Anne Munyao, the headteacher of a primary school in Machakos County outside Nairobi, Kenya, has benefitted from a government program that seeks to help women access the lucrative but male-dominated world of public procurement.
Kenya’s Access to Government Procurement Opportunities (AGPO) program aims to increase to 30% the share of public procurement spending going to women, youth and persons with disabilities.
Munyao's first big break came when she won a tender from the Machakos County government to supply gazebos for polling stations in local elections. She also supplies cooking oil and fresh vegetables to nearby schools. The income from her sideline business competing for tenders through AGPO has been a major boost, helping her pay off her debts and putting her eldest daughter through college.
When initiatives like AGPO work well, their impact can be dramatic. Another example of success is Ann Mwaniki, the owner of a thriving business supplying everything from stationery to construction services to major government institutions around the country. She has now completed over 100 jobs for government parastatals such as the national airports authority and the electricity utility.
The daughter of farmers in a small village in rural Kenya, Mwaniki’s life was far from easy. When she finished school, opportunities for advancement were scarce. But the 39-year-old launched her company in 2017 after leaving her job as an insurance salesperson and her success has enabled her to educate her three children and build two houses for herself and her family in Nairobi.
The AGPO program has been critical to the success of her company, she acknowledged.
Inclusive procurement policies fall short of their goals
In sub-Saharan Africa, public procurement can amount to as much as 40% of a country’s gross domestic product, and governments are increasingly trying to use some of this massive spending power to benefit women.
Yet the impact of these programs has been limited, and success stories like that of Anne Munyao and Ann Mwaniki remain rare. Ten years after AGPO was launched, women, youth and persons with disabilities are only accessing a small percentage of government procurement opportunities in the country, which are estimated to represent close to CAD12 billion.
“The truth on the ground is it is not even 5%, it’s more like between 1 and 2%,” said Ruth Kiraka, associate professor of management, Strathmore University Business School, who is part of a team studying why those who get these contracts are still mostly men.
“Over 50% of entrepreneurs are women, so why aren’t they benefiting from these opportunities?” Kiraka asked. “That was the motivation behind AGPO from the government's perspective. But each time there's an initiative to support women, I'm always asking myself the same question: ‘Is it making a difference?’”
The research project is supported by Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) – East Africa, a multi-funder initiative that explores the barriers to gender equality in the world of work, to help drive women’s economic empowerment in the region. Carried out by Strathmore University and the Institute for Social Accountability, the public-procurement study is part of a wider series of GrOW – East Africa projects focusing on women’s access to high-value sectors that have traditionally been the preserve of men.
By assessing the impact of Kenya’s AGPO program and identifying the reasons why it appears to be falling short, the research can help make future initiatives more effective and unlock the massive potential of public procurement to boost women’s empowerment.
Weak enforcement, low-value contracts and lack of capital
The research has identified legal cultural and societal barriers that have limited AGPO’s effectiveness more broadly. Challenges vary from seemingly easy-to-fix bureaucratic hurdles, like the tedious requirement for women to create new email addresses every time they apply to renew their AGPO certificates, to more intractable issues like corruption.
One basic barrier is the problem of government entities not enforcing the legal requirement to reserve at least 30% of their procurement budgets for targeted companies.
“Many [public institutions] don't think much about it,” said Kiraka, who believes that the enforcement issues stem from a lack of political will.
The institutions that do advertise tenders through AGPO typically list lower-value contracts. The researchers say this inclination reflects a misconception that women-owned businesses are in some way less able to handle large contracts.
This perception is compounded by the difficulty of securing capital, reported by women in the study. To secure a loan, it’s often necessary to put up collateral in the form of land or property, yet 97% of all land in Kenya is owned by men, as revealed in the 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey.
“If the idea is really to help women grow, they need to link these initiatives to access to finance,” said Olivia Mwembe, whose construction company competes for AGPO tenders, but only for the less capital-intensive jobs.
Meanwhile, banks have become wary of providing loans for public-procurement projects due to the government’s reputation for not paying their suppliers and contractors on time.
“They [entrepreneurs] need to know that, if they’re supposed to be paid in 90 days, they will get paid in 90 days, not three years,” said Kiraka. “We have very many and very huge pending bills in government at the moment. A lot of suppliers have not been paid.”
As a result, there is a perception among many small-business owners that AGPO disproportionally benefits larger businesses with easier access to capital.
Corruption deters women from bidding
Ruth Mwihaki Gitu, who runs an AGPO-registered printing business in a Nairobi suburb, said that “AGPO might work when corruption has gone down.”
Gitu has had little luck bidding for tenders. As well as printing services, her business also assists people applying for various government programs, including AGPO, and this service has given her insight into some of the issues at play in procurement.
Gitu said that requests for kickbacks from the procuring officers are commonplace. And she said it can be disheartening to apply for a tender when it may well have been allocated to someone else before it was even advertised.
Sometimes, she said, women have had to walk away from potentially lucrative tenders after facing expectations of sexual favours in exchange for contracts, a complaint echoed by other women competing for government tenders.
“Sometimes they tell you that if you don’t have money, there are other ways you can pay,” she stated.
Another issue is the frequent exploitation of the program by men registering businesses in the names of their wives or other female relatives.
“Most of these tenders still go to men,” said Gitu. “Sometimes the women aren’t even aware their names are being used.”
Taken together, these issues explain why comparatively few women have registered their businesses with AGPO.
“It’s been operating for 10 years and there are currently only about 25,000 women businesses actively participating in AGPO,” explained Strathmore’s Ruth Kiraka. These businesses represent just under 5% of the 515,200 licensed, women-owned enterprises that are eligible for AGPO.
“That’s a big problem,” Kiraka exclaimed, adding that previously registered businesses have opted not to renew their AGPO certificates.
Removing barriers for women to access public procurement
“From where I sit, an initiative like AGPO can act as a really good stepping stone for women’s empowerment,” said Joan Akoth, a program officer at the Institute for Social Accountability. “But there’s a lot that still needs to be done.”
The research has shown that barriers to accessing public procurement were both individual and systemic and will require a concerted effort to remove.
“One issue that stood out is women not registering because of lack of awareness and misinformation, because there are those who say, ‘I heard it is very expensive to register,’ yet registration is free,” said Helen Otieno, senior lecturer at the Strathmore University Business School.
To raise awareness among business women, the research team developed and delivered a four-day training program on government procurement for women entrepreneurs, in partnership with the National Treasury, Public Procurement Regulatory Authority and Kenya Revenue Authority. The business school is considering how to integrate the course into its existing entrepreneurial programming.
“Women can come together in a consortium,” Otieno pointed out. "Already we have seen in some of the focus group discussions that women have come up in chambers and they are pooling their resources together and they can actually do tenders together.”
For more women to access public procurement, interventions are needed at multiple levels. During the course of their work, the researchers have engaged with business development service providers who can help build capacity, with financial institutions, which can improve access to funding, and with county and national governments, which can support the affirmative action policy, fight corruption among procuring officers and enforce compliance.
The Kenyan research team is also sharing findings with other researchers working on gender and public procurement in Tanzania and across five East African countries, also with support from GrOW – East Africa.
If government tenders have provided good business for Anne Munyao and Ann Mwaniki, they can become springboards for other women to prosper as well.
“AGPO has given me opportunities,” Ann Mwaniki said. “It’s transformed my mindset and shown me that anything is possible.”