From the Blog

Imagine: a single mother brings in her two kids. After the service she’s gone, and her kids are still there. The police ask the church to keep the kids while they look for the mother…who never turns up. This is how REHEMA Daycare and School started, and they’ve provided education to over 600 children!

When I visited Kenya in February I recorded a long interview with Erastus, the founder of REHEMA. Here is a quick clip about those 2 kids.

Mathare Valley Slum

Second hand clothing is a major industry in the developing world (for better or for worse). This amazing story reminds me of so many of the 1010 partners in Nairobi.

If your dream was to become a doctor and you ended up uneducated and living in a slum, would you just give up on life? Some of us might have, but not Jane Ngoiri. Jane dreamed of being a surgeon, but she was too poor to finish school or go to college. However, today Jane is a Mitumba queen from Nairobi’s Mathare Valley slum. Mitumba is the business of selling second hand clothing that arrives in Kenya from European and American regions in massive bales.

via AfriGadget » Blog Archive » Dreams can come true – Janes miraculous Mitumba story.

Observing partners of The 1010 Project in Kenya, as well as listening to our indigenous leaders, I’ve discerned three elements that must be present for a social innovation to succeed.

  • Aptitude: A social entrepreneur’s skill or competency which they are offering to their community and to the marketplace.
  • Business Acumen: Knowledge of basic business principles and strategies
  • Capital Investment: Resources for startup costs, including financial, intellectual, and human capital

In metaphor format, if the entrepreneur and their skill is a Computer, Capital is the hardware and Business acumen is the software.

Development at times has focused primarily on the third element, Capital Investment. And it is true that  hardworking, creative social entrepreneurs in impoverished countries have remarkable aptitude but often lack access to basic capital.

However, as Michael Nyangi of LOMORO reminded me in February, many of these community leaders have not received the kind of business knowledge we take for granted in the United States. The average American would have a primary understanding of concepts like budgeting, marketing, and finding your business “niche.” In my experience, the same assumptions cannot be made in the developing world.

We had these challenges too

Recently a friend asked about African culture, and specifically our Kenyan Social Entrepreneurs: “does their laid back attitude actually contribute to their poverty?” Now I know this friend well enough to know he was genuinely asking, not trying to pass judgment. In answer to this question, I present to you: a washing machine.

When I see that pile growing in my laundry basket I feel a dread come over me. I will have to budget time to address the burgeoning pile or risk wearing gym shorts as my underpants (not that I’ve ever done that).

I will have to throw the clothes in the washer, be around an hour later to move them to the dryer, and…the part I always screw up…remember to take them out of the dryer before they are a wrinkled mess (sorry honey). Oh ya…and folding. So, all in all about 30-45 minutes of work spread out over a 3 hour period.

Now let’s contrast this process with the work of a prototypical Kenyan social entrepreneur named Joy:

  • Water: the more fortunate might have indoor plumbing which works 3 or 4 days out of the week. The less fortunate go to a community filling center, and can only purchase what they can carry (this is almost certainly a woman doing this work)
  • Bucket or tub: pour the water in the tub
  • Soap: If you’ve ever washed your clothes camping, you know hand washing isn’t glorious. There’s no hand-friendly organic soaps available, and you certainly can’t afford the luxury of gloves
  • Hands: It strips your hands of oils, and getting out those tough spots requires more than a little elbow grease
  • Drying & Folding: Drying is done on outdoor lines, which leaves clothes stiff…not to mention the rain conspires to set back the drying process several days

All in all, I have to guesstimate, a 6-8 hour process spread over 3 days. “Ok,” you say, “they have a harder time washing their clothes.” But this isn’t an isolated incident, this is every basic task of living

  • Without online or telephone banking, going into town to check your bank balance could take 2-4 hours
  • Getting to the market for food could be a 30 minute to 2 hour walk
  • Preparing food over a charcoal fire, with most elements starting from “scratch” could take 1-2 hours
  • If a child gets sick, and you can’t afford health care, everything else could go on hold for days

Now imagine you are trying to run a social venture with the rest of the time you have left? If you are trying to be productive and task-oriented, how long would you last? Is being strictly task-oriented unquestionably a good thing, even in our culture? The fact is, the utter lack of what we would consider “basic infrastructure” conspires to complicate every basic task.

Every time you throw some clothes in a rinse cycle, remember the cycle of poverty and ask yourself how you can responsibly intervene.

