Meet Nafees Ahmed, Princeton in Africa Fellow

HNafees Ahmedailing from Washington, D.C., Nafees Ahmed now joins the Village Enterprise team as a Princeton in Africa Fellow.  Nafees graduated from Georgetown University in 2012 with a degree in Government focusing on International Relations, a minor in French, and a certificate in Muslim-Christian Relations. She studied abroad in Turkey, Egypt, and France. While at Georgetown, she was a Manager at The Corp, the largest student-run business in the US, and hosted a radio show called Riot on the Radio. In the north of Pakistan, she interviewed micro-entrepreneurs for Sarhad Rural Support Program’s monitoring and evaluations team. She helped start-up Swat Relief Initiative, an NGO that helps victims of Taliban occupation of Swat, Pakistan. Upon graduation, Nafees worked as a Fellow at the United Nations Information Center. She then worked as a Senior Associate at Chemonics International, where she managed the last USAID project in Mongolia, which worked to increase the competitiveness of small and medium enterprises. Nafees joins the Village Enterprise team as our Princeton in Africa Fellow and will spend her fellowship year redesigning the conservation program, working with the M&E team, and developing linkages between the innovations team and the M&E team. She enjoys reading, planking, anything to do with John Oliver, and long walks on the farm.

After arriving in Kitale, Kenya just two weeks ago, Nafees took the time to answer some questions about the path that led her to Village Enterprise.

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

At Village Enterprise I will be working in three different capacities. Firstly, I’ll be working on the monitoring and evaluations team to assist in developing surveys and reports, to manage the enumerators, and in backend data management. I’ll also be working on the innovations team to analyze the conservation program and create a strategic vision for our conservation work moving forward. Finally I’ll be working to streamline linkages between the M&E and innovations teams.

Why Village Enterprise?

In my past experience in international development, I worked on several different projects and proposals from democratic reform to countering violent extremism. These experiences were interesting. I learned a lot from these experiences, but I soon realized how difficult it is to create sustainable impact in these fields as an international actor. I was then lucky enough to start working on economic development projects at Chemonics International. I managed a project in Mongolia that works to train small and medium enterprises and led value chain development research on agribusiness in Pakistan. These experiences led me to realize the importance of supporting businesses in developing communities. Creating businesses empowers individuals to create their own livelihoods and to solve their own local problems. I am lucky to be working with Village Enterprise, which works towards this very mission. Village Enterprise creates sustainable businesses by training business owners, encouraging saving, and providing capital. Village Enterprise is locally led with our field coordinators and business mentors shaping our strategy. Our model is committed to improving with rigorous M&E standards and our ongoing randomized control trial. Through our M&E we have proven success: VE has increased standard of living for business owners and changed lives.

Why is extreme poverty a cause that you care about?

Extreme poverty is an issue I care deeply about because, for me, it is synonymous with injustice. I strongly believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to care about extreme poverty. As global citizens we are all connected. When you buy a tee shirt at Zara you may contribute to urban poverty in Bangladesh, when you get medication from Pfizer you might be contributing to environmental degradation in India, when you upgrade to a new iPhone you may be fueling conflict in the DRC. These are a few of the thousands of reasons that we are all responsible for and accountable to our fellow global citizens. Learning about extreme poverty and the education, psychological, health, and sanitation issues that accompany it are jarring and disturbing. The reaction to extreme poverty is visceral. This is the ultimate reason I am working for Village Enterprise. Although it is easy to feel inconsequential in the fight against poverty, I strongly believe that it is important to learn, to understand, and to contribute. After all, the Dalai Lama said “if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito” and my one week in Kenya has truly made me realize the power of the mosquito.

What excites you most about this opportunity?

For the past several years I’ve been interested in international development but never before have I had the opportunity to live and breathe the experience at the local level. At Chemonics I worked on projects in Mongolia and the Philippines. I traveled to Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand to assist with proposal development. At university I studied abroad in a small village near Istanbul, Turkey. I have traveled to Bosnia to learn about post-genocide development and to Egypt where I witnessed the start of the Arab Spring.

