UNEP/Habel Lenga
07 Mar 2024 Story Gender

Access to finance for women proves life-changing for Kenya’s ‘mama karanga’

UNEP/Habel Lenga

Every morning, after sending her grandchildren to school, Mariam Ngare goes to the beach in Msambweni, a small fishing town on the coast of Kenya.   
There, she buys fresh-caught rabbitfish or parrotfish, cuts them into small pieces and fries them. Carrying the fare on a tin plate on her head, Ngare walks to the town’s main street, where she sells each piece for 50 Kenyan shillings (US$.35) to passersby looking for a quick bite.  

Ngare is part of a community of women locally known as mama karanga, or fish mongers. Many started their business with support from a project backed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which aims to build sustainable coral reefs fisheries by strengthening the role of women in the management of marine areas.  

Launched in 2020, the initiative provided women with startup capital and trained them on how to buy mature fish. That second part, experts say, is crucial to maintaining fish stocks and keeping the coral reefs of Kenya’s coast thriving. 

“This project is a prime example of how providing women with the financial tools they need can both create economic opportunities and protect the biodiversity that makes Kenya’s coast so unique,” says Leticia Carvalho, the head of UNEP’s Marine and Freshwater branch. 

A woman with a tray on her head 
A UNEP-backed project on Kenya’s coast is creating economic opportunities for women fish mongers and protecting vulnerable coral reef ecosystems. Photo: UNEP/Habel Lenga

Women’s lack of access to capital is the focus of this year’s International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March. Addressing this issue is seen as essential for dealing with climate change and biodiversity loss, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  

According to UN Women, globally, women are less likely than men to have access to financial institutions or to have a bank account. They are also more likely to work in both informal jobs and in industries vulnerable to climate change, like the fisheries sector. Globally, 340 million women and girls are expected to be living in poverty by 2030. Climate change could raise that number by 158 million by 2050. 

To help counter that trend, UNEP partnered with Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean, a research institute based in Mombasa, Kenya. Funded by the United States Department of State, it provided women with seed capital to kick start their fish-selling businesses. The women used the money to buy essentials, such as deep freezers, scales, tables, receipt books and trading licenses.  

Project officials also trained the women in basic accounting and record keeping. Many opened a group bank account to better handle their finances.  

Eventually, the women were able to stop buying cheaper juvenile fish and instead purchase large- or medium-sized fish. The shift was considered important: catching too many juveniles removes them from the ocean before they can help replenish stocks, damaging fragile reef ecosystems. 

The women have also saved 10 per cent of their income in a shared saving plan. They can dip into that for personal emergencies, to buy equipment or start a side business. Some women have been so successful, they have branched out into catering weddings and funerals. 

Another group of women received funds which they used to buy seedlings and plant 100,000 mangroves in nearby Munje. The group has also received technical advice and training on terrestrial tree planting from the Kenya Forest Service.  

In all, four groups of women were trained in fish selling, mangrove restoration, beekeeping and operating a fish depot. In total, 81 women benefited from the project directly while an estimated 486 members of the women’s households benefited indirectly.  

“This project has shown that gender equality and benefit-sharing of natural resources is not only good for the economy, but also good for the environment,” says Carvalho. "The key now is to scale up efforts like these.” 

She says projects such as those along Kenya’s coast are crucial to realizing the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework, a landmark pact to protect and restore nature, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Women, she says, play a key role in adopting and promoting sustainable natural resource use practices.  

However, providing access to financing alone is not sufficient. Women also need financial literacy training and grace periods built into their loans in the event they become pregnant, say experts.  

Two women selling fish
Women received capital and training to get their fish selling businesses off the ground, with some expanding beyond street-side sales and into catering. Photo: UNEP/Habel Lenga

This is why the UNEP Finance Initiative (UNEP-FI) is encouraging financial institutions to offer loan products that help mitigate the risks that many female entrepreneurs often face when starting their businesses.  

In Nigeria, Wema Bank, a signatory to UNEP-FI’s Principles for Responsible Banking launched a platform called SARA, specifically for women entrepreneurs. The platform provides discounted health insurance and access to loans at low interest rates. 

Similarly, in Cambodia, women farmers can obtain low-interest loans through the EmPower programme, a joint initiative between UNEP and UN Women. The loans allow them to buy clean technologies that can help them grow their businesses. 

In Papua New Guinea, one programme is providing startup capital and technical assistance to smaller businesses, especially those led by women, that do not harm coral reefs. The effort is part of the Good Oceans, Good Business initiative run by UNDP Papua New Guinea, and is supported by the Global Fund For Coral Reefs, a marine finance vehicle led in part by UNEP. The programme’s goal is to unlock private capital from domestic and international sources by demonstrating the viability of reef-first enterprise models. 

The mama karanga group on the coast of Kenya demonstrates that when underprivileged women are given a leg up, they not only help one another, but their children, grandchildren and the whole community benefits.  

“When we are united, we continue to grow,” said Mwanasiti Keya Munda, vice-chair of a mama karanga association. “Some of our peers are struggling but we continue to grow financially.”  


International Women’s Day is marked every year on 8 March to recognize women for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political. This year's theme is " Invest in women: Accelerate progress”. UNEP is committed to mainstreaming gender considerations through all its work to empower women and address gender inequality. To learn more, visit the gender webpage of UNEP.