August 26, 2015

Through Heidi’s Lens: Business Savings Groups

People living below the lowest rung on the ladder of development generally lack access to traditional microfinance institutions, particularly in rural areas. Village Enterprise strives to fill this gap by promoting financial education and inclusion in a critical component of the model called the business savings group (BSG). The BSG provides our “unbanked” business owners access to credit as well as acts as an essential financial cushion when a household faces expenses like illness, crop failures, or unanticipated education fees. I had the privilege to witness the benefits of the BSG when I visited Kewa Village, Kenya last week. I quickly realized the BSG is not just a financial institution, but is also a space where friendships grow, solace is sought, and where entrepreneurial ventures blossom.

From the moment I walked into the dimly lit space in Kewa, it was clear who was running the show. Seated in the corner of the room was a man wearing a bright orange shirt and speaking in a charismatic manner that commanded attention. Zablon Migwe, also known as the Chairman. Business savings groups revolve around a democratic process through which members create a constitution and elect leadership amongst their members. Besides the chairman sat a woman with Kenyan shillings piled on her lap, Madam Treasurer, Hellen Mureithi. Rounding out the leadership team was a younger gentleman, pen in hand, Secretary David Wafula. The leadership team is essential to conducting effective meetings, holding members accountable, and empowering members of their community. Yet, ultimately, all decisions are made by the group as a whole. Florence Mangela explained, “before we take any steps forward, we sit together and discuss. We don’t discuss to disagree, we discuss to agree. If we don’t agree we will discuss until we find common ground.”

Every Thursday, this group of 30 business owners take their seats in the cool confines of a simple mud structure and get down to business. The chairman calls a name and a business owner approaches the leadership team, handing a few shillings to the treasurer. One of the key elements of a business savings group is the ability for its members to access credit. Prior to receiving the first grant from Village Enterprise, each business owner must participate in four months of business skills training, which includes modules on record keeping, as well as savings and group loan training. As business owners save and contribute to the BSG, they also have the ability to take out loans which are repaid with minimal interest. At this particular meeting, the transactions happening before my eyes were repayments on the loans business owners had previously withdrawn from the BSG. Zablon, the Chairman, emphasized the importance of this component of the BSG when he told me, “now we understand how to save and the loans we can take from our BSG help us to improve our businesses.”

Still, life happens- drought and disease impact crops harvests, family members fall ill, and school fees must be paid- and at times this means a member of the BSG cannot repay his or her loan on schedule. The chairman unfolded a piece of paper and began reading to the group. Jacky Wasilwa, the business mentor in Kewa, pulled me aside and explained “he is reading a letter because a man defaulted his loan. It is his warning.” The Chairman explained that this business owner must prove his trustworthiness and repay the original loan in order to receive a future loan.

At the end of the meeting, one of the business owners grabbed my hand and asked “please take a snap of the chairs.” I flipped my camera on and took a few pictures of the lines of blue and green plastic chairs that filled the room. Members of the BSG grabbed chairs and posed with glowing smiles. Clearly I was missing something. I looked at Jacky for clarification and she informed me that the BSG had saved enough to purchase a large set of plastic chairs. The BSG not only used these chairs for their meetings, but actually turned it into a business by which they earned a sizable profit by renting them to members of the community for events. That, in my mind, is the definition of the entrepreneurial spirit of Village Enterprise business owners.

It didn’t stop there. I followed the group as they meandered away from the main road and headed into the agricultural fields. We crossed narrow bridges built out of tree branches and carefully tip-toed through puddles of mud that are characteristic of this swampy area. We finally approached a plot of land with Mt. Elgon, an extinct volcano on the border of Kenya and Uganda, looming in the distance. Little bushels of green sprouted from the ground. This business savings group had teamed up to plant cabbage, kale, and bell peppers.

The business ventures of this BSG are without a doubt impressive. But it became clear the second we left the meeting that relationships in this group delved much deeper than just business. One business owner grabbed the hand of an older member to help her cross a stream. Elizabeth Adisa leaned in close to Elijah Gigeru  to inspect the green peppers they had recently harvested and she pat him playfully on the back. Although I could not understand the back-and-forth banter in Kiswahili, it was evident that this group had become close friends. Jacky shared that a family member of one of the business owners recently passed away and that the BSG would be using a portion of their funds to pay for the funeral. This aside served as evidence of the remarkable support network the BSG provides.

As I strolled back to the main road with a sack full of green peppers from my new friends, I pulled my notebook out to record final details from my day. I asked Jacky if the BSG had a name, and she shouted back at one of the business owners that we had just bid our farewells to. The business owner shouted back “Tujiinue.” Jackie smiled and translated “let’s pull each other up.”

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The Tujiinue business savings group stand proudly over their newly planted cabbage fields.

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The leadership team collects loan repayments from their business savings group members. [from left: David Wafula, Hellen Mureithi, Zablon Migwe].

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Lydya Nanjala shows off one of the plastic chairs her business savings group rents out for events in their community.

