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Celebrating Kenyan trailblazers

The talk of private schools conjures an image of one of the most prominent schools ever started in Kenya: Makini Schools.

Other than that, it links many Kenyans to the first woman selected to go for management training in London and on her return to Kenya, the first woman bank manager in the country.

When Mary Elizabeth Okello joined the banking profession in 1977, women were discriminated against, especially on attaining managerial positions and accessing banking facilities.

To her, this was quite absurd as she could not understand the inequality. She later took it upon herself to speak out against these practices to the point that when she was offered a loan to which she was entitled as a manager,  she refused and demanded that the rule be changed for other women.

“I encouraged and assisted women and children to open bank accounts. I also risked losing my job when I granted loans to women against the bank’s policy and practice,” says Okello.

She started the Barclays Bank Women’s Association to mentor and support women in attaining managerial positions and encouraged them to sensitise other women on banking policies. She successfully lobbied the bank to change its policies to make credit accessible to women.

In 1982, Mary became the founder and the first Chairperson of Kenya Women’s Finance Trust, now  the largest micro-finance organisation in the country. She explains its objective was to help thousands of women get credit and training to run their own enterprises.

She eventually scooped the position of a Senior Advisor to the President of the African Development Bank, where she was instrumental in formulating women in development policy for the bank.

“I also lobbied for the appointment of women to senior positions and ensured that bank projects and programmes catered for the special needs of women. As a member of the External Gender Consultative Group of the World Bank in Washington DC, I advised the bank to incorporate gender issues in all the bank’s projects and programme,” she adds.

At one point, she became a member of the Task Force that reviewed laws relating to women and chaired the Economic Committee.

She later saw the need to venture into education, and together with her late husband, Joshua Okello, became the brains behind Makini Schools, the first school to introduce computers in the learning curriculum. “The school  was our biggest achievement because it made us receive so many prizes both locally and internationally,” she says.

Some of the many awards and  accolades she has received include the Moran of the Order of Burning Spear, appointment at Millennium Ambassador for Teachers without Borders, and the Superlative Trailblazer Award by the Marketing Society of Kenya.

Her Interest in women affairs continues to date. She has come up with a widows’ programme to supports widows, especially those in disadvantaged situations. 

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