Getting to Know Heidi Graves, Development Fellow

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

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

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

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

Why Village Enterprise?

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

Why is extreme poverty a cause that you care about?

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

What excites you most about this opportunity?

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

What challenges do you expect to face?

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

What do you hope to accomplish in your fellowship year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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