born again earlier, but she had changed her church and got together with the wrong 'Christian' people hence changing her character and relationship with me. I knew I had changed when my aunt called, ready to gossip, and I responded that I did not want to do that anymore. I got involved in Bible study and in a prayer group with three other ladies, as well as in my church, where I am a lay reader.
What was the next chapter after you left Diners?
Going back to 1993! At the time, the General Secretary of the NCCK (National Council of Churches of Kenya) was a family friend, and he called, asking me for help. He was concerned that he did not understand the finances of NCCK and, given my finance background, he asked me to review them, starting with the microfinance program (it has now been hived off from NCCK). I agreed but it was a difficult job, because it involved serious retrenchment. I was engaged by the World Council of Churches (WCC), which had come on board at this point, to work with NCCK and other Councils of Churches in Africa, as an Ecumenical Enabler in financial management and governance matters.
I got to know Agnes Abuom during this time as we were involved in the capacity building of the members of WCC in Africa then. I worked with the General Secretary to put the NCCK on a sustainable path in terms both of governance and finance. We did a lot of training and restructuring; it was very multidisciplinary. The relationships with the donors were deeply frustrating. Needs arose but money came very late, so that targets were not met and tensions increased. Most donors were not responsive to the desire by NCCK to be sustainable in order to meet its growing program and project needs, as their priorities were different. The General Secretary finally went to the banks for loans for its social enterprise projects to allow the organization to meet its sustainability objectives.
Thank goodness for Bread for the World (Germany) which had a real appreciation for our work and provided some support. And it was that experience that sparked my continuing interest in the issue of sustainability. Indeed, it was in 2004 that I began to work towards a Ph.D. focused on sustainability that is still in progress! I intend to develop a curriculum, including a book, and also to work with the media to disseminate the ideas. I began then to focus on the broader issues affecting churches in Kenya and beyond, across Africa. With my accounting knowledge and experience, I realized the importance of rudimentary but clear systems of accountability.
Through the WCC Africa desk, we wrote a book on “Accounting and Reporting Standards, Contributions from Ecumenical Bodies” where I was the primary author (2005). During this period I got an executive MBA degree from the University of Chicago (2000). I also worked for the World Bank, as a financial management specialist consultant, in East Asia. Starting in 2006, I spent four years in Tanzania managing a World Bank funded project there. It was a problem project when I arrived! The Africa Regional Capacity Building Network for HIV/AIDS prevention, Treatment, and Care (ARCAN) involved three countries: Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, from a base in Dar Es Salaam. It had started in 2004 and not moved on due to various reasons including procurement issues.
My key responsibility was to turn the project around and ensure the funds are utilized for the intended purposes. The project involved capacity building and training, for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, project managers, and establishment of structures and processes, that would make it sustainable in the region. When the project ended I am proud to say it was sustainable as we had integrated the trainings into health institutions in the region and beyond.
You were involved in many efforts during this period, it seems!
Indeed! My husband and I created LEEDS (Learning, Earning, Equipping, Dissemination, Sustainability). The mandate is to engage "governance and management structures of diverse organizations, churches and governments in the fulfillment of their God-given vision and mission.”
This foundation is part of our journey together and was registered in 2012 and incorporated as a trust in 2014. In order to meet the objectives of the foundation, we have facilitated the formation and registration of three companies (where I am both a founder member and board member) between 2012 and 2015 all mentioned in the bio namely LEEDS Consulting Ltd, Zaka International Ltd and Africa Council for Accreditation and Accountability Ltd (AfCAA).
In 1995 I was asked to join the Stewardship and Accountability Commission of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA), which is based in Nairobi but is Africa-wide. AEA is an alliance of evangelicals in Africa united and engaged in effective ministry. Our role was to develop accountability standards for the membership. We learned about the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in the U.S., which oversees accountability standards, and wanted to create a similar model for AEA. The AEA had a strong general secretary but when he stepped down, the viability of the organization was challenged, but it is now up and running again and working well with AfCAA. It is here that my enthusiasm for establishing an ECFA-like Africa organization was born.
In October 2012, I got a telephone call from a Nigerian who had been involved with the Lausanne Conference in 2010. The idea of setting up a Missions Africa Trust Fund (MATF) arose after the conference. I did not know him but he had been advised to get in touch with me. He wanted me to come to an MATF meeting in Accra. I agreed, somewhat reluctantly as I was not involved in missions, after they agreed that I would be given an opportunity to share on the establishment of an ECFA-like Africa organization to ensure that organizations are accountable from the funds they receive from MATF. So I went to Accra, the only person from outside West Africa. I continued my involvement with them and am now on the MATF Executive Leadership Team. MATF is still at its formative stage.
