Monday, September 28, 2009

'From nothing to something' (Part 1)

There are times that you have to see yourself and your future differently than everyone else. You have to dream of a life that seems unlikely or maybe even impossible.
-Erwin McManus

It seemed as if the whole world thought they were nothing. Unclean, untouchable, undeserving outcasts. Forever damned by the HIV virus that had invaded their livelihood and claimed genocide on their CD4 T cells. Even their alleged soul mates had disserted them, abandoned like road kill on the Nairobi highway. These widows were told they had no future, no place in society, no reason to dream.

Fortunately, an NGO called HEART (Health Education African Resource Team) saw them differently: as women, as mothers, as dreamers. In 2005, the NGO established a program called WEEP (Women's Empowerment Equality Program), committed to restoring their health, teaching them a trade and providing temporary employment that would exercise their newly acquired skills, ultimately empowering the women so that they can exit the program and pursue the dreams that society told them to erase.

When I visited my first WEEP center in 2006, the program had just launched its pilot center of about a dozen women in Ngong (a community on the border of Nairobi). Three years later, they have 5 primary centers with almost 4o women, all of which are receiving medical access, technical training and temporary employment. The program is nearly ready to graduate their first group of women, however, the coordinators have realized that -- although these women have developed technical expertise -- they need to further develop their business acumen if they are to pursue their dreams of starting their own enterprises.

When I sat down with HEART's executive director (Vickie Winkler) to discuss an 0ver-the-weekends type project that I could support, her first suggestion was the WEEP women, and the need to explore new sales channels for their products while simultaneously providing the women with business training and experience. We both agreed that the notorious Maasai Market would be a perfect platform for them to do so, and that we would need to conduct a comprehensive training in order to prepare them.

After an unexpected amount of planning and preparation, the 10 women punctually entered into the dimly light and dehydratingly hot Gospel Victory Center, to take tedious notes, ask targeted questions, and engage in role-playing exercises facilitated by the 7 speakers, 4 WEEP coordinators and myself.

Of the many lessons and takeways from the two days, I will never forget the exercise we began with on Saturday. The day before, the chairman of the Maasai Market Empowerment Trust had shared with us the importance of dreaming, specifically to dream big, because entrepreneurs are first dreamers. Imagine the impact that this had on the women, a group who society would say there is no point in dreaming, because they are HIV positive and won't live long enough to see those dreams realized.

So we began Saturday morning with each of the women sharing their dreams and visions for their life. One by one they re-crafted dreams that would inspire even the likes of Joseph or Dr. King, dreams of clothing and jewelry shops in Kibera, of school uniform stalls in Mathare, of returning to their home villages and establishing tailoring services, of employing other disadvantaged women, of empowering their children with business skills.

During the last session, a speaker (called Susan) from Jamii Bora (the largest microfinance institution in Kenya) talked about how she nearly died from HIV/AIDS, how she vomited through the ARV treatments, and how she was cut and beaten by the stigmatisms forced upon her -- all struggles the WEEP women had endured. But then Susan proudly boasted about how she never stopped dreaming, how she used the loans and the Jamii Bora community support to found her own business and fund her kids through school, and how she transformed herself from nothing to something.

As the women stared, laughed, cheered, and even finished Susan's sentences for her, I couldn't help becoming restless in my seat, thinking about the women's upcoming debut at the Maasai Market, their eventual exit from the program, their dreams to materialize their various visions, and the unimaginable accomplishments they had already achieved just by being alive and physically (and mentally healthy. As they started universally clapping at Susan's from nothing to something proclamation, I thought of an entrepreneur from Ghana -- I thought about how the words he shared at a conference applied directly to the WEEP women's renewed dreams of a life that might seem unlikely or maybe even impossible: we the willing have been doing so much with so little for so long, we can now do anything with nothing. 

Stella, one of the 10 women who participated in the training, who dreams of starting her own designer-fashion clothing company (more pics to follow).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

23 (random) things I love about Kenya (Part 1)

As my time in Kenya continues to develop, I am realizing that there is so much about this country that I love: people, places, plates, smells, sights, sounds, and a whole bunch of other things that don't begin with P or S. The list is so expansive, in fact, that it would be impossible -- or at least extremely overbearing (for the reader) -- to share every single one in full detail.

So, in order to unveil a few of these random fascinations -- without having to commit to a full blog entry on each one of them -- I've begun to compile a list. And because I am entirely positive that the list will only lengthen within the next 4-5 months, let's consider this part 1…

23 (random) things I love about Kenya
  • I love the way my shoulders and elbows have sparked lasting friendships with other Matatu passengers, as the conductor stuffed some 18 people in a bus that comfortably sits 10-12.
  • I love the way Bob Marley, Jay-Z and artists whose names I can't yet pronounce vibrate entire Matatus to life.
  • I love the way Matatu drivers breach sidewalks, invade ongoing traffic, charge single lane roads and honk war cries to pedestrians, all in the name of defeating 'jams.'
  • I love the way I always write Matatu with a capital M, even though it’s a common noun.
  • I love the way a visiting pastor recently compared God to a Matatu driver: finding a way when there is no way.
  • I love the way the pastor first made a disclaimer about the methods of Matatu drivers.
  • I love the way mango, passion fruit, pineapple and avocado taste alive.
  • I love the way my Kenyan mother makes chapati and githeri (beans & maize), and always has black tea and chai to prepare us for our 7am departures.
  • I love the way she prays with us, even when we are already 10 minutes late.
  • I love the way my Kenyan brother looks irate every time I so much as suggest a critique of Manchester United.
  • I love the way my football team (CT United) performs celebrations after scoring a goal, out done only be the likes of Usain Bolt.
  • I love the way the bathroom door at my office reads Engaged when the unit is occupied.
  • I love the way very important public figures are willing (dare I say eager) to accommodate requests for a meeting, even when there seems to be little t0 nothing in it for them.
  • I love the way every phone conversation (informal or formal) begins with an inquiry into your well being, even before the caller identifies himself.
  • I love the way 4 year old children in Mathare rhythmically and crisply shout: How are you! from across the road, marrying their developing mastery of the English language with their excitement to display it.
  • I love the way the same children proudly proclaim: I am fine, thank you! when the question bounces back.
  • I love the way I feel as if the entire country studies the same TV programs at night (think American Idol, times 7).
  • I love the way the Government gifts public holidays at random (I've enjoyed two, so far)
  • I love the way a street vendor called me Barack while walking by him on the street.
  • I love the way every article in the Daily Nation about Obama reminds readers that his father was Kenyan, as if it was possible to forget.
  • I love the way the Gitanga and Muthangari Rd Daily Nation representative humbly and radiantly greets me every morning.
  • I love the way the Daily Nation consistently has at least 4 pages flowing with football.
  • I love the way that this list could occupy the entire Sunday edition of the Daily Nation, and still be incomplete.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Community Transformers United (Part 1)

As I took my first step on to our bright brown-colored pitch in the Mathare slum, I realized that I was stepping into a completely different world of soccer.

Different not because the field was decorated with whistle-sized rocks and skin staining dirt instead of invisible rubber beads and artificial turf, or lined with hundreds of standing fans instead of scores of empty bleacher seats, or populated with or populated with oddly shaped and sized plastic-bag bundles instