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.