    August 19, 2015

    Through Heidi’s Lens: Participatory Wealth Ranking

    Village Enterprise loves acronyms. One of the first emails I received in the U.S. office is titled “useful acronyms,” and a solid two-page list followed. During my first week in Kitale, Kenya, I quickly learned that Kiswahili was not the only language I would be learning- there was an entire Village Enterprise vernacular that I needed to get up to speed on. Friday morning, the Kenya Assistant Country Director, Fabian, asked if I would like to tag along to a PWR. I instantly agreed but found my brain questioning, “What is a PWR again?” PWR stands for participatory wealth ranking and is a targeting method that requires community involvement to identify people living in extreme poverty within a particular village. Even spelled out, it is not apparent how integral this acronym is to the Village Enterprise model.

    It took us almost an hour on unpaved, dirt roads before arriving in the rural village of Sibanga. Driving in Kitale is truly an art and Fabian has mastered it. He weaved with skill around the pot holes that have filled with an undetermined depth of water due to the rainy season downpours. I asked him if his car has ever gotten stuck and he laughed, “many times.”

    Along the way, we picked up Marlene, a business mentor who lives in the area and would be conducting the PWR. When we arrived in Sibanga, a small group had already assembled outside of the red-clay schoolhouse. For PWR’s the business mentor recruits a group of opinion leaders who are knowledgeable about the area and well-known in the community. In this case, all of the opinion leaders were women, ranging in age from early twenties to late seventies. Without hesitation, they squeezed me tight and kissed each of my cheeks, leading me by hand into the schoolhouse.

    Marlene stood at the front of the room, chalkboard ready for action, while the opinion leaders sat on benches and lined the walls. She divided the board into four sections: rich, moderate, poor, and very poor. She then opened the floor to the opinion leaders, directing them to point out the prominent characteristics of each group, starting with rich and working to the very poor category. Categorization depends on a few common factors including: ownership of livestock, access to education and healthcare, clothing style, and shelter materials.

    Using this method allows the community to assign poverty levels based on the local perceptions of poverty. Since Village Enterprise specifically targets individuals living in extreme poverty (currently defined by the World Bank as $1.25 per day or less), it is important to understand what extreme poverty looks like in each village and to adapt the model based on these insights. Within Sibanga Village, the opinion leaders identified “very poor” as those with the following characteristics: tattered clothing, thatched roofs, sickly, cannot afford children’s school fees, and only affording 1-2 meals per day.

    Next, Marlene asked the opinion leaders to use the key indicators to identify households within their village that fell under each category based on a village roster. One opinion leader would offer a name and point to which category the individual should fit under. If anyone in the group disagreed, they were not shy. In fact, in several instances two opinion leaders engaged in lively debates, arms passionately waving, until a decision was reached. The beauty of collaboration.

    After completing the categorization process for the entire village, it was time to celebrate. The women broke into song and dance as another opinion leader served us soda and biscuits. As the voices in the schoolhouse hushed, one of the outspoken women in the group explained that the song is traditionally performed after the birth of the first-born child. Since Village Enterprise is the first nonprofit to enter their village, they felt that they had someone who would support them, just like a first-born child.

    I left Sibanga Village with a much firmer understanding of the significance of the PWR to the Village Enterprise model. The PWR is not only a tool to identify people living in extreme poverty within a particular village, but it is also an opportunity to establish a collaborative relationship with the community. In many areas, Village Enterprise is not the “first-born” nonprofit to enter a village, and the PWR reflects that we not only value the opinions of the community but actually incorporate them into the implementation of the program.

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    Marlene, a business mentor, listens to an opinion leader explain an indicator of being very poor in Sibanga Village.

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    Three opinion leaders engage in a lively discussion regarding which category a member of their village will fit under for the PWR.

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    PWR’s are generally held in a community gathering space, such as this schoolhouse in Sibanga Village.

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    Opinion leaders in Sibanga Village gather to participate in the Village Enterprise PWR.

     

     

      August 12, 2015

      Through Heidi’s Lens: Disbursement Day

      Over the next year, Heidi will be acting as our eyes and ears on the ground, capturing stories in Kenya and Uganda that reflect the essence of Village Enterprise and its poverty alleviation model.  Her ultimate goal is to amplify the voice of our business owners and to let their stories speak for themselves. She writes, “I hope that my column, “Through Heidi’s Lens,” provides a glimpse into everyday life in East Africa and reflects that people living in extreme poverty are not defined by their conditions.”  Check back every Wednesday to get updates from Heidi!


      The second I open my car door, a stream of women, men, and children emerge through the church doors, singing and dancing. I try to prepare my camera to capture the moment but am instead swept up in the crowd. Women wrap me in close embraces and smile at my failed attempts to move in their graceful manner. The minimal greetings I have learned in Kiswahili are welcomed with hearty laughs and the local people repeat “Karibu,” welcome. I heard mentions of disbursement day in the United States office, but I didn’t quite grasp how powerful the day really is until I experienced it firsthand at Sitatunga Village and Orombe Village in Kenya.

      Disbursement. It is one of those mundane, scholarly words that fails to exemplify the magic of disbursement day with Village Enterprise. After participating in 4 months of business skills training, the day marks the occasion when our business owners receive their first grant from Village Enterprise. Yet, the day is more than just an exchange of funds, it is an occasion to come together to both celebrate and motivate.

