November 24, 2015

Through Heidi’s Lens: Soroti, Uganda

As I walk through the narrow aisles lined with wooden vegetable stands, arms aching from the black plastic bags loaded with tomatoes, cabbages, bananas, and onions, I hear my name called from behind me. “Heidi!” I turn to see the smiling face of Hassan, the young Ugandan man that I regularly purchase dania (cilantro) from each week. He walks over, handing me a large watermelon, and says “a gift for you.” It’s moments like this that make Soroti feel like home.

Soroti is the main commercial and administrative center of Soroti District in the Eastern Region of Uganda. The actual town is relatively small compared to my previous stay in Kitale, Kenya. Many of the buildings only reach as high as two stories and there are no major supermarkets. Yet, what Soroti lacks in size, it makes up for in history.

The aging buildings around town give a glimpse into Soroti’s rich historical past. Soroti previously had a large Indian population, which was dispelled from Uganda during the dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970s, and whose presence is reflected in the surrounding architecture. In addition, Soroti is known for the picturesque Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Sikh gurdwaras that are built beside local butcheries, clothing shops, and restaurants.

It’s hard to get lost in Soroti. No matter where you stand in town, a large rock formation known as Soroti Rock stretches into the sky, making it a handy navigation tool. I recently learned that this rock is a volcanic plug, formed when magma hardens within a vent on an active volcano. It is technically illegal to climb Soroti Rock both because of its clear view of a military training facility and because it houses water tanks that supply the entire district. But a fun fact: there is a welcoming security official that lives on the top who you can bribe with 10,000 shillings ($3.00) to experience the spectacular view.

Despite its small size, Soroti is bustling during the day. Lines of bikes and motorcycles speed through town, making it difficult to cross at intersections. Stalls line the streets selling sizzling machomo (roasted meat), mouth-watering rolex (fried eggs rolled in chapati), and scratchable phone credit cards. When walking down the main street, it is hard to miss the rows of tailors and seamstresses stepping on foot petals, sewing school uniforms or creating a new dress out of boldly patterned cloth.

Our office is located right outside of town, a short 15-minute walk that sometimes can feel like eternity, thanks to the searing Soroti sun. While Soroti is much warmer and drier than our office in Kenya, the El Niño rains have left the roads thick with mud and have kept the grasses surrounding our office green. I have joked with coworkers that we should start a farm because our office backyard is home to jackfruit, orange, mango, avocado, and apple trees.

The villages we operate in are a significant distance from our office. For example, Field Coordinator Gerald Kyalisiima works with business owners around the city of Lira. It takes over two hours on matatus (public buses) to reach the city of Lira. The journey doesn’t stop there. In order to reach the rural villages we work in, Gerald must take a boda-boda (motorcycle) that takes at least another hour on bumpy dirt roads. These areas are also prone to severe storms and major flooding, meaning that at times the roads leading to these villages are impassable.

There is a reason that we work in the rural areas surrounding Soroti. This part of Uganda was significantly affected by The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a violent rebel group that was led by Joseph Kony and has been accused of widespread human rights violations. Many of the people in these villages lived in daily fear and were forced to flee to internally displaced camps. In fact the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, claims that more than 1.8 million internally displaced people were moved into 251 camps. Following the peace agreements in 2007, many of these people moved back home or resettled in new areas. Despite the end of the violence, extreme poverty remained prevalent. It is the goal of Village Enterprise to provide our business owners in these regions with the training and start-up capital to create sustainable business, to empower them to create a better life for themselves and their families, and to help restore peace and stability to these communities.

During disbursements in Oseera, one of our business owners performed a moving skit: “My name is Poverty. I do not move alone. I move with my brother, Famine. Where you find one, you will find the other. We can be eliminated in the society. Which society? The society which is ready to change like the society of Oseera which has joined with Village Enterprise. I, Poverty, and my brother, Famine, we are ready to change because the society of Oseera has acquired knowledge from Village Enterprise.” There are no words to describe the power of resilience witnessed in these villages and our business owners’ eagerness to create change within their communities.

soroti imageA view of Soroti Rock from a main street in town.Soroti

The view from atop Soroti Rock.headDespite its small size, Soroti is bustling during the The Village Enterprise office in Soroti, Uganda.

    November 5, 2015

    Through Heidi’s Lens: Together Everyone Achieves More

    Grass whips my legs as we speed down a narrow dirt path that leads to the village of Akisim, Uganda. Field Coordinator Maurice Eriaku slows his boda (motorcycle) as we approach a colossal mango tree, the unripe green fruit dangling from its branches. Seated within the perimeter of its shadow are over 90 Business Owners. Business Mentor Esther Apolot stands in the middle, cellphone in hand and a toppling stack of papers propped to her side.