What about the African Council for Accreditation and Accountability (AfCAA)? (http://afcaa.org/)
One of the challenges we saw was the need for a credible accreditation body that would support and serve Christian organizations. The new organization started through suggestions on LinkedIn, inspired by some prodding from friends. We began the discussion on December 13, 2012. During one of the travels of my new Nigerian friend who was involved in MATF, he reviewed a concept paper we had prepared for the organization, but he thought it was far too modest, as it covered only Kenya. He urged us to extend it to all Africa. So we moved ahead.
In April 2013, we held the Inaugural Steering Committee meeting which included representatives of some of the main Christian bodies (AEA, AACC, OAIC) and people from different professional backgrounds. They represented several countries using the three main languages in Africa: anglophone, francophone and lusophone. They came from Togo, Rwanda, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya. We worked together on the formation of the company and the development of the accreditation standards. We were finally registered with the Registrar of Companies on January 2015 as a Company Limited by Guarantee. Jonathan Onigbinde, my friend from Nigeria, is chair of the board and I was asked to be the executive director at these formative stage having carried the vision and chaired the Inaugural Steering Committee. AfCAA shares the same values of transparency and accountability as the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (EFCA) in the United States.
ECFA has contributed significantly in helping AfCAA in her formation and even hosted an International Accountability Summit in Dallas in April this year for such accountability organizations across the globe. Other similar Christian organizations that we identified in Africa dealing with transparency and accountability are Executive Leadership Network, a ministry of Life Ministry Kenya and Unashamedly Ethical in South Africa. However, both organizations are not involved in accreditation. AfCAA's mission is to bring about public trust in organizations through awareness raising, advocacy and accreditation, in compliance with Biblical standards.
The AfCAA board has four committees: Executive, Finance, Standards, and Communication. We are working on the applications and accreditation procedures in line with the standards. The standards are all on the website (http://afcaa.org/index.php/afcaa-standards). They are all grounded in scripture. We are not dealing with the churches only but with Christian NGOs. We are evangelical. We are getting beyond what other organizations have done, in that we will audit and identify the gaps within organizations in line with the standards in order to enhance transparency and accountability. Lack of transparency and accountability paves the way for corruption and we are clear in stating that.
If that is not addressed, Christian organizations will become irrelevant as public trust is eroded. We are also keenly aware of changes taking place in society and how it engages with organizations and ideas. At the AEA General Assembly in Harare recently, a young person spoke about the digital church, saying that if we don’t do something to change we are at the risk of being irrelevant to the next generation.
Are you still involved with NCCK?
No. We have approached NCCK for accreditation of the council and its constituent organizations and they are very keen. They have also offered to introduce us to their members for accreditation.
How does what you do fit into the larger scheme of religious affairs in Kenya?
There are many issues for the churches today and many are linked to the issues we are addressing, of looking to true sustainability. The attorney general now is saying that he wants to legislate churches. This is in response to some really bad stories on the media, including some undercover revelations of scandals in some churches. Weak accountability is clearly part of the problem. The government is committed to protecting Christians in Kenya from unscrupulous elements, and there are some proposals in response that would be designed to have tighter oversight of churches and their finances. Some of the proposals they have are that every congregation must be registered. That would be a huge change from the present and very burdensome and may interfere with the freedom of religion.
There is a history to this. In previous government regimes, churches were registered under umbrella bodies, like NCCK, Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, and OAIC. The Register of Societies would then use this information in the registration of the church as this would prove its credible. However, in a certain time government regime, this was not adhered to and many churches were registered without going through this process. I understand there are currently 10,000 such registered churches (and probably many more that are not). Basically there is a system of voluntary registration. But even if they are registered some of them they do not follow the rules, which include submitting accounts. It was mostly churches from the 10,000 group that were creating trouble. It is a tense situation.
What are the large evangelical NGOs working in Kenya?
There are many! Some are World Vision, Transworld Radio, Campus Crusade, World Relief, Compassion International. There are about 330 registered Kenya organizations that are related to organizations accredited to ECFA.
What more do you think Kenyan churches can and should do about the challenge of fighting corruption?
That is a big challenge! This subject is not preached in church and it should! People who are involved in corruption attend and are even members of churches. The problem, in part, is that some churches lack the moral authority to influence much as they themselves are not accountable to their congregations. We must be comfortable in the way we manage our affairs to have confidence and authority in what we teach.
Last December many NGOs were deregistered by the national NGO coordinating body because they had failed to file returns. Christian NGOs were included and had all kinds of reasons why they thought it was a religiously motivated act. Yet, they were not following the basic provisions of the NGO Act. They must file returns and accounts, and when they did not they were shamed, and their names were in the newspapers. There have been too many compromises with principles. There are rules but they are not applied. With devolution the situation is becoming more complicated because there are many more actors. And the situation is serious, to the extent that, in the last week or two, people who speak out against corruption are silenced.
What brought you to the July 2015 meeting on religion and development in New York?
It was through my long-standing friendship with the General Secretary of Digni, the Norwegian church umbrella organization and with the World Council of Churches. They were looking for some people from Africa in 2011 who could speak to the Norwegians about religion and development. It began from there!