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.


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.

        Processed with VSCOcam with g2 preset

        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.

              September 2, 2015

              Through Heidi’s Lens: Kitale, Kenya

              Sitting on the office back-deck, looking at the lush green yard, birds chirping in the distant acacia trees, I can’t help but think to myself, I love this place. While the majority of my posts will focus on the Village Enterprise program, I feel that it is necessary to shine light on one of our East African offices and the place that I have come to call home: Kitale, Kenya.

              Kitale is an agricultural town that has been deemed “the cereal basket of Kenya” for its large production of maize, wheat, and dairy products. I, for one, cannot oppose this title. In fact, my slogan for Kitale has become “maize for days” because you simply cannot walk anywhere in Kitale without passing vast maize fields.

              In contrast to the boundless agricultural fields that compose the majority of Kitale, the market center is bustling and booming. Vendors travel from throughout Trans-Nzoia County in this Western part of Kenya to sell their produce, creating a vibrant local market culture. Stall after stall are lined with bananas, onions, avocados, maize, beans, and other seasonal fruits and vegetables.

              While wandering through the aisles of the local market is a favorite pastime of mine, others prefer a larger market of sorts: the supermarket. Kitale is rapidly developing which is evident by the three large supermarkets that have sprung up in the last two years. These supermarkets mirror all of the popular chains in the United States and even have one of my favorite treats, Nutella. Supermarkets aren’t the only sign of impending growth. Apartment buildings are under construction left and right, major bank chains have moved into town, and second-floor, open-air restaurants overlook the crowded streets of Kitale. There is even a luxury hotel, complete with a swimming pool, that our Director of Strategic Partners and Innovation, Ellen Metzger, has cleverly coined “Disneyland.” Rumors have it that with the development of the East African Railway line from Mombasa, Kenya to Bujumbura, Burundi, Kitale is projected to become one of the next major cities in Kenya.

              The Village Enterprise office is located on a 24-acre farm which is a 40-minute walk (or a 10-minute piki-piki ride) outside of town. The farm is owned by Mrs. Lebo, the widow of General Lebo, who served in the army during President Moi’s reign. She now manages the operations for multiple farms throughout Kitale and is recognized as a respected businesswoman around town. Cows, chickens, goats, and a pair of crested cranes wander through the farm pastures and keep the office lively with their clamor. The office yard has beautifully groomed lawns and an assortment of elegant plants, all a different vibrant shade of green. The lawn does not go without use. Every other week, all of our Kenya business mentors attend trainings that take place in a tent on the preened lawn. At lunch we lounge under the shade of the trees, eating the amazing ugali (maize porridge) and local vegetables prepared by our lovely cook, Beatrice Mahiva.

              All of the Kenya staff live in close proximity to the office. When I take my evening strolls around the neighborhood, I almost always bump into one of my coworkers who invite me to his or her home to meet family members and enjoy a cup of tea. On weekends, I’ll catch sight of another coworker purchasing milk from Mrs. Lebo across the yard. In this way relationships transcend the walls of the office. In the U.S. my work relationships often felt formal but I find it refreshing how my coworkers are more like family here.

              Kitale is absolutely stunning, but there is a reason why Village Enterprise operates here. Trans-Nzoia County has an overall poverty rate of 60% with pockets reaching as high as 90%. In many of the poorest areas, plot sizes have been sub-divided to the point that families are left with only 0.02 acres of land to subsist on, resulting in extreme population density and high poverty rates. Many of these small-scale farmers and those that have been left landless struggle to obtain a sustainable income and are trapped in a cycle of poverty. It is the goal of Village Enterprise to not only provide these individuals with the resources to create sustainable businesses, but also to empower them to create a better life for themselves and their families.

              Kitale is physically gorgeous, but what I have realized is that it is the people of Kitale that make this town so special. Business owners have repeatedly shown me their hospitality by offering food and beverages during my visits. Others offer their time by acting as my personal guide when I conduct interviews in a new village. I often find business owners shaking my hand and expressing their gratitude for the Village Enterprise program, but at the end of the day, I wish that I could find the words to convey how thankful I am for having the chance to meet with them, listen to their stories, and to be reminded of the value of developing personal relationships.

              IMG_0034The Village Enterprise office in Kenya.

              IMG_0533The Village Enterprise office is located a 40-minute walk from the main town on a 24-acre farm.

              IMG_0554The main road leading into Kitale Town is constantly buzzing with traffic.

              IMG_1909The Kitale market contains aisles of vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables.IMG_1926Tuskys is one of the three main supermarkets located in Kitale Town.

                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.”


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


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


                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.


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


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


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


                  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.


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


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


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

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