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.

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

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!”

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