      After being ushered inside, all of the Village Enterprise staff are seated at the front of the church facing the business owners. The singing is replaced by silence as the business mentor, Peninah, launches into a series of introductions. Village Enterprise business mentors are responsible for training and mentoring business owners throughout the year-long program. It is clear from both the level of engagement and the laughter of the crowd that Peninah has built a strong rapport with this village.

      Following introductions and prayers led by the local pastor, disbursements begin. A general hum fills the room as the business owners eagerly await the calling of their names. “Beatrice Juma.” Beatrice stands up as her name is announced and approaches the table at the front of the church where she completes her paperwork and is handed the first grant- $100 for her business group of three. One village elder spoke of his disbelief of the program because he had seen many nonprofits enter their village, take from the people, and make no positive impact. In a sense, the disbursement of the first grant increases trust and marks the beginning of a symbiotic relationship. If these business owners remain committed to the program and the growth of their businesses, they will receive a smaller $50 grant in six months.

      The highlight of disbursement day is hearing directly from the business owners themselves. One of the most memorable speeches came from Edwin Nyakundi. He faced the crowd and explained, “today you have been given a seed. You can either plant it and watch it grow. Or, you can eat the seed, but then you would be no different from a squirrel.” The attendees nodded their heads and murmured their affirmations. In the midst of the business owner’s speeches, we were offered biscuits and a soda. Lillian, a young entrepreneur that is creating a baking business, joked “the next time you come, we will have scones and cakes for you, and I will be much fatter!”

      The closing portion of disbursement day is marked by an offering of gifts to the guests. After listening intently to speeches for around an hour, the crowd once again erupted in song and dance. As the energy level escalated, a handful of business owners danced to the front of the church and placed a live chicken in each of our hands. Needless to say, I was a bit caught off-guard, but I did my best to hold the chicken tight and sway to the music. We said our final farewells and headed to the car with not only the chickens, but also bags loaded full of avocados, Irish potatoes, peppers, bananas, and cabbage. As we once again pulled out on to the red dirt roads, my head bouncing up near the top of the ceiling, I couldn’t help but smile at the generosity of the business owners.

      There really is nothing quite like disbursement day. The energy. The smiles. And the sense of hope that the seed will grow and their businesses will thrive.

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      This business owner’s son was all smiles throughout the entire program.

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      Following every speech, all of the business owners clap in unison.

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      Lillian, a young business owner who will be starting a bakery, stands in front of the business owners in Orombe Village, Kenya.

        August 11, 2015

        Getting to Know Heidi Graves, Development Fellow

        IMG_0805From the San Francisco tech scene to rural East Africa, Heidi joins the Village Enterprise team as the first ever Development Fellow, collecting stories in Kenya and Uganda that reflect the essence of Village Enterprise and our poverty alleviation model. Heidi graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2013 with a degree in History and a minor in Educational Studies and Applied Psychology. She studied abroad in Ghana where she worked as the Program co-Director at Exponential Education, an NGO focused on improving access to education and empowering youth to become leaders in their community. Following graduation, Heidi interned at Kiva where she managed the nonprofit’s social media strategy as well as developed outbound communication to the lender community. She then worked as Community Manager and User Researcher at Brigade, which aims to boost American civic engagement. She now joins the Village Enterprise team as a Development Fellow, rotating between the organization’s three offices in East Africa to gather stories, photos, and video footage of Village Enterprise’s work. She enjoys exploring the great outdoors, eating dessert, and spending time with her family.

        From her new home in Kitale, Kenya, Heidi shares with us her journey back to Africa and her path to becoming Village Enterprise’s first Development Fellow.

        What will be the primary focus of your work with Village Enterprise?

        The primary focus of my work with Village Enterprise is to act as our eyes and ears on the ground, capturing stories in Kenya and Uganda that reflect the essence of Village Enterprise and its poverty alleviation model. The content I collect will be shared through blogs, photography, video, and social media.

        Why Village Enterprise?

        Village Enterprise has a unique model that focuses on empowering people living in extreme poverty. I find it truly inspiring that Village Enterprise has chosen to work with people who fall below the threshold for traditional microfinance services and live in rural areas that many other NGOs will not touch. Further, I have been constantly impressed by the innovative nature of Village Enterprise’s model. Village Enterprise has extensive measures in place to collect and learn from data in the field and is even participating in a randomized control trial to quantify the impact of their poverty alleviation model. Moreover, my answer to this question would not be complete without mentioning the amazing Village Enterprise staff. I am thrilled to be joining a group of people that are passionate and committed about working to empower people living in extreme poverty in East Africa.

        Why is extreme poverty a cause that you care about?

        Extreme poverty is a violation of human rights and I believe that it is not only my, but all of humanity’s responsibility, to do more. I do not know what it is like to live in extreme poverty. But what I have witnessed is that people living in extreme poverty are not defined by their conditions. They are generous, hardworking, and love their families. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard and work to create a world where all people are empowered to create opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities.

        What excites you most about this opportunity?