I’m still in a bit of a jetlagged daze as I attack my email inbox this morning. I’m so grateful I had this note waiting in my inbox about the business training seminar we put on in the Matopeni neighborhood of Nairobi for our partners

Dear Brian, this is Peter, we met at the candlelight ministries where Chuck delivered a very motivating talk on business.This is to thank you for the good work that your org is doing in our country and also to assure you that the seminar was not in vain.I have tried to pass on the message to my peers at komarock and we really are trying to change our approach to business so we can register better returns.Please keep in touch and kindly inform us when you next visit.God bless you.Regards-Peter.

In the seminar Chuck covered:

  • Revenue – Cost = Gross Profit
  • Gross Profit – Income = Net Profit

It is a problem that plagues all businesses worldwide: you get a $100 check from a client and think “Yay I have $100!” Not so, as Chuck explained using the metaphor of selling eggs. You have to factor in costs of buying more eggs to sell, transporting the eggs to a market, broken eggs, employees, refrigeration, and so on. Only after those costs, and after taking the income you need to live on, do you have your actual net profit.

It was incredible to watch the light bulbs go on in these social entrepreneurs heads. One attendee said “this changes everything…now we know why our businesses have been failing.”

These brave entrepreneurs are truly my heroes, it is a privilege to serve them and support their work.

“Moving at the speed of business.” “Moving at the speed of light.” “Always on the move.”

Ours is a culture on the move. My life is always in motion. I can scarcely keep pace with my own mind, let alone the activities of each day.

When I stepped into Heathrow Airport I felt like a cow in a Masaai herd. Reentering “the west,” everyone is so serious, so busy, so hurried.

I tend towards an anxious personality. I have a variety of nervous habits. Despite the heartbreaking poverty, and times of culture shock, I’ve not been so relaxed since…well I don’t know when.

In Kenya I always knew I was the priority of whoever I was with. The relationship, the friendship, the moment is what matters. It was a powerful sense of presence.

It wasn’t always deep life-changing conversation. I watched a lot of Mexican soap operas (translated into English…Kenyans are obsessed…I know, weird right?).

I now reenter a world where expectations are different. Showing up late to meetings because I was “in the moment” won’t fly, and would be disrespectful in the US culture. How can I create a balance and retain the slower pace of life I loved in Kenya?

In a world moving so fast, how can I move at the speed of friendship?

My experience in Kenya has created gratitude about my homeland, the US.

  • A government that actually functions
  • Smooth, wide roads
  • Toilets that always work
  • An amazing selection of food options

It has also created envy about some of the treasures they have here.

  • Community and the way all of live is lived together
  • Happiness independent of one’s circumstances
  • Their “deer” are antelopes and zebras
  • Resiliency in the face of incredible daily challenges

One resounding lesson from this experience is something built into the DNA of The 1010 Project: it is more important to have the right questions than the right answers.

Exempla Gratis (E.G.)

Over the week I’ve spoken with two Kenyans possessing 30 years of development experience between them. One of the first partners I visited was Pastor Brown and his wife Josephine, founders of Fair Oaks Academy and leaders of Redeemed Gospel Church. I also joined Michael Nyangi of LOMORO in visiting the small businesses started with capital he lent, and discussing the role of The 1010 Project.

I asked them each some form of this question: “How can The 1010 Project improve our partnership with social entrepreneurs in Kenya.” The answers I received were remarkably consistent. Chiefly, that partners have access to business training, and create solid business plans for their ventures.

My former business coach Chuck Blakeman explained this principle to several Nairobian women. Business is like water; you simply need to know where you are and where you are going. Michael Nyangi pointed out that many social entrepreneurs have not received any kind of business training, and some very little education at all. Having access to training and building a business plan first both defines sucess and increases the likelihood of reaching it.

This confirmed and clarified for me my belief that in any culture, three things are needed for the success of a social entrepreneur

  • Skill: this could be a private sector skill like jewelry making, or a social sector skill like building an orphanage
  • Capital: access to startup funds either from one’s own means, or an outside source; e.g. small grants from The 1010 Project
  • Training: acquiring basic competence in fundamental business practices like marketing and accounting

Questions are Primary

As you can see above, the end result was an “answer:” business training being essential to fostering social entrepreneurship. Discovering answers to the challenges of poverty is both noble and essential, but questions must always be primary. In other words, it is impossible to answer a question for someone that has never been asked of them.