    “It took me three days to collect all of the information,” Esther said, the frustration still fresh in her voice. Before disbursing the start-up grant, our team conducts a Small Business (SB) survey on every Business Owner that will participate in the Village Enterprise program. Business Mentors visit each household collecting both demographic and business selection information. Since the households in these rural villages are often vast distances apart, it can take Business Mentors several days to meet with all of the Business Owners.

    Business Mentors collect the survey responses on their cell phones using a data collection and analytical tool called TaroWorks. In many of the villages we operate in, cell phone reception is hard to come by. As a result, Business Mentors must wait until they have sufficient reception to upload their data to the system. And that is where things went wrong for Esther.

    After spending three full days conducting SB surveys in the field, Esther traveled to our office in Soroti to transfer her hard work. Despite her phone displaying a message saying “successful sync,” the data was nowhere to be found. After a thorough check of the database the team concluded, the surveys were gone.

    “It’s very frustrating because we lost days of work,” Maurice said. But, the SB surveys still needed to be collected in order to disburse funds to the group the next week. Esther and Maurice didn’t dwell on the loss, but instead jumped into action.

    I had the pleasure to witness their problem-solving firsthand. We arrived at 10AM, after an hour of bouncing on dusty roads. The 90 Business Owners that gathered under the mango tree had been rallied by Esther to meet in one place in order to efficiently complete all of the SB surveys in the least amount of time. Esther and Maurice took their seats at the opposite sides of the group and got to work.

    As each name got called one by one to complete the SB survey, the rest of the group sat patiently. Some kept busy by shelling groundnuts (peanuts), while others sewed clothing for their children. Around midday large portions of the group broke into their Business Savings Groups where they met to collect weekly contributions.

    Neither Esther nor Maurice ever stood up until their piles of surveys had diminished and the skies darkened with the threat of rain at around 4:30PM. Only a few Business Owners remained and a group of teenagers had gathered near the base of the tree to grind the groundnuts into a paste. We looked at the sky and realized that we needed to wrap-up and leave immediately so that we wouldn’t get stuck on the muddy back roads.

    Due to the complexity of the data collection methods we employ and the immense distances we travel to the field, problems are bound to happen. Flat tires, rain storms, miscommunications, it is all part of the work. What continues to inspire me day after day is the tireless effort and incredible teamwork that exists within the Village Enterprise family. As Maurice had contributed earlier in the week, “Team. Together everyone achieves more.”


    Over 90 Business Owners gathered under this mango tree in Akisim, Uganda.


    Field Coordinator Maurice Eriaku works with a Business Owner to complete the Small Business Survey.


    The Small Business Survey is conducted on a cell phone, using a program called TaroWorks.


    Portions of the group broke into their Business Savings Groups where they collected weekly contributions.

    IMG_5150 Business Mentor Esther Apolot after the successful completion of 90 SB Surveys.



      October 22, 2015

      Through Heidi’s Lens: View from the Top: A Chief’s Perspective on Village-Level Impact

      The Kenya national flag stood to his right, and a picture of President Uhuru Kenyatta hung from the iron sheet walls on his left. Chief Augustine Kiprono leaned forward in his chair, hands folded on the desk. I have visited many villages, collecting stories from our business owners, but this was my first encounter with a government official. Despite my initial intimidation, the Chief welcomed me to his office and provided a unique testimony on the impact of Village Enterprise at the village-level.

      Chief Kiprono has been in office for over 20 years in the rural village of Soy. Located in western Kenya, Soy is marked for both its remarkable beauty, stretching agriculture fields are broken up by a stunning river with rolling hills in the backdrop, but also for the high rates of poverty. As the Chief of Soy, Kiprono is responsible for providing administrative services to his community, mediating disputes, regulating security, and representing Soy’s people in larger political institutions. His office is located in the heart of the village, next to the secondary school, making him accessible to all of his constituents. The first thing that caught my eye upon entering his office was a large suggestion box hanging from two rusted nails in the entrance to his office.

      Chief Kiprono is no stranger to Village Enterprise. He first learned about our program in early 2011, when former Operations Executive, Konstantin Zvereff, met with him to recruit local leaders to work as Business Mentors. When entering a new village, our team works closely with government officials, village elders, and any other community leaders to develop supportive relationships and to ensure community buy-in.