        Words cannot explain how excited I am to spend a year living in East Africa. My blood starts pumping when I think about being immersed in a new culture- exploring the language, food, music, and history. I am most looking forward to developing relationships and sharing the stories of the incredible people I encounter on my journey through Kenya and Uganda.

        What challenges do you expect to face?

        There will no doubt be challenges that I have to face as a mzungu living in East Africa, but I am actually more attuned to the challenges I will encounter as the Village Enterprise storyteller. First, there is the language barrier. My basic Kiswahili can only go so far, so I anticipate that I will need a lot of assistance from the local staff when we travel into the field. There is also the challenge of capturing an authentic story when I am a foreigner to both the individual and the culture. Why would these local business owners want to share their personal story with me? I can imagine that there will be efforts that I can make to minimize the cultural divide, such as greeting in local languages, but I also know that I will only learn to overcome this challenge by diving in headfirst.

        What do you hope to accomplish in your fellowship year?

        Village Enterprise has a wealth of quantitative data that I hope to weave in with qualitative data, such as stories from the field, to demonstrate the positive impact of the Village Enterprise model in alleviating poverty in East Africa. My ultimate goal is to amplify the voice of our business owners and to let their stories speak for themselves. Finally, I hope to provide a glimpse into everyday life in East Africa and to breakdown common stereotypes that persist about “Africa.”

        What aspect of Village Enterprise do you relate to the most?

        I feel particularly connected to the branch of Village Enterprise that focuses on innovations in the program, particularly for youth. In both Kenya and Uganda, youth compose a significant portion of the population and unfortunately, unemployment rates are exceedingly high and increasing. As a result, Village Enterprise has recognized the importance of adapting the model to provide opportunities for youth. Village Enterprise recently completed a study in conjunction with FHI360 and USAID on how to best meet the needs of rural youth and the field team is in the process of piloting various programs to leverage the entrepreneurial pursuits of youth. I’m excited to be in the field to witness the development and execution of these programs as well as to interview the youth participants as they launch their businesses.

        You’ve worked for innovative technology startups, what do you hope to get out of this experience at VE that differs from your past experiences?

        I am eternally grateful for all that I learned during my time in the San Francisco tech startup scene, but with my passion for international development, I knew that I needed to head back into the field. In my previous position, I mostly worked with people through a computer screen. I am really looking forward to connecting with people face-to-face, listening and learning from their experiences, and seeing the impact of the Village Enterprise program on their lives, firsthand.

        You spent a year in Ghana during college, what is it about Africa that draws you back?

        I had an incredible experience studying abroad in Ghana and I have not stopped thinking about returning since the second I stepped back on American soil, three years ago. In Ghana, I deeply admired the slower pace of life, the emphasis placed on developing personal relationships, and the value of family. My time abroad allowed me to gain a new perspective on my life and all of the things I took for granted in the United States. I also loved the vibrant culture- full of music, dancing, and incredible food. It is important to acknowledge that my impressions of Africa come solely from my year in Ghana, but I look forward to exploring all that East Africa has to offer.

          August 7, 2015

          Most Significant Change: Adap Anna Margaret

          From land disputes to chronic illness, business owner Adap Anna Margaret shares her journey towards health, education, and hope for her family. Field interns Sarah Ackerley and Anna deSocio journey to the village of Ateka in the Katakwi district of Uganda to gain a glimpse into Anna’s life as a result of her participation in the Village Enterprise program.  

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          AnnaMargrateAdep (2)It is a on a hot, sunny day that Adep Anna Margaret welcomes visitors from Village Enterprise who have come to Aketa to hear her story and learn about some of the ways the program has impacted her life. We find some shade, a couple of wooden chairs and a log, and get started with our interview. A few of Anna Margaret’s friends, as well as a few chickens, have joined to hear the interview as well.

          As her story unfolds, she gestures passionately, and speaks for a long time before we ask any questions. She pauses only so that our translator and field coordinator, Isaac, can interpret. She is revealing several hardships in her past and present that make her climb out of extreme poverty truly impressive.

          An HIV-Positive widow with 10 children, Anna Margaret deals with many obstacles to financial independence. Her only source of income prior to her involvement with Village Enterprise was a physically demanding business of making and selling the local alcoholic brew waraji. The HIV weakened her, and doctors instructed her to stick to light work and stop drinking. She tried to follow the doctor’s orders, but had trouble making a living without the brewing business. She had to sell five cows in order to educate her children.

          What is more, her in-laws have harassed her, illegally pressuring her to leave the village and making it difficult for her to cultivate on the family land. Although as a widow she has legal rights to the land her husband inherited, she has stopped fighting them and has decided to keep only a small plot of land her husband bought before he died.

          Thanks to the kindness of her neighbors who have supported her and allowed her to cultivate on sections of their land, she has stood her ground and refused to leave the village. However, because she has had to move around a lot within the village, she was almost missed by Village Enterprise’s initial targeting process. That’s where her Business Mentor Esther comes in.

          The Village Enterprise Business Mentors have unique knowledge of the communities in which the organization operates, and they spend a lot of time there. One day, Esther happened to be walking through the village, meeting people along the way, when she came across Anna Margaret. Learning of her situation, Esther realized that she qualified for the program.

