I grew up in unimaginable circumstances of poverty, disease, and scarcity. My family of ten lived for the moment, and meal times could be compared to a silent battle for survival. The next meal was not guaranteed so this was it: we had to get as much as possible down our tiny throats. A jostle for the fittest where the younger ones would go without proper meals, surviving on crumbs of Ugali stuck on the walls of the smoke-stained, earthen cooking pots. The joke was we would fill our remaining empty bellies with water. However, this was not really a joke but our reality – a survival ploy.
My situation was not unique amongst my neighbors in rural Kisumu, Kenya. The average number of dependants per household would average ten to fifteen, and to add to this extended family members from afar would also be at the table. This meant more hungry mouths to be fed.
As if that was not enough, our living conditions were deplorable. A dilapidated hovel was our home, thatched roof, a tin door, and the walls were made of a mixture of dung and mud. When it rained, mostly at night, you had to hold a cup directly to a spot where rain droplets were penetrating the roof. This caused sleeplessness, yet sleep would always win this battle and we would wake up with the flu or a congested chest and wet bedding.
Thugs would break into our home and steal the little that was available. It was an easy task for them. All they needed was a jerry can of water which, when dribbled onto the mud wall next to the door lock, would cause the wall to disintegrate – leaving the door at the mercy of the intruder. This was a common occurrence.
My parents would do nothing. Despondency was written all over their faces. Their only solace was the word of God from a dog-eared Bible that was placed near a tin lamp which was oozing with soot from the kerosene combustion. As if to mock us, the three-legged firewood cooking stove would emit spasms of smoke into our small room adding to the misery we were already facing.
Mum would break into a sad religious hymn, humming away her troubles and signaling to us that it was late, we had to sleep, there was no hope, nothing to look forward to. Nevertheless, rest was inevitable and off we drifted into a heavy slumber. Occasionally we would be awakened by the sound of barking dogs or nightmares of being carried away by floods.
Our situation epitomized the definition of poverty. Our lives were not only proximate to despair but were interwoven into a complex continuous web; the cycle of poverty packaged and delivered from one generation to another.
My parents owned a struggling dried fish business. They were in deep debt because they thought micro-finance institutions would rescue their business, but the opposite was the case. Instead, they would end up losing the little they had, including some of the meager family assets, such as chickens and goats. I lost my favorite rabbit to the ruthless debt collector officers. To say that the loans moved them from one level of desolation to another is an understatement. The emotional and financial burden would drive any sane human to suicide.
And then came the day I remember so vividly. I can recall the elated face that my mum wore as she prepared the food for the evening. The tune to her normal hymn had changed and now there was a twist to the words sung — words of hope. I had to ask what had changed. To cut a long story short, an organization had given my parents a grant and entrepreneurship training to boost their business. They never looked back and this was an opportunity that allowed them to lift themselves out of that frantic situation before poverty could snuff the life out of all of us.
The business was thriving and the family income had increased considerably. This provided us with the opportunity to go to school, and the freedom to visualize and build the future we so desired. We had much to look forward to, rather than worry about whether we would eat a meal or not. We could now afford a radio and listen to what was happening around the world, and later a TV was purchased which concreted our ambitions.
That was 30 years ago. My situation changed because of an organization like Village Enterprise that dared to touch people that other organizations did not want to go to: the ultra-poor.
Village Enterprise has been paving a pathway out of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa for the last three decades, or to put it another way, for almost my whole lifetime. t wasn’t Village Enterprise that came to my specific community, but the approaches are very similar. By providing entrepreneurship training, grants to support micro-enterprises, and the much-needed mentoring, Village Enterprise ensures that people like my parents can enjoy a life free of extreme poverty.
At the 2018 Skoll World Forum the conversation was anchored on the power of proximity, summed up as: – “In order to address inequality and injustice, we must more deeply understand the current status quo—and how to disrupt it. There is no other way to do this than to engage with and be close to, the people and communities facing deep and persistent biases of all kinds. We heard from community leaders, activists, social entrepreneurs, and innovators who brought a profound appreciation of our shared challenges and who have worked from within and side-by-side with communities to find solutions”. Let us ponder this idea. What does proximity mean to us at Village Enterprise?
Village Enterprise embraces the power of proximity. Changing the narrative that sustains problems, unraveling the realities that face the families rather than relying on assumptions and blanket thinking. Involving those in dire need of attention and moving meticulously from conversations concerning awareness of the situation faced by people like my parents and me proximity allows Village Enterprise to differentiate itself from shallow, costly interventions and concentrate on what really works: a cost-effective graduation model out of poverty.
Giving opportunity to those who need it most, through support, not handouts. We do not believe in coming up with theoretical farfetched solutions without involving the people who face the problems. Our field staff is local, they identify the problems, and we work together on solutions. They are the ones who provide our training and entrepreneurship coaching.
Village Enterprise operates in close proximity to those living in extreme poverty both geographically and strategically. We believe in local leadership, and this ensures we immerse ourselves deeply into the context of the ultra-poor in the society. We cannot be problem solvers from a distance and we are not afraid of getting our hands dirty.
Adopting tried and tested methodologies like Human-Centered Design (HCD) and data-driven decision-making, Village Enterprise has ensured the program has the end user in mind by addressing the components of the problem, not the symptoms. This is our pride.
It does not end here. The story above is my true story. And today I, the Senior Innovations Manager at Village Enterprise for Kenya and Uganda, stationed at the Kitale Office, interact with Business Mentors and Field Coordinators during our bi-weekly meetings to brainstorm a number of challenges that they are facing in the field. I am giving back to society and contributing towards changing lives.
With my education, a blend of local and international exposure, my childhood experiences, the team of dedicated colleagues, the support and faith in the leadership of Village Enterprise, we continue to fight against the scourge of poverty. And certainly, we are winning this war. I am more than glad to be part of this movement. Yes! A movement. A Movement, because we are not just an ordinary organization, we are a movement of like-minded people ready to end extreme poverty in the world. That is our vision.
If you doubt it, check out our Randomized Control Trial (RCT) results carried out in Uganda:
Randomized Control Trial: https://villageenterprise.org/our-impact/rct/
Development Impact Bond: https://villageenterprise.org/our-impact/development-impact-bond/
Dan Ouko joined Village Enterprise as a Program Innovations Manager (Kenya and Uganda) in September, 2017. He has nine-plus years experience working in different organizations and regions in East Africa. He has a background in Sustainable Livelihoods Development and Project Management, and he has undertaken other short courses in Strategic Management and Business Management.