      A few months later, Village Enterprise officially launched its first program in Soy, working with over 30 community members to start sustainable businesses. It has been almost five years since entering Soy, and according to Chief Kiprono, the village changes are visible.

      But before detailing the positive impact, Chief Kiprono painted a picture of Soy before Village Enterprise. “In this area people were very, very poor.” He continues, “These people could not send their kids to school.” Left with severely limited options for making an income, the community turned to illicit brews in order to make ends meet.

      When asked “what has the impact of Village Enterprise been on Soy?”, he let out a bellowing laugh and said, “Of course we have benefited. Many lives have been changed.” He listed, “Children have gone back to school, mothers can provide another meal for their family, security has improved.” He explained how the reliance upon illicit brews has decreased and individuals are instead opening businesses, “farming vegetables, rearing goats, and even opening shops.”

      What really stood out to me was the Chief’s emphasis on the Village Enterprise training program. “Even the training alone is so important,” he said affirmatively. He explained that even when Village Enterprise no longer provides financial assistance, business owners have the knowledge to continue running their businesses or embarking on new ventures.

      As Chief Kiprono hopped on the back of Business Mentor Nelson Kemboi’s piki-piki (motorcycle), and gave a final wave, I reflected on how different this conversation seemed from the countless others I’ve had with business owners. While I consistently hear inspiring stories of how individual lives have improved, Chief Kiprono gave me an outside perspective on how Village Enterprise has impacted Soy at the village-level. His words reminded me of the bigger picture and of how Village Enterprise is an active player in the fight to end extreme poverty.

      Soy 1Chief Augustine Kiprono sits at his desk in Soy, Kenya.Soy 2A beautiful river cuts through Soy. However, poverty rates remain high in this village.Soy 3A view of Soy from one of the hills that rises on the periphery of the village.

        October 16, 2015

        Most Significant Change: Catherine Mkangula

        Catherine laughs heartily as she struggles to keep her three sheep from devouring the tempting pile of maize that is drying outside her compound.

        Catherine Mkangula is a 49 year old mother of four. She lives in the rural village of Chukura, Kenya.

        Before Village Enterprise, Catherine did not own any sheep. “Life was so bad,” Catherine says as she slaps her hands against her chair. “The house was so dirty and I could only afford two meals for my family.” To make ends meet, she often went to her neighbors’ homes to beg for quick cash jobs.

        After completing the Village Enterprise training program and receiving the start-up grant, Catherine and her two business partners started a dual business of both rearing sheep and selling chips (French fries).

        Over a year later, Catherine continues to work ckalosely with her business partners. Their livestock business has grown from just one sheep to three. They have even expanded their business to include selling silver fish at the local market.

        On her own, Catherine runs a poultry business, raising chickens until she can sell them at the market at a higher price. In the middle of a sentence she abruptly walked out of the house and returned with a proud smile, holding a few of the eggs that her chicken had laid and which she would be selling at the market later that day.

        When asked how Village Enterprise has impacted her life she points to Felix, her business mentor, and exclaims “You know! You remember what this room looked like before, and how smart [nice] it looks now.” Felix nods his head and tells me how the very wooden chairs we are sitting in are a new addition to her living room.

        With the profits from her business, Catherine can not only afford to feed her family three meals a day, but she also pointed out that they are eating a more balanced diet. Previously, her family used to consume ugali and local greens for every meal. Now, she is able to diversify their meals and can even afford meat. She shared, “chapati used to be a Christmas treat and now we can eat it weekly!”

        Catherine also testified to how she has personally changed after starting her business. She refrained from having Felix translate and instead spoke in English, “I am free.” She then continued in Kalenjin (a local language) and Felix explained “she says that she doesn’t fear anymore.”

        The most significant change of all? Catherine emphasized how the relationships within her community have changed for the better. Over 30 members of her community that used to rely upon casual labor now own their own businesses. “Now when I go to my neighbors’ homes, they know I am visiting for friendship and not to beg.”

        Catherine’s words shed light on the fact that the Village Enterprise program holds the potential to not only change the lives of individuals, but also the dynamics of entire communities.


        Catherine Mkangula in her home in Chukura, Kenya.IMG_4003

        Catherine’s sheep are more interested in the maize drying outside her home than taking a picture with her.


        Catherine shows off the fresh eggs produced by her kuku (chicken).

          September 30, 2015

          Through Heidi’s Lens: Changing Communities through Business and Savings

          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.

          BSG 1

          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.



