Through Heidi’s Lens: Vocational Skills Training

“I wanted to learn soap making for a very, very long time,” Dorothy Luyai said as she poured the vibrant liquid into an empty water bottle. Many of our business owners have a strong desire to open a specific type of business, but lack the necessary skills to get started. This year, our team is piloting vocational skills trainings to improve business choices for people living in extreme poverty who do not own land. And from what I have witnessed, these trainings hold the power to open doors for many.

Within Trans-Nzoia County, where I currently work in Kenya, land has been sub-divided to the point that many families are left with only 0.02 acres of land to subsist on, while others are completely landless. The majority of this population is composed of youth, ages 18-25. Left without the ability to participate in the standard micro-enterprise choices in farming, many of these individuals gravitate towards livestock businesses. While a livestock business can be a good investment and helpful as a non-cash savings plan, it is not always a significant income generator. As a result, this population struggles to earn a sustainable income that will lift them out of poverty.

The emerging hypothesis from local leaders and Village Enterprise field staff is that expanded business selection options as well as adjustments to program design are required to meet the needs of those in the community who lack land assets, particularly young adults. One solution presented by field staff at the most recent Innovation Summit, a week-long conference to collaboratively design and develop new ideas and incremental innovations that improve our impact on people living in extreme poverty, was the inclusion of new vocational skills trainings. Skills training would provide our business owners with additional business options besides the traditional choices of agriculture, livestock, and retail, and potentially create a more stable form of income for our landless participants.

Our team took the idea and ran with it. Today, we have roughly 40 businesses (totaling 120 business owners) that are participating in our pilot of vocational skills training in the Saiwa Swamp area of Kenya. The business mentors in this region, Peninah Mulama and Gilbert Chepkwony, conducted extensive research, including interviewing business owners and analyzing business profitability in local markets, to identify new opportunities that would be the most viable in this specific region. They then selected local entrepreneurs with specific skills to lead trainings such as soap making, baking, and creating animal seed. Through these trainings, business owners obtained new skills that allowed them to launch businesses that are deemed profitable in Saiwa.

“I always say that they make one chapati and then photocopy the rest,” business mentor Gilbert laughs as he points at the Digital Hotel sign. Business owner Esther justifies “we are all youths and youth live in a digital age.” Esther is one of three young business owners, along with Milicent and Leah, whom run the Digital Hotel (restaurant) in a rural village in Sitatunga, Kenya. Their menu is extensive, including local favorites: chapati, ugali (maize porridge), mandazi (donuts), githeri (boiled maize and beans), and maharagwe (local beans). Since both Esther and Leah attend school part-time, using their grant funds to start a restaurant seemed ideal. They could then work early in the morning to prepare the kitchen and then switch-off shifts serving guests. When asked about the impact of the training, Milicent shared, “the training was very helpful because we did not know how to bake. Now we can cook mandazi!”

I strolled next door to David’s barber shop and caught a glimpse of him in action, hair clippers gliding across his customer’s head. David is a young man of very few words, but he left a major impact on me. You see, barber training was not one of the trainings offered by Village Enterprise. He not only attended the soap-making and baking trainings, but also visited a barber shop in another town to gain the skills necessary to open his own business. David is using the profits from his barber business to run a side kuku (chicken) business, which provides additional income to assist his family. It was clear that David was proud of his new skills and committed to his shop’s growth. When asked what he hopes for the future, he shared “I want to modernize and one day purchase a bigger mirror and swivel chair.”

Despite the evident impact business skills training is having on business owners, there are also unique challenges facing us in this pilot program, particularly related to the high number of youth participants. Due to stigmas against microfinance and unwarranted fears that Village Enterprise provides loans (that need to be paid back) instead of grants, initial attendance rates were low. Gilbert also pointed out that “it can be hard working with youth because they are not static. They are always on the move. In fact, five migrated because they were promised jobs elsewhere.” When women participants get married, they often move to the town where their husbands reside. Gilbert laughed and added “youth are more cunning. They tell you everything you want to hear even if they may not have completed the work.”

But from my perspective, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. In fact, our team is already brainstorming how we can incorporate elements of this pilot in other areas of our operation. Two of our business mentors, Eunice Kiombe and Imelda Midzukani, are expert soap-makers, so we filmed a soap-making training to share with business owners in both Kenya and Uganda. If data reflects that vocational skills training does have the positive impact we project, our team hopes to leverage the skills of our staff and external experts to train all business owners. It’s still early in the pilot, so I won’t jump to conclusions but I can say that it has been incredibly refreshing to see youth business owners creating innovative businesses.

Business owners like Dorothy remind us of the payoff of constantly bringing new ideas to life through our pilots. Dorothy has an impressively profitable soap-making business. There is a high demand for soap—for washing clothes, utensils, bathing, and handwashing. And the soap Dorothy learned to make at a Village Enterprise training is cheaper to produce than competitors sold in the stores. Not only are neighbors now purchasing their soap from Dorothy, but they also collecting bottles collected at community events for her to reuse. In the next year, Dorothy hopes to be the main provider of soap for the schools in her area. With the profits she has been reaping, Dorothy has been able to diversify the food her family eats and pay for her children’s school fees. Best of all, Gilbert translated, “she is empowered economically.” Dorothy finishes pouring the soap and says, “I am smart.” Dorothy has always been smart but now she can use her smarts towards running a successful and sustainable business.

Village Enterprise business owner, Dorothy Luyai, pours liquid soap she madeBusiness owner, Dorothy Luyai, pours liquid soap she made at her home in Sitatunga, Kenya.

Village Enterprise business owners Esther Nekesa and Milicent Kavosa, their families, and their restaurantEsther Nekesa and Milicent Kavosa stand in front of their restaurant called “Digital Hotel.”

Village Enterprise business owner David Alima in his barber shop.David Alima in action at his barber shop.

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