Taking a stroll down Nairobi streets, one is likely to see a barrage of neon signs advertising endless SACCOs operating across the country. Some are legal while others are not.
The SACCOs have upended the lives ordinary Kenyans, especially farmers, to a point that it is difficult to fathom that just 58 years ago, the whole industry did not exist, at least not for Africans.
It all started in 1964, when then priest Father Joachim Gitonga set out to uplift the lives of Murang'a residents in the colonial era when Africans had been doomed into poverty.
Gitonga was born in 1935 and in 1959, he was among the few Africans accorded a training about Cooperative savings. At the time, the societies were a reserve of the white man.
He got ordained as a priest in 1960 and was posted to Mariira Parish where he tried setting up a society with 10 members but faced hurdles, some attributed to the fact that Kenya was still a British Colony.
"The AG was a white man and I boldly told him I wanted to register a cooperative ‘for the poor people’ but he dismissed me.
"He told me the poor people of Murang’a could not afford to run a society and I had to get a lawyer to help me,” stated the former priest in an interview with the Standard.
His zeal, however, never waned and in 1965, he registered the SACCO dubbed Mariira Cooperative Society which was launched a month later.
“That was a big achievement and so many people came to witness the launch of the first people’s bank. I was the first chairman and manager of the SACCO among a committee of 10 people,” he added.
The SACCO grew exponentially, expanded to the real estate sector and set up a building in Murang'a Town.
Meanwhile, the priest continued with his Catholic training and was posted to a different town to oversee the Nyeri Catholic Cathedral.
While there, his innate need to empower his congregation culminated into the set-up of another cooperative society, Nyeri Cathedral Parish Cooperative.
“It was easy to bring everyone on board and I mobilised all teachers. Every payday, I would ensure they deposited part of their salary to the cooperative,” he stated.
His latest venture expanded and was later rebranded to Nyeri Cathedral.
In 1975, he retired as a priest to set up Murang’a College of Technology where he would later serve as a Principal for 18 years.
The priest and his partners at the time, lobbied for the state to chip in and provide funding. They later received donors from far-flung countries of Netherlands and Canada.
The school also grew and was transformed to the modern day Murang’a University of Technology. Gitonga made all the achievements without shouting at rooftops.
Today, Gitonga is spending his sunset years in Murang'a County where he is a member of the Kikuyu Council of Elders.