            September 25, 2015

            Most Significant Change: Matilda Aanyo

            Matilda Aanyo shares with us her story about becoming the breadwinner of the family, through goat and sheep rearing and also selling silverfish. Field Interns Sarah Ackerley and Anna deSocio interviewed Matilda at her home in Maaga Village in the Amuria district of Uganda.

            Matilda—wife, mother, grandmother—and now also a business owner. She recently sat outside of her mud house in Maaga village, and shared her story about how her life has changed since participating in training through Village Enterprise. Before, Matilda performed casual labor for 5,000 Ugandan shillings a day (about $1.50). She was unable to access loans to start a business on her own due to high interest rates. Matilda’s husband is old and sick, and when she used to ask him for money, they would quarrel because he never had any to give her. School fees for their children caused a lot of financial stress in the home.

            Matilda is now the breadwinner of the family. They have five children: three are grown and two are school aged. There are four grandchildren that Matilda helps care for as well. Matilda feels very proud that one of her daughters is now able to attend teacher training in order to become a nursery school teacher, and her son is now able to attend a secondary boarding school.

            Matilda’s group started a sheep and goat rearing business, and they used the first Village Enterprise grant to buy three sheep. They now have a total of 12 sheep and goats. Matilda also started her own business selling silverfish that she buys from the market and resells in her community. She said she eats some of the fish as well, and her diet now includes more diverse foods. Her favorite thing to eat is meat soup. When asked how often she gets to eat her favorite meal, she laughed and said she wished she could eat meat every day, but “you don’t eat your own cow’s leg”. She is cautious with the meager capital that she has saved from her two businesses.


            Life is still very challenging for Matilda. She has to work hard to sustain her businesses, and during a tight season last year she had to sell one of the goats to pay for her son’s school fees. Shortly after the program ended, Matilda bought herself a mattress. She said that she had been sleeping on a mat of reeds on the ground since childhood, so she dreamed of getting a mattress when she had the money. When her son went to boarding school last year, he was required to bring a mattress, so Matilda sacrificed hers for him. “The focus is on education right now”, she said. “Another mattress will come later.”

            Matilda shared that being a business owner makes her feel like somebody. She laughed and said she feels others in the village looking at her tying up her livestock, and she thinks they must be saying to themselves, “I wish I was like that old woman and had joined the program!”

              September 23, 2015

              Through Heidi’s Lens: Vocational Skills Training

              “I wanted to learn soap making for a very, very long time,” Dorothy Luyai said as she poured the vibrant liquid into an empty water bottle. Many of our business owners have a strong desire to open a specific type of business, but lack the necessary skills to get started. This year, our team is piloting vocational skills trainings to improve business choices for people living in extreme poverty who do not own land. And from what I have witnessed, these trainings hold the power to open doors for many.

              Within Trans-Nzoia County, where I currently work in Kenya, land has been sub-divided to the point that many families are left with only 0.02 acres of land to subsist on, while others are completely landless. The majority of this population is composed of youth, ages 18-25. Left without the ability to participate in the standard micro-enterprise choices in farming, many of these individuals gravitate towards livestock businesses. While a livestock business can be a good investment and helpful as a non-cash savings plan, it is not always a significant income generator. As a result, this population struggles to earn a sustainable income that will lift them out of poverty.

              The emerging hypothesis from local leaders and Village Enterprise field staff is that expanded business selection options as well as adjustments to program design are required to meet the needs of those in the community who lack land assets, particularly young adults. One solution presented by field staff at the most recent Innovation Summit, a week-long conference to collaboratively design and develop new ideas and incremental innovations that improve our impact on people living in extreme poverty, was the inclusion of new vocational skills trainings. Skills training would provide our business owners with additional business options besides the traditional choices of agriculture, livestock, and retail, and potentially create a more stable form of income for our landless participants.

              Our team took the idea and ran with it. Today, we have roughly 40 businesses (totaling 120 business owners) that are participating in our pilot of vocational skills training in the Saiwa Swamp area of Kenya. The business mentors in this region, Peninah Mulama and Gilbert Chepkwony, conducted extensive research, including interviewing business owners and analyzing business profitability in local markets, to identify new opportunities that would be the most viable in this specific region. They then selected local entrepreneurs with specific skills to lead trainings such as soap making, baking, and creating animal seed. Through these trainings, business owners obtained new skills that allowed them to launch businesses that are deemed profitable in Saiwa.