          Since joining, Anna Margaret started a goat-rearing business with two other participants, and soon three goats multiplied to 11. Through the training, she learned about borrowing, investing, generating profits, paying back loans, saving, and, she adds, taking good care of animals.

          “All of the trainings have had an impact,” she says. “Life is easy now that I am in the business savings group, because I am able to pay for school fees or whatever else I need. Although I am HIV positive, I feel that I still have life ahead of me, because I am able to access medication.

          “I have reached a level at which I look at my children and I do not see them as orphans. I am relieved of a lot of my worries, because I am able to go to the business savings group. When I think of all my problems, I am consoled thinking of the group and of my children who are in school. With time, I will not have any burdens, because my children will care for me.” Already, one of her daughters, who has completed teacher training and teaches in a missionary school, is helping to pay for tuition to send the other children to school.

          Because my name is also Anna, we have achieved a small connection despite our many differences (not least the fact that we do not even speak the same language). After the interview, she holds my hands, touches her forehead to mine, and tells me to thank my mother for giving me such a good name.

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          Narrative by Anna deSocio

          Photo credit: Sarah Ackerley

            August 4, 2015

            Meet Nafees Ahmed, Princeton in Africa Fellow

            Hailing from Washington, D.C., Nafees Ahmed now joins the Village Enterprise team as a Princeton in Africa Fellow.  NafeeNafeesAhmedHeadshot1s graduated from Georgetown University in 2012 with a degree in Government focusing on International Relations, a minor in French, and a certificate in Muslim-Christian Relations. She studied abroad in Turkey, Egypt, and France. While at Georgetown, she was a Manager at The Corp, the largest student-run business in the US, and hosted a radio show called Riot on the Radio. In the north of Pakistan, she interviewed micro-entrepreneurs for Sarhad Rural Support Program’s monitoring and evaluations team. She helped start-up Swat Relief Initiative, an NGO that helps victims of Taliban occupation of Swat, Pakistan. Upon graduation, Nafees worked as a Fellow at the United Nations Information Center. She then worked as a Senior Associate at Chemonics International, where she managed the last USAID project in Mongolia, which worked to increase the competitiveness of small and medium enterprises. Nafees joins the Village Enterprise team as our Princeton in Africa Fellow and will spend her fellowship year redesigning the conservation program, working with the M&E team, and developing linkages between the innovations team and the M&E team. She enjoys reading, planking, anything to do with John Oliver, and long walks on the farm.

            After arriving in Kitale, Kenya just two weeks ago, Nafees took the time to answer some questions about the path that led her to Village Enterprise.

            What will be the primary focus of your work with Village Enterprise?

            At Village Enterprise I will be working in three different capacities. Firstly, I’ll be working on the monitoring and evaluations team to assist in developing surveys and reports, to manage the enumerators, and in backend data management. I’ll also be working on the innovations team to analyze the conservation program and create a strategic vision for our conservation work moving forward. Finally I’ll be working to streamline linkages between the M&E and innovations teams.

            Why Village Enterprise?

            In my past experience in international development, I worked on several different projects and proposals from democratic reform to countering violent extremism. These experiences were interesting. I learned a lot from these experiences, but I soon realized how difficult it is to create sustainable impact in these fields as an international actor. I was then lucky enough to start working on economic development projects at Chemonics International. I managed a project in Mongolia that works to train small and medium enterprises and led value chain development research on agribusiness in Pakistan. These experiences led me to realize the importance of supporting businesses in developing communities. Creating businesses empowers individuals to create their own livelihoods and to solve their own local problems. I am lucky to be working with Village Enterprise, which works towards this very mission. Village Enterprise creates sustainable businesses by training business owners, encouraging saving, and providing capital. Village Enterprise is locally led with our field coordinators and business mentors shaping our strategy. Our model is committed to improving with rigorous M&E standards and our ongoing randomized control trial. Through our M&E we have proven success: VE has increased standard of living for business owners and changed lives.

            Why is extreme poverty a cause that you care about?

            Extreme poverty is an issue I care deeply about because, for me, it is synonymous with injustice. I strongly believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to care about extreme poverty. As global citizens we are all connected. When you buy a tee shirt at Zara you may contribute to urban poverty in Bangladesh, when you get medication from Pfizer you might be contributing to environmental degradation in India, when you upgrade to a new iPhone you may be fueling conflict in the DRC. These are a few of the thousands of reasons that we are all responsible for and accountable to our fellow global citizens. Learning about extreme poverty and the education, psychological, health, and sanitation issues that accompany it are jarring and disturbing. The reaction to extreme poverty is visceral. This is the ultimate reason I am working for Village Enterprise. Although it is easy to feel inconsequential in the fight against poverty, I strongly believe that it is important to learn, to understand, and to contribute. After all, the Dalai Lama said “if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito” and my one week in Kenya has truly made me realize the power of the mosquito.

            What excites you most about this opportunity?

            For the past several years I’ve been interested in international development but never before have I had the opportunity to live and breathe the experience at the local level. At Chemonics I worked on projects in Mongolia and the Philippines. I traveled to Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand to assist with proposal development. At university I studied abroad in a small village near Istanbul, Turkey. I have traveled to Bosnia to learn about post-genocide development and to Egypt where I witnessed the start of the Arab Spring.