These experiences gave me glimpses into the lives of communities experiencing emerging economic growth, environmental degradation, poverty, relocation and injustice. I made friends who taught me how they have worked to create change and progress in their communities. Still, I never had the opportunity to stay in one place for an extended period of time. I always wished to live in a community to foster these relationships and to learn about the local history, food, music, and language. I hoped to discover local development problems and to hear what community members see as the solutions to complex issues of poverty, gender inequality, agriculture, and business. Over the next year, I look forward to the opportunity to develop these long-lasting relationships in Kitale, Kenya with Village Enterprise.

What challenges do you expect to face?

Living in Kitale I expect to face many challenges as I am a newcomer in town. Perhaps people will find me different, my mannerisms strange, and my accent difficult to understand. My goal is to overcome these barriers. Kenyans have a beautiful culture and I hope to learn more about it. I hope to learn Swahili, the history of this region, and how to cook ugali, the famous maize dish of Kenya.

Along with cultural challenges, I think the most difficult challenge for me will be witnessing extreme poverty. Inequality in our world is stark and unjust. There is no valid explanation as to why it exists. Many people in developed countries are able to separate themselves from these issues and go for days, weeks, maybe years without thinking about the gross injustice that is extreme poverty. Working so intimately with issues of extreme poverty will be challenging and frustrating. Still, I believe that this year working with Village Enterprise will also provide me with hope and the knowledge that extreme poverty is not necessary. As Muhammad Yunus said “Once poverty is gone, we’ll need to build museums to display its horrors to future generations.” Village Enterprise is working towards that future and I am excited to be a part of it.

What do you hope to accomplish in your fellowship year?

During this year I hope to assist the M&E team, provide a strategic vision for our conservation project, and streamline linkages between innovations and M&E teams. More importantly however, I hope to learn more about complexities of poverty alleviation and to understand how I can best contribute in the fight against extreme poverty. I also hope to develop friendships with the staff and business mentors and to learn from them about the culture, history, and politics of Kenya.

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

 The aspects of Village Enterprise I feel most connected to are our programming operations in financial inclusion and value chain development. I believe these programs have the potential to revolutionize the businesses we work with because they would help businesses grow within the pre-established market system. Village Enterprise provides the opportunity for the ultra poor to establish a business. Building off that model, financial inclusion for our businesses would mean that through microfinance banks or mobile money our business owners could enter the formal banking system, which allows for safer transactions, more savings, as well as loans to further expand businesses. Moreover, our cutting edge work in value chain development will allow the businesses we support to access larger markets, to increase profits, and to expand their businesses. I feel most connected to this area because with the growth of businesses comes consumption smoothing, greater quality of life, and more job opportunities.

You’re coming from a much larger organization (Chemonics), what is it about Village Enterprise that drew you to the organization?

The experience of a much larger organization gave me fantastic insight into large-scale multi-million dollar USAID projects. I learned about the macro-issues that impact development in emerging economies. I interviewed heads of government departments, international NGOs, businesses and universities to learn about the education, the business-enabling environment, agriculture, and economic issues at the national level. However during these experiences I rarely had the opportunity to speak to people experiencing these development issues. At Village Enterprise, I hope to understand the micro-level better. I’m looking forward to field visits to meet the business owners we work with. I’m excited to hear their stories, needs, priorities, and perspectives. I’m sure these stories will challenge my ideas and my own perspectives.

You’ve been in East Africa for one week now – what are your first impressions?

Coming to Kitale, I had very few expectations, but can honestly say that my brief time here has already exceeded these expectations. Kitale is a beautiful, lush green town. The roads are smooth and clean. Every walk or run I go on results in the discovery of a beautiful lake, forest, or field. The office is on a big farm and I discover new birds and animals everyday. So far, people have been very friendly and even more hospitable. The other day a neighbor, Charlyne, came to the farm to buy milk from the owner, Mrs. Lebo. Charlyne showed me and Heidi (our Development Fellow) around the farm and we ended up at her house. She insisted we stay for tea, which was milky and sweet. With a sweet smile Charlyne told us about her plans to start a hardware store in Kitale and about her sister who’s completing her business degree in the area. Less than week in and we’ve already made a friend!

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