              “I always say that they make one chapati and then photocopy the rest,” business mentor Gilbert laughs as he points at the Digital Hotel sign. Business owner Esther justifies “we are all youths and youth live in a digital age.” Esther is one of three young business owners, along with Milicent and Leah, whom run the Digital Hotel (restaurant) in a rural village in Sitatunga, Kenya. Their menu is extensive, including local favorites: chapati, ugali (maize porridge), mandazi (donuts), githeri (boiled maize and beans), and maharagwe (local beans). Since both Esther and Leah attend school part-time, using their grant funds to start a restaurant seemed ideal. They could then work early in the morning to prepare the kitchen and then switch-off shifts serving guests. When asked about the impact of the training, Milicent shared, “the training was very helpful because we did not know how to bake. Now we can cook mandazi!”

              I strolled next door to David’s barber shop and caught a glimpse of him in action, hair clippers gliding across his customer’s head. David is a young man of very few words, but he left a major impact on me. You see, barber training was not one of the trainings offered by Village Enterprise. He not only attended the soap-making and baking trainings, but also visited a barber shop in another town to gain the skills necessary to open his own business. David is using the profits from his barber business to run a side kuku (chicken) business, which provides additional income to assist his family. It was clear that David was proud of his new skills and committed to his shop’s growth. When asked what he hopes for the future, he shared “I want to modernize and one day purchase a bigger mirror and swivel chair.”

              Despite the evident impact business skills training is having on business owners, there are also unique challenges facing us in this pilot program, particularly related to the high number of youth participants. Due to stigmas against microfinance and unwarranted fears that Village Enterprise provides loans (that need to be paid back) instead of grants, initial attendance rates were low. Gilbert also pointed out that “it can be hard working with youth because they are not static. They are always on the move. In fact, five migrated because they were promised jobs elsewhere.” When women participants get married, they often move to the town where their husbands reside. Gilbert laughed and added “youth are more cunning. They tell you everything you want to hear even if they may not have completed the work.”

              But from my perspective, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. In fact, our team is already brainstorming how we can incorporate elements of this pilot in other areas of our operation. Two of our business mentors, Eunice Kiombe and Imelda Midzukani, are expert soap-makers, so we filmed a soap-making training to share with business owners in both Kenya and Uganda. If data reflects that vocational skills training does have the positive impact we project, our team hopes to leverage the skills of our staff and external experts to train all business owners. It’s still early in the pilot, so I won’t jump to conclusions but I can say that it has been incredibly refreshing to see youth business owners creating innovative businesses.

              Business owners like Dorothy remind us of the payoff of constantly bringing new ideas to life through our pilots. Dorothy has an impressively profitable soap-making business. There is a high demand for soap—for washing clothes, utensils, bathing, and handwashing. And the soap Dorothy learned to make at a Village Enterprise training is cheaper to produce than competitors sold in the stores. Not only are neighbors now purchasing their soap from Dorothy, but they also collecting bottles collected at community events for her to reuse. In the next year, Dorothy hopes to be the main provider of soap for the schools in her area. With the profits she has been reaping, Dorothy has been able to diversify the food her family eats and pay for her children’s school fees. Best of all, Gilbert translated, “she is empowered economically.” Dorothy finishes pouring the soap and says, “I am smart.” Dorothy has always been smart but now she can use her smarts towards running a successful and sustainable business.

              IMG_1856Business owner, Dorothy Luyai, pours liquid soap she made at her home in Sitatunga, Kenya.

              digital hotel 2Esther Nekesa and Milicent Kavosa stand in front of their restaurant called “Digital Hotel.”

              IMG_1840David Alima in action at his barber shop.


                September 16, 2015

                Bain Weighs in: Devising a Plan to Lift More Africans Out of Poverty

                Village Enterprise is the grateful recipient of three months of pro bono consulting from Bain and Company on our new strategic direction. Here’s a snapshot from Bain’s perspective.

                By Kristy Friedrichs and Aleksandra Peters

                When Village Enterprise, a pioneer in fighting extreme poverty in Africa reached a turning point, it partnered with members of our Bay Area social impact team to chart the organization’s future. We worked with them for three months this year and our members included, Chris Douglas, Aditi Chokshi and Aleks Peters. We collaborated with officials from Village Enterprise on a strategic plan to expand the organization’s impact, with additional support from Jim Dixon and Kristy Friedrichs.

                A little background on Village Enterprise. The organization has won international acclaim as an early leader in the microfinance sector, an approach that allows people to permanently graduate out of poverty.  Over the past 30 years, it has honed a unique model that provides destitute individuals with the resources to create a sustainable business in some of Kenya and Uganda’s poorest and most remote villages. It helps break the cycle of poverty by giving recipients a start-up grant of $150, a full year of business training, a dedicated mentor and support from a community business savings group.

