Alleviating Child Malnutrition, One Business at a Time

Miriamu sits in the shade of her home watching a sky that’s supposed to be filled with rain, and holds her infant grandson. Earlier that day she was denied porridge and milk from a local shop because they weren’t certain she’d be able to pay them back. So while her daughter is away at school, Miriamu’s only option is to give the baby water throughout the day until her daughter returns and can breastfeed him.

As the wind sweeps its way across the drylands of northern Kenya, there’s a momentary reprieve from the oppressive heat, but quickly it returns and brings with it the reality of the ongoing drought. While dry seasons come and go for communities in East Africa, this time it’s different. Climate change has escalated the situation into the worst drought in four decades, bringing devastating effects to the entire region. A lack of seasonal rainfall—year after year—means significant crop failure, the death of livestock, and the depletion of all household reserves.

Without crops and livestock, many families in the region are no longer able to earn a sufficient income, which has exacerbated conflict as communities fight over the dwindling resources. To complicate matters, northern Kenya has long been vulnerable to food insecurity and rising inflation continues to make the situation dire. As a result of all of these external challenges, more and more children—like Miriamu’s grandson—are becoming acutely malnourished. 

Entrepreneurs from Loruko Oibor Village in Marsabit County meet to form business groups

To combat acute child malnutrition in northern Kenya, Village Enterprise has partnered with Catholic Relief Services, the Isiolo and Marsabit county governments, and other local partners and agencies to implement USAID Nawiri (Nawiri is a Swahili word meaning to thrive). Funded by USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, USAID Nawiri launched in 2019 and is a resilience food security activity in Isiolo, Marsabit, Samburu, and Turkana counties. The primary goal of the project is to sustainably reduce the persistent rates of acute child malnutrition in these counties by increasing the consumption of—and access to—safe foods which meet daily nutrient requirements. It also aims to address some of the underlying, systemic issues which have led to the high rates of acute child malnutrition in the first place, such as food and market systems, health and nutrition systems, limited livelihood diversification, and challenging gender and social norms.

To achieve these objectives, Village Enterprise has taken our poverty graduation model and layered it with education on health, nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene. Additionally, on top of receiving business training, mentorship, access to savings groups, and grants to launch sustainable businesses, USAID Nawiri participants also receive cash transfers to purchase nutrient-dense food, medical care, and household items. These transfers enable participants to meet their immediate needs without having to interfere with the cash flow of their newly established businesses.

Entrepreneurs in our poverty graduation program meet weekly for business and financial literacy education

After seeing positive results in the early stages of implementation, USAID committed to significantly scaling up the program earlier this year. With 129 current Village Enterprise staff, 53 part-time enumerators, and an increased goal to reach 14,310 households, this intervention will impact the lives of 85,860 women, children, and men by September 30, 2023—making it one of Village Enterprise’s largest projects to date.

“USAID Kenya sees the adapted poverty graduation approach as an anchor activity for USAID Nawiri,” comments Emily Mkungo, Project Management Specialist for USAID Kenya. “Through the graduation model we are targeting the ultra poor and households with malnourished individuals, and moving them up the ladder to self-reliance. And within the same model layering interventions in health, behavior change, water, sanitation, and hygiene among others aimed at reducing persistent acute malnutrition around the same community. I look forward to the impact this model will have on the planned target of 85,860 people in the coming two years.”

Most notably, 1,949 out of the 2,051 entrepreneurs (95%) who began our program this fiscal year are women, such as Miriamu. Prior to joining USAID Nawiri, Miriamu’s husband was killed by bandits, leaving her the sole caregiver for her seven children. One by one, she began selling her livestock to provide for her family as she had no other means for generating income. Soon there were no animals left to sell and the family struggled to meet their daily needs—often skipping meals and foregoing necessary medical care because they simply could not afford it.

Entrepreneurs from Nana Village in Marsabit County

This all changed when she joined USAID Nawiri. Through training and mentorship from Village Enterprise, Miriamu not only learned how to start and operate a business, but how to ensure it remains sustainable and resilient despite the environmental or economic challenges she may face. While she was getting her retail business off the ground, the cash transfers provided her family with the necessary means to purchase nutrient-dense food and medical care, especially for her grandson whose health required immediate attention at the start of the program.

And as her business grew, so did her confidence. “Nawiri has given me and other women dignity,” Miriamu says. “Even women can support and provide for their families if economically empowered.” And that’s exactly what she did. Because of her determination and dedication to change the future for her family, she has been able to use the profits from her business to pay for school fees, cover additional medical expenses when her children get sick, purchase clothes, and build food reserves for her family—all of which were impossible beforehand.


A business savings group in Maikona celebrates several members reaching their targeted saving goals to purchase household items

For Miriamu and thousands of other families like hers, USAID Nawiri exists as an alternative to traditional humanitarian relief—instead of only responding to acute child malnutrition through emergency aid, Village Enterprise and Catholic Relief Services are equipping communities with the means to build sustainable livelihoods full of dignity and hope. As Miriamu reflects on her journey with USAID Nawiri, she remarks how meaningful this experience has been. “My family’s future is secure,” she says. Not only is Miriamu’s business generating consistent income, but her grandson has been medically cleared as healthy, no longer considered malnourished or requiring special treatment.

Miriamu has also joined a local business savings group, meeting weekly with other entrepreneurs and putting away money for emergencies or specific business purposes. By working hard over three months to meet her targets, Miriamu saved enough money to buy a goat—the first animal she’s owned since having to sell all of her late husband’s livestock. This goat will serve as a way to expand into a new business market and diversify her income, but most importantly it’s a significant milestone and source of pride for her. She has lovingly named her goat Nawiri.

Miriamu with the latest addition to her family, Nawiri

All featured photos were taken by Village Enterprise business mentors.

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