77 Days in Kenya

My first ever debate was about whether charity could actually be justified. On the opposing side, 13 Year-Old me found this utterly shocking – how could giving money to help those in need be ever a bad thing? However, the more I looked into it the more farcical it all seemed. $1 trillion dollars of aid has effectively been squandered, plundered by corrupt leaders, created market distortions and furthered poverty in the past 30 years. Moreover, a myth is often painted of Africa under the umbrella term of a ‘dark continent’, ignoring the fact that four of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are African and 1 in 3 Africans are middle class.

Following this debate, I immediately became interested in development economics and poverty alleviation. As a solution, the concept of Microfinance first fascinated me in its beautiful simplicity. Pioneered by Muhammed Yunus, a Nobel Prize-winning economist hailing from my home country of Bangladesh, the microfinance network had expanded to cover 240 million of the poorest people worldwide. Where rural businesses and entrepreneurs had no form of collateral, microfinance institutions could offer short-term loans to kick-start growth at a grass-roots level.

I had never imagined that I could ever be physically involved in a poverty alleviation project. I had always expected to follow the conventional route of going off to university, graduating and going straight into a job. However, the unpredictability of life soon reared it’s head and I was thrown into an unplanned Gap Year. And in true Gap Year fashion, a trip was needed. I had a choice; either I could find myself on a jolly to Thailand or I could fill my CV and do some volunteering. On a whim I applied for Balloon Ventures, an award-winning social enterprise  through the International Citizen Service Program, never really expecting to spend 11 Weeks living in Njoro, Kenya. However, my plan to bail spectacularly failed and before I knew it I had landed in the hazy heat of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.

The Danish Author Baroness Karen Blixen once stated that there were ‘few places more lovely than Njoro’ but at first glance I couldn’t disagree more. Dusty, litter-strewn and filled with rudimentary huts and shops, Njoro epitomised the bleakness of rural Kenya, offered very little government funding and infrastructure help.

The ICS slogan is to‘challenge yourself to change your world.’ The whole nature behind the programme is that your personal development is as important as the economic empowerment of others. With this in mind the first few days were certainly a challenge.  Woken up at various times between 3am to 5am daily by wailing roosters outside my window, I couldn’t wait to slaughter them and cook them for dinner. The struggles of adapting to a pit latrine, learning to fill a bucket every day from a well to use as a bucket shower. Impatient, impulsive and hot-headed, I was almost at polar opposites with my slow-speaking and easy-going Kenyan Counterparts.

In our first week, we were introduced to various entrepreneurship lectures designed by Balloon Ventures.  As a cynic most sounded like hot air but one idea resonated with me; Tony Robbins’ 100% responsibility.   The whole idea of taking complete responsibility for all aspects of life; happiness, personal relationships, health, work all seemed very apt at the time. 6591 Miles away from home, with people I’d never met before, spending 11 weeks of my life in an isolated community, there wasn’t much scope for blame.  Either adapt or leave.

At the time I was dealing with the ramifications of the largest personal failure of my life so far, having failed to get into my university of first choice. Coincidentally, I had come across an interview with Barack Obama who had described the time when he first felt most broken, after failing to get elected to Senate in 1999. To deal with this, he had to constantly re-assure himself about the work. To quote ‘if you keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path’. And so I flung myself into the work. What we were doing was far more fulfilling than the usual run of the mill voyage of self-discovery. Instead of building a school or teaching English, we were each paired with 5 entrepreneurs in groups of 3. With small budgets, over the next 7 weeks we carried out market tests, developing new services and preparing pitch documents for an apprentice-style sales pitch to secure funding for future expansion.  With time the community and life normalised completely as we settled into a working routine- my host family felt real, the constant streams of donkeys and cows roaming around the roads just part of daily life.

The highlight of our market tests was perhaps our Agrovet, Angeline. At first she seemed almost disinterested, virtually apathetic towards the idea of market testing. However it quickly became apparent that she was extremely resourceful and remarkably efficient. The farming industry is extremely profitable in Kenya and Angeline had spotted that no pre-mixed dairy feed existed currently, instead having to be mixed in with hay and other ingredients.

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Thus our first test took place, a dairy feed consisting of hay mixed with nutritionally optimum ingredients including soya, molasses, cotton, red salt. The feed was packaged in 25kg bags and sold at an annual trade exhibition, receiving national news coverage and orders exceeding 700kg. For us it was a milestone- long had we questioned the competence of the program. The cost of living and transport  finally seemed to justify the end result.

So at the end of 8 weeks of market tests, strategy canvas’ and finance projects came the final pitch to secure funding for our entrepreneurs. This was also one of the highlights of the entire programme for me, as one of three volunteers selected to sit on the panel. A total pot of 480,000 shillings (around £3250) was set to be allocated to 25-something pitching entrepreneurs, who were pitching for 0% interest loans between 10,000 to 50,000 shillings. In a three day process, we first heard the pitches, inspected the businesses before finalising the allocation. The process was competitive – only 50% were to be awarded loans of any value. Deciding the allocation was extremely successful due to the quality of pitches across the board. The aim really was to ensure growth, rather than simply paying back the loan.  With this in mind, the entrepreneur’s character and foresight became the paramount factor in deciding whether they would be successful.

Having finalised the money, the final task before departure was to ensure the money was spent correctly. The age old adage ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life’ seemed perfectly fitting in this situation. Instead of uselessly squandering money through foreign aid, learning had happened on both sides. On our side, we had become adaptable, more open-minded and Kenyan culture had instilled values of hard-work and honour. Although we would soon be gone, hopefully the financial management skills and platform to carry out market tests would inspire creativity and innovation for a long time to come.

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Many years ago during the colonialist rule, the British Settler Lord Delamere once harboured great dreams for this small agricultural town to be the capital of British East Africa. These dreams did not come into fruition but the incredible entrepreneurial culture has long since lived on.

  • Arman Uddin, Njoro, Kenya (Feb – April 2016)
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