            These experiences gave me glimpses into the lives of communities experiencing emerging economic growth, environmental degradation, poverty, relocation and injustice. I made friends who taught me how they have worked to create change and progress in their communities. Still, I never had the opportunity to stay in one place for an extended period of time. I always wished to live in a community to foster these relationships and to learn about the local history, food, music, and language. I hoped to discover local development problems and to hear what community members see as the solutions to complex issues of poverty, gender inequality, agriculture, and business. Over the next year, I look forward to the opportunity to develop these long-lasting relationships in Kitale, Kenya with Village Enterprise.

            What challenges do you expect to face?

            Living in Kitale I expect to face many challenges as I am a newcomer in town. Perhaps people will find me different, my mannerisms strange, and my accent difficult to understand. My goal is to overcome these barriers. Kenyans have a beautiful culture and I hope to learn more about it. I hope to learn Swahili, the history of this region, and how to cook ugali, the famous maize dish of Kenya.

            Along with cultural challenges, I think the most difficult challenge for me will be witnessing extreme poverty. Inequality in our world is stark and unjust. There is no valid explanation as to why it exists. Many people in developed countries are able to separate themselves from these issues and go for days, weeks, maybe years without thinking about the gross injustice that is extreme poverty. Working so intimately with issues of extreme poverty will be challenging and frustrating. Still, I believe that this year working with Village Enterprise will also provide me with hope and the knowledge that extreme poverty is not necessary. As Muhammad Yunus said “Once poverty is gone, we’ll need to build museums to display its horrors to future generations.” Village Enterprise is working towards that future and I am excited to be a part of it.

            What do you hope to accomplish in your fellowship year?

            During this year I hope to assist the M&E team, provide a strategic vision for our conservation project, and streamline linkages between innovations and M&E teams. More importantly however, I hope to learn more about complexities of poverty alleviation and to understand how I can best contribute in the fight against extreme poverty. I also hope to develop friendships with the staff and business mentors and to learn from them about the culture, history, and politics of Kenya.

            What aspect of Village Enterprise do you relate to the most?

             The aspects of Village Enterprise I feel most connected to are our programming operations in financial inclusion and value chain development. I believe these programs have the potential to revolutionize the businesses we work with because they would help businesses grow within the pre-established market system. Village Enterprise provides the opportunity for the ultra poor to establish a business. Building off that model, financial inclusion for our businesses would mean that through microfinance banks or mobile money our business owners could enter the formal banking system, which allows for safer transactions, more savings, as well as loans to further expand businesses. Moreover, our cutting edge work in value chain development will allow the businesses we support to access larger markets, to increase profits, and to expand their businesses. I feel most connected to this area because with the growth of businesses comes consumption smoothing, greater quality of life, and more job opportunities.

            You’re coming from a much larger organization (Chemonics), what is it about Village Enterprise that drew you to the organization?

            The experience of a much larger organization gave me fantastic insight into large-scale multi-million dollar USAID projects. I learned about the macro-issues that impact development in emerging economies. I interviewed heads of government departments, international NGOs, businesses and universities to learn about the education, the business-enabling environment, agriculture, and economic issues at the national level. However during these experiences I rarely had the opportunity to speak to people experiencing these development issues. At Village Enterprise, I hope to understand the micro-level better. I’m looking forward to field visits to meet the business owners we work with. I’m excited to hear their stories, needs, priorities, and perspectives. I’m sure these stories will challenge my ideas and my own perspectives.

            You’ve been in East Africa for one week now – what are your first impressions?

            Coming to Kitale, I had very few expectations, but can honestly say that my brief time here has already exceeded these expectations. Kitale is a beautiful, lush green town. The roads are smooth and clean. Every walk or run I go on results in the discovery of a beautiful lake, forest, or field. The office is on a big farm and I discover new birds and animals everyday. So far, people have been very friendly and even more hospitable. The other day a neighbor, Charlyne, came to the farm to buy milk from the owner, Mrs. Lebo. Charlyne showed me and Heidi (our Development Fellow) around the farm and we ended up at her house. She insisted we stay for tea, which was milky and sweet. With a sweet smile Charlyne told us about her plans to start a hardware store in Kitale and about her sister who’s completing her business degree in the area. Less than week in and we’ve already made a friend!

              August 3, 2015

              Dispersing Money and Dispersing Joy

              Josh Code is a rising Junior at Palo Alto High School and interned in Uganda with Village Enterprise this summer. He writes to us about his experience during disbursements.


