Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Women's Studies and Feminist Research


Dr. Katherine McKenna


This study explores the possibility of using microfinance to improve the economic and social status of women in Tanzania. As originally conceived, microfinance involved the provision of small loans, or “credit,” to help poor individuals start or strengthen small business ventures. The perceived success of this credit-focused, group liability model early on generated considerable international attention, and brought women into the center of development planning. Beginning in the mid-1990s, a surge of critical scholarship emerged to challenge early assumptions about the relationship between microfinance, poverty reduction and women’s empowerment. Today, academic and popular media discussions of microfinance have devolved into extremes. Its proponents maintain that it is a panacea for poverty and women’s empowerment, while the most trenchant critics suggest that microfinance is in fact harmful for women.

This study does not adhere to either of the extreme viewpoints that have recently characterized the literature on microfinance. Instead, it adds to growing body of scholarship that seeks to develop more nuanced accounts of the utility and structural limitations of microfinance, and to propose guidelines for tailoring microfinance programs in order to have the greatest potential impact on women’s economic and social status in Tanzania. To conduct my research, I sought affiliation with the African Probiotic Yoghurt Network (APYN), a community health and microfinance organization operating in Mwanza, Tanzania. Using case study methodology, I examine the effectiveness of the APYN program. The results of this study show that participation in the APYN program has an overall positive impact on various indicators of individual, household and community wellbeing. Study findings further indicate that women in Tanzania face a number of constraints in starting and growing their microenterprises. This includes some widely established issues regarding access to capital and gender discrimination, as well as some less-documented cultural and institutional factors relevant to the APYN program. Drawing on study findings, I propose a series of guidelines for developing microfinance programs that promote not just Tanzanian women’s economic livelihood, but also more strategic gains in the reduction of gender-based inequality and the transformation of gender relations at the household and community level.