Maize drying in inverted cones sprawl out in every direction. Wide green banana leaves stretch towards the sky. Spectacular views of agricultural land with Mount Elgon towering in the distance. There is a sharp contrast between the picturesque landscapes of many of the villages we operate in, and the realities of life for people living in these rural areas. My recent visit to Kiposomba in Western Kenya opened my eyes to the instability many of our business owners face on a daily basis. Yet, through the testimonials of these business owners, I learned that the Village Enterprise program not only improves individual lives, but can transform the dynamic of an entire village.
Both of my shoulders slumped forward to make room for the extra person squished in the back of the car that carried us on the dusty, rollercoaster of a road that leads to Kiposomba. After the hour-long drive, we walked another 30 minutes away from the main road and into the countryside along a narrow dirt path. When we reached a clearing that overlooked an astounding view, the only word that came to mind was “wow.” Tucked in the foliage off a bend in the path was the church where we were greeted by business mentor, Marlene Naomi, and the 30 business owners that live in this village and compose the Kazi Kwa Kazi Business Savings Group (BSG). Sitting on the wooden bench in the dimly lit church, I found myself completely taken aback by the stories of hardship repeatedly shared by the business owners present.
“The area was very insecure. Men would come with guns and take all that we have.” Dipson Mateche, the Chairman of the BSG, shared that it was difficult for him to raise any livestock due to armed raids by cattle rustlers. Other business owners told stories of how they would not sleep in their homes, but rather in neighboring fields, out of fear of the raids. The extreme distance from market centers causes produce to perish and climate change has created unpredictable rain patterns, impacting the health of crops. “Kitale is the hub for food but the people experience famine,” said Dipson. Amidst the daily insecurities, many of these business owners turned to home brewing local spirits. They explained that the local reliance upon liquor only contributed to the insecurity of the village. Luke Wanyonyi confessed “before I didn’t have time for my family. I only had time for liquor.”
Initially, members of the BSG expressed their hesitation at participating in the Village Enterprise program. “When the business mentor would come, we would run away,” Renos Wanyonyi laughed. “We feared that it was a loan and that the iron sheets of our houses would be taken,” he continued. This is a common challenge faced across many of the villages we operate in. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) in the area offer loans with interest rates reaching as high as forty percent and with expected repayments beginning within a month. When individuals fail to repay their loans, MFI’s generally seek collateral, including livestock or even the roofs over their heads. So, when Village Enterprise enters a village, the business mentor is essential to deterring such fears and creating trust that business owners will not have to repay grant funds.
“She kept coming, day after day. “Even after trainings she didn’t get tired of visiting individual projects,” Luke says. As each business owner spoke, their stories shared a common theme: the remarkable dedication of their business mentor, Marlene. The villages we operate in are usually not condensed, but instead business owners’ compounds are significant distances apart, spread throughout the countryside. Marlene and I visited four separate business owners following the meeting and I found myself out of breath after trekking through maize fields and clambering uphill on unsteady ground to reach their homes. Through her mentorship and support, Marlene has played a central role in helping spur the economic growth that Kiposomba has recently experienced.
“We used to be separate but through the training we learned how to work together to achieve a goal” says Susan Watima. In only six months, the 30 members of this business savings group have saved over 37,000 shillings (roughly USD $370), have an emergency fund of 4,700 shillings (USD $47), own 27 sheep and 23 hens, and have purchased six sea beds for agricultural use. Recently, this group acquired their certificate of registration through the Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Services which will allow them to seek additional monetary support from the government. And it doesn’t stop there. The group already has its sights set on purchasing a dairy cow as well as to acquire plastic chairs and a tent to rent out for community events.
As these business owners told their stories, it became clear that change was not only occurring on an individual basis, but throughout the entire village. “Before, there were only groups for the rich. Now, even the poor have a place,” Ruth Naliaka Masika contributed. Through both government assistance and Village Enterprise trainings, stability has returned to the region. The formation of 10 member community watch groups, which patrol the countryside, has significantly reduced the issues caused by cattle rustling. Susan explained “I now know when I visit friends and family, I will find them safe and sound in their homes.”
Kiposomba has also seen a significant decrease in the production and reliance upon liquor, and an increase in alternative business options. Chairman Dipson explained that “Village Enterprise saved us from brewing and getting drunk. Before we had nothing. Now our businesses can stand on their own.” He continues, “The churches are so happy because they have many more members.” Luke stands up and adds, “Village Enterprise helped families come together. I used to drink heavily and there was no peace in the households. I now spend time with my family and it is much better.”
Walking the dirt path back to the main road, I looked over the landscape with new eyes. From the comforts of a car, I often acknowledged the beauty of the wide agricultural lands but failed to realize how the same land creates a barrier for many of the villages we operate in from market centers, information, and services. A barrier from opportunities. One of the elements that makes Village Enterprise unique is simply that we operate in many rural areas that other NGO’s refuse to travel to. As a result, the impact of the program is not only felt on individuals, but throughout the entire village.
Two business owners lead the way to their compounds through drying maize fields.
Agnes Naliaka stands proudly with the BSG’s certificate of registration from the Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Services.
Members of the Kazi Kwa Kazi Business Savings Group in Kiposomba, Kenya.
Rose Naliaka Masika stands in front of her vegetable crops with banana trees in the background.