                The organization rigorously tracks outcomes demonstrating a remarkably high success rate: it currently seeds about 3000 new businesses annually with 75% of them in operation after 4 years; each business impacts an average of 20 people; their food consumption more than doubles and participants’ standard of living increases by an impressive 35 percent.

                However, Village Enterprise had reached an inflection point. It wanted to develop a strategic plan for accelerating growth and boosting branding, with an ambitious long-term goal of lifting millions of East Africans out of extreme poverty. It turned to Bain’s Social Impact team to help create its roadmap.

                The plan needed to lay the foundation for future growth and also allow Village Enterprise to quickly capitalize on a major achievement: securing a respected third party Randomized Control Trial (RCT) assessment, the gold standard for evaluating a social program’s impact. Once the results are published (initial results in early 2016 and final results in 2017), it will have a short window to publicize the findings and build on them.  It comes at time of increasing opportunities and competition as governments, funders, implementers and advisors all partner to launch broader graduation-based programs.

                The expansion plan also had to preserve the organization’s vibrant culture and continue empowering its passionate, driven staff by promoting from within.  Unlike many NGOs, Village Enterprise draws on talent from local communities to run operations in Kenya and Uganda. Its commitment to training local leaders was highlighted in the spring 2013 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Some of you may have met Winnie Auma, Ugandan country director who shared her success story over a Brown Bag Lunch in the San Francisco office.  Auma, a shining example of Village Enterprise’s impact on individuals, started as a business mentor in 2011 and advanced through the ranks, assuming a leadership role in the organization’s Ugandan operation.

                We collaborated with the full Village team in Kenya & Uganda via phone and with officials at the organization’s San Carlos headquarters, helping to devise a strategy that allows Village Enterprise to expand its role from primarily an implementer to also serving as a technical advisor. The growth plan calls for retaining its direct service operations while ramping up its advisory capabilities, and achieving greater impact by working with a large partner. We helped lay the groundwork for this shift in several areas.

                To boost funding, we helped craft a pitch and profiled the landscape.  We worked with Village Enterprise on a financial model and projected out funding needs. To build the brand, we targeted several PR opportunities as well as key players to meet. We also identified key potential partners and assessed the environment for “graduation” programs. In addition, we pinpointed critical roles that would strengthen the organization.

                Based on our projection, this strategic plan will enable Village Enterprise to quadruple its impact over the next 5 years and maintain both high quality and high support for its low-income business owners while retaining a culture that energizes the organization.

                This was a tremendously gratifying experience for our team as well as a larger group of Bainies who have been involved with Village Enterprise. We are thrilled to have had the chance to work with the organization’s leaders and to call them friends.

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                From left: Caroline Bernadi, Aleks Peters, Winnie Auma, Aditi Chokshi, and Chris Douglas

                Aleks Peters:

                “I have been looking to join a non-profit board for a while, and searching for the right fit.  After supporting Village Enterprise’s strategic plan development it became clear that I found that fit – with great culture, strong leadership and, most importantly, a compelling mission with extraordinary execution.  I was very fortunate that the feeling was mutual and at the end of our assignment I was asked to join their board of directors.  As Village Enterprise enters the next stage of growth, I’m thrilled about the opportunity to stay actively involved with the organization and am looking forward to making my own contribution to further their success.”

                Aditi Chokshi:

                “There were several memorable aspects of our engagement with Village Enterprise. Personally, I was moved by the reminder that the right intention, it’s possible to overcome limitations of both time and distance and to forge deep relationships. The organization came to life for us through conversations with leadership in both East Africa and the U.S. The camaraderie was special, distinctive for consulting engagements and among other high performance social organizations. Professionally, each day was full of purpose because we were given the chance to work on one of the most promising antipoverty interventions and one that reaches those for whom poverty is still a matter of life or death. In some ways, graduation programs aren’t rocket science. The components involve require simple, humble work of full accompaniment, including the clarity to provide a grant not a loan. Village has been doing this for nearly three decades. Now, given the approach has been lauded as a potential scale-play given its impact on the extreme poor, the timing is ripe for Village Enterprise to share its expertise with others. Our work uncovered that one area where Village Enterprise outperforms is in the quality of its business mentor program. From recruiting to training to in-hand tools to a culture where mentors are brimming with feedback, VE’s approach has much to teach others. Unlike, other interventions that have received a push for scale up (deworming, for example), graduation will always involve a strong human element. As there are large cadres of community health workers and agricultural extension workers, I believe there could be large cadres of business mentors doing the underappreciated but critical work of reaching the poor where they are. Part of my enduring eagerness to follow Village Enterprise is in knowing the organization can play a big role in making that scale vision a reality.”