                   One of my first tasks upon arrival in Uganda was to accompany the Village Enterprise Hoima field team to a disbursement. During a disbursement, around 20 groups of three business owners each receive small grants, in addition the training they have already received from VE business mentors, to start a business. As you might have guessed already, disbursements are very joyous and festive occasions– and understandably so. Who wouldn’t feel elated anticipating a substantial amount of cash coming their way? When we arrived at the disbursement location, we were met with a small, quaint village comprised of round clay huts with thatched conic roofs and a stunning view of the Ugandan countryside from a prime hilltop vantage point. The people of this bright community spared no resource in welcoming us warmly and expressing their immense gratitude.  All 60-ish people of the village came out to our parked SUV and joyfully sang, danced, and played small homemade instruments while gleefully guiding us to their settlement. It was quite the experience.
                   On my short walk into the village, I shook hands with what I’d say was a majority of the community’s population before I eventually sat down in a blue plastic chair decorated with lovely embroidered cloths. Then, one of the villagers stood up to give a thank-you speech to Village Enterprise while one of VE’s business mentors translated for us. Following that, we were in for even more of a treat. A few talented village residents put on two plays for us– both telling the story of how VE helped people in their community. The first play was about an alcoholic who learned responsible business practices from a VE mentor and put his addiction to rest. The second play was about two men who hunted animals illegally. An environmentalist from the Ugandan government caught them and told them about how poaching, hunting, and selling endangered species was illegal and not a sustainable business practice. He then directed the two men to a VE mentor and, of course, they all lived happily ever after. Both plays were elegantly and humorously acted out. The actors wore funky masks and used props to make the scenes more complete. As the entertainment came to a close, the villagers served us a lunch fit for royalty. Rice, potatoes (which Ugandans call “Irish potatoes” to distinguish them from sweet potatoes), goat meat, and Ugali (a local starch dish) sat before us in large quantities on a wooden table. Even more satisfying than the delicious home-cooked dishes was the realization that came to me towards the end of the event. The people of this village lived well before the poverty line, but their lives were about to change so much for the better. With the business trainings Village orchestrated and now the small amounts of capital, these people were equipped with the tools to lift themselves out of poverty through business ownership. This day marked their start on a path to a better life.
                   It was inspiring and uplifting to witness a sustainable method of poverty alleviation unfolding before my eyes. Village Enterprise’s work and success is tangible proof that there are better alternatives to throwing money at the problem. I left the small community with an inexplicable sense of happiness– partly because it was easy to absorb the village’s joy simply by being in their presence– but also because I knew that this community was on its way out of poverty and toward prosperity, all thanks to Village Enterprise.
              Josh Code Picture Blog

                July 28, 2015

                5 Things Village Enterprise would tell President Obama

                Karibu! We are honored to welcome you back to Nairobi, Kenya to participate in the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Conference. In bringing Silicon-Valley innovation to East-African entrepreneurship, Village Enterprise is leading a game-changing effort to help hundreds of thousands of families extract themselves from grinding poverty. We believe that entrepreneurship plays a vital role in breaking the cycle of poverty and we have five key points that we would like to share with you:

                1. The power of hope is real. Nicholas Kristof’s recent article in the New York Times mentioned not only the positive impact of graduation programs, but also the essential role that creating hope plays in generating lasting results. He states,” Give people reason to hope that they can achieve a better life, and that, too, can be self-fulfilling.” After becoming paralyzed in one leg after contracting polio as a child, and losing both of his parents, Joseph Khaukani from Mugomari village, was forced to drop-out of school to support his younger brother and sister. After participating in the Village Enterprise program, he has developed a successful agri-business that produces kale. Joseph’s children are now able to attend school, his family can seek better medical attention, and he even has his eyes set on building a better house before the end of 2015. Joseph exemplifies that a little hope can go a long way.
                2. Women and youth are entrepreneurs too. The Village Enterprise model is especially relevant to the focus of this year’s summit on women and youth. 80% of our business owners are women. In addition, as youth compose a significant portion of the population and unemployment rates rise, Village Enterprise has recognized the importance of adapting the model to provide opportunities for youth. Village Enterprise recently completed a study in conjunction with FHI360 and USAID on how to best meet the needs of rural youth and the program will continue to pilot programs to leverage the entrepreneurial pursuits of youth.
                3. It’s cost effective to give one-time aid. For just $500 for a 3-person business, Village Enterprise provides entrepreneurs with the resources to create sustainable businesses- seed capital, training, mentoring and access to savings and growth capital- permanently breaking the cycle of poverty for business owners and their families. Emily Etemesi Ashira, an entrepreneur in the Kiseri Region, spoke to the significance of the Village Enterprise training program. She attests that even without the grant funding, the business savings trainings made a significant impact on her life and helped her to scale her retail kiosk. She has now purchased a sheep and cow, can provide for the needs of her children, and has earned respect throughout her village for her entrepreneurial ventures.
                4. There is a proven method to break the cycle of poverty. A recent study released by Innovations for Poverty Action support that the graduation model lifts people out of poverty and empowers their entrepreneurial pursuits. Graduation programs essentially “graduate” households out of extreme poverty by providing both consumption support as well as long term guidance, such as business and financial skills training. Individuals that participated in graduation programs exhibited improved health, stabilized income, and an increase in savings.
                5. Entrepreneurs come from all walks of life. Despite living on less than $1.25 a day, Village Enterprise entrepreneurs exemplify the entrepreneurial spirit that is indigenous to the African continent. Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva and author of the recently released book Clay Water Brick, stresses that Village Enterprise entrepreneurs she encountered during her time in East Africa embody her favorite definition of entrepreneurship from Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson: “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” In other words, she asserts that entrepreneurship is the ability to pursue opportunity without money, permission, or pedigree, or most other means that might make pursuit easier.

                 

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                  July 24, 2015

                  Introducing our Most Significant Change Series: Ebwalu Joseph

                  We are pleased to unveil a new series called “Most Significant Change” that highlights the personal aspect of Monitoring and Evaluation at Village Enterprise. Through both recorded and written interviews, stories are collected from individuals to add depth and perspective to the survey data. The Business Owners are selected at random and represent the diverse group of participants in our program. Ultimately, we hope that this series will foster shared learning, celebrate individual successes and show the personal side of the impact that Village Enterprise is making in participant’s lives.

                  Every other week, our “Most Significant Change” series will feature the voice and perspective of a different business owner.

                  We hope you’ll tune in to get the latest ‘Most Significant Change’ story and that you’ll enjoy this new bi-weekly series. Our first story comes from Uganda and was gathered by Sarah Ackerley and Anna deSocio.

                  Asante Sana!


                  Joseph leans against a bicycle under the shade of a tree as we sit before him in wooden chairs next to the village mud-hut church. We are surrounded by a cluster of curious children.

                  Joseph has been chosen for an interview because of the change he has experienced going through Village Enterprise business training and being part of a business savings group. A proud father of eight, Joseph has a lot of responsibilities, and making a living was almost impossible before the program. He and his family engaged in subsistence farming, producing just enough cassava, millet, and ground nuts to feed his family. Occasionally, he had a cup or two left over to sell in the town center, but he was never able to take out loans to make his living resemble any kind of sustainable business. Joseph recalls with a smile that he and his wife would quarrel, because she would often ask for money to buy cooking pans or a good mattress, even though there was never any money.

                  Things took a turn after learning about savings and other financial tools in his Village Enterprise training. After receiving the initial grant, Joseph started a business of rearing goats with his fellow group members. Before long, three goats became twelve, and with his profits, Joseph is able to feed his family three to four meals per day, send all of his children to school, and to afford minor beauty products and other luxuries. His oldest daughter is now in boarding school, and she will soon take high school entrance exams. We had the pleasure of visiting their home to see their goats just as his daughter came home from school wearing her uniform.

                  The changes in Joseph’s life have had a ripple effect in his community. A neighborhood leader of sorts, Joseph tells us, “Everyone has seen so many changes that now they ask me for advice.” When I ask him for an example, he tells me that one of his neighbors used to drink and sell alcohol, causing problems and home and in the community. One day, Joseph paid him a visit and told him about what he learned from Village Enterprise. He invited this neighbor to partner with him, and they eventually started a successful business commuting to the town center to buy green grams and sour gum on market day and then take it back to the village to sell. Joseph’s neighbor has not only stopped selling alcohol, but he’s stopped drinking as well. Joseph tells us there is now more peace in the community. On top of that, Joseph has purchased five acres of land and plans to build in the town center and in the village.

                  There are still fears and worries. Joseph is nervous about upcoming elections. He worries that one day there may not be enough produce to sell due to the drought. Although he was able to afford to take care for his mother, she passed away from sickness anyway. Still, Joseph seems hopeful. “God has brought the Village Enterprise program here. I used to sit around waiting for government relief…I never dreamed of starting something. Now I have the knowledge to start any kind of business.”

                  JosephEbwalu

                  JosephEbwalu-goats  JosephEbwalu-family

                    June 26, 2015

                    Six Weeks of Gratitude: My Time as an Intern

                    Looking back on my six short weeks as a Village Enterprise intern, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with a team of inspiring, driven individuals all motivated by a deep passion for Africa and an overwhelming desire to change the hopes of better futures into realities. The energy and passion for Village Enterprise’s mission is tangible and contagious in each and every employee. It has been a truly unique and inspiring experience to work with a team of individuals so moved by their goal to eliminate poverty and have an impact on the future of others.

                    I was so drawn to working at Village Enterprise because not only is it an investment in my own future, gaining work experience and learning from industry professionals, but more importantly it is an investment in the future of others. Village Enterprise’s work in East Africa has positively impacted the lives of thousands of East Africans, in turn giving them the ability to create a brighter future for their families, their communities, and themselves. While my work in the San Carlos office was far from the villages in Soroti, Hoima and Kitale, it revolved around the stories and voices of individuals in the field who were changing their own lives. I cannot express how inspiring, rewarding, and humbling it has been to contribute however minimally to their stories and their futures, and I am so grateful to have been able to witness their progress firsthand. From the weekly field updates to the daily surprises such as the recognition in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article, “The Power of Hope is Real,” there was not a dull moment during my time as an intern.

                    Although my six short weeks as a Village Enterprise intern are up, my relationship with Village has just begun. I will carry the work ethic, passion, and vision of the Village Enterprise team with me forever. I sincerely want to thank the Village Enterprise team for giving me the opportunity to learn from and work with you over the past few weeks, and especially Caroline for your guidance, patience, and contagious laughter.

                    Asante sana for an incredible experience!

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                    Scout Swenson – Institutional Development Intern

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