                Chris Douglas:

                “Working with Village Enterprise was by far the most rewarding experience of my professional life. It’s a rare thing to come to work each day knowing you can meaningfully impact the lives of those most in need, and I am lucky to have had that opportunity working alongside Village Enterprise. A sincere thank-you to the entire Village Enterprise team for all that you do, and for the opportunity to be a part of your good work!”

                  September 16, 2015

                  Through Heidi’s Lens: Mary Nabwera

                  After receiving a tour of her kuku (chicken) and sungura (rabbit) coops, Mary Nabwera and I sit under the shade of her red-clay compound in Sabwani Village, Kenya. I ask, “What has helped more in your life: the grant or the training program?” Her eyebrows rise as she declares “the training,” as if the answer is obvious.

                  It was certainly not the first time I had heard the response. In fact, business owners and field staff are incredibly vocal about the vital importance of the Village Enterprise training program. The training serves a direct purpose of providing our business owners with the concrete skills to create sustainable businesses. But what I have found to be the more profound impact of our training program is less easily measured: self-confidence and a changed outlook on life.

                  You can catch a glimpse of this as a business owner proudly shows off their business during spot checks. It is perceived in the assertive tone of voice when they speak of challenges that their businesses have faced. It is evident when they speak of their ambitions for the future- whether that is expanding their business, returning to school, or embarking on a new entrepreneurial venture.

                  I was immediately drawn to Mary. She had a million dollar smile that made me feel like I had known her for years and she shared intimate details of her life despite just meeting me. After her husband passed away, Mary was forced to work long hours on a neighboring farm to support her children. She was targeted to participate in the Village Enterprise program and only a year later has a sustainable income that allows her to send all four of her children to school. She shared, “I now know that business can help you get out of poverty.”

                  My view is not anything new. Nicholas Kristof describes the essential role hope plays in lifting people out of poverty in his piece, “The Power of Hope Is Real.” People living in extreme poverty often lack opportunities to improve their conditions, resulting in a state of hopelessness that can be self-fulfilling. Yet, Kristof points out that “Give people a reason to hope that they can achieve a better life, and that, too, can be self-fulfilling.”

                  There is even early data to support this theory. Graduation programs provide participants with both a cash asset, generally livestock, as well as financial and business training to build skills and increase confidence. Participants in graduation programs not only exhibited increases in savings and overall livelihoods, but also improvements in mental health. Additional studies are currently being developed to examine if raising spirits holds the potential to boost economic outcomes.

                  I leaned back in my wooden chair and left Mary with the notoriously open-ended question, “do you have anything else you want to add?” I started to close my notebook when the she pronounced, “I used to be a beggar.” She continued, “I now understand how to save, keep records, and look for seasonal business. I one day will be a big woman who owns my own farm!” It was the way that Mary said this final sentence that resonated with me. She clearly believes in herself and her own abilities to create a better tomorrow.


                  Mary shows off the record book that she keeps for her kuku (chicken) and sungura (rabbit) business.


                  Interviewing Mary Nabwera in Sabwani, Kenya.

                    September 9, 2015

                    Through Heidi’s Lens: Training Program

                    As I strolled up to the basic savings training in Sabwani Village, Kenya, I marveled at the impressive turnout. After counting the number of individuals assembled under the shade of a tree, I realized the number far exceeded the standard 30 members in a business savings group. Nancy Muaka, the business mentor in this village, shared that people who have not been targeted to receive a grant by Village Enterprise often come to listen in with the hopes of expanding their business skills. Prior to moving to East Africa, I had learned about the importance of the training program to the Village Enterprise model in the U.S. office. After spending time in the field, I have been amazed by the immense development of the training program over the years, as well as all of the work that is currently being invested into improving the program.

                    Village Enterprise did not always have a training component in its model. Initially, business owners received only grants to start their businesses. In 2006, the Field Team incorporated a training element in order to help business owners manage grant funds, create profitable businesses, and develop skills that would empower them even when the program ends.

                    Almost 10 years later, training programs around the world have been brought to the forefront of the discussion on how to eliminate poverty. A recent study by Innovations for Poverty Action contains early data suggesting that a method deemed the graduation model (for its potential to “graduate” households out of poverty) improves health, savings, and overall livelihoods of its program participants. The graduation model aims to tackle poverty by providing support through multiple channels, including a component that focuses on training. This study reinforces the investment our team has made in building our training program over the last decade.

                    Today, our business owners spend one year following a comprehensive curriculum that builds critical skills in business planning, profit analysis, marketing, basic savings, and record keeping. These trainings are led by business mentors, local staff hired by Village Enterprise, and occur within a business savings group. Lydia Nefula, a young business owner who runs a kuku business in Mugeiyot Village, Kenya, offered her opinion on the most beneficial module, “The record book keeping was the most important. I have been able to track my purchases and the profits of my business, which is helping me to save more.”

                    “What I can say is that business training is much more important than even a grant because it is a resource that will last for so long,” says Kenya business mentor, Nelson Kemboi. And it isn’t just field staff that sing the praises of the training program. It is business owners, themselves. Annette, Irine, and Matrine had their eyes set on starting a livestock business together. After undergoing a SMART (Smarter Market Analysis Risk Tool) training, the three business owners decided to switch to an agriculture business. Irine explained “In the training we learned about risk, profitability, and seasonality of the crops we wanted to plant so we chose to change. We also learned agriculture best practices.” The three women now haul water from the Sabwani River daily to their thriving tomato, onion, and local vegetable crops.

                    The training program is not without its challenges. When funerals or weddings occur within a village, training attendance drops. Since Village Enterprise works with people living in extreme poverty, participants may struggle to pay attention when they haven’t eaten a proper meal or are sick and lack the funds to receive medical attention. Illiteracy rates are high, so written materials are not impactful. Field Coordinator, Calistus Luchetu, also pointed out that “There are language barriers. Since business mentors are generally trained in English and Kiswahili, it can be difficult to translate into a local language.”

                    In order to address these challenges, the training program is constantly refined based on feedback collected in the field. In 2011, Village Enterprise added key financial education topics to our training, including savings, loans, and banking basics for people living in extreme poverty. The basic savings training that I observed in Sabwani is a prime example of this program addition. Nancy pinned visuals to the exterior of a wooden door while business owners greeted one another and took their seats in a patch of grass surrounded by maize fields. Nancy engaged the group in a thorough discussion that expanded beyond simply defining the topic of basic savings. Instead she integrated the topic into the business owners’ lives by emphasizing the importance of savings to respond to family emergencies, provide capital to expand business, and to invest in education and health. Since people living in extreme poverty often lack access to financial institutions, these trainings provide vital information that help our business owners save, lend, and establish a sustainable income.

                    This year our team has been hard at work evaluating the training program, identifying areas for improvement and setting the stage to roll out fresh features. Before launching a new program cycle each fiscal year, the training manual is updated with new modules that have been piloted and approved by the entire field team. These pilots start with an idea that can come through various channels, such as conversations with business owners, challenges brought up by business mentors, or industry wide best practices. After developing a framework for the new module, these ideas are tested with a small subset of business owners to discover if the desired outcome is produced. After testing on each subset, our team consistently incorporates feedback from the field to revise the module and expands it to a larger set of business owners. This year, we are piloting two training modules across the entire program: Family Support and Leadership. If these two modules are determined to have the intended impact across all sub-cultures of our operation, they will be officially incorporated into the manual for the next fiscal year.

                    This poses the question: how does an organization prove the impact of its program? Both business owners and field staff consistently voice the importance of the training program. Yet, to verify the effect of the training program on households living in extreme poverty, data is necessary. Using a similar method that provided early results on the graduation model, Village Enterprise is participating in a randomized control trial (RCT) of its own. The study is being independently conducted by Innovations for Poverty Action and will not only focus on the impact of training, but will also shed light on the value of other unique components of the Village Enterprise model, such as the business savings group and targeting process. The results of the RCT will be essential to understanding the factors that influence success and failure of the Village Enterprise approach.

                    “Knowledge is power.” Yes, it’s an overused quote attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, but I also find it incredibly applicable to the training provided by Village Enterprise. Grant funds are essential to helping our business owners launch their businesses, but at the end of the day, it is the knowledge acquired during training that holds the potential to truly empower our participants to lift themselves out of poverty.


                    Business mentor, Nancy Muaka, leads a training on business savings in Sabwani, Kenya.


                    Nancy pinned educational materials about basic savings to the exterior of a red-clay compound.


                    Irine hydrates her tomato crops with water she collected from the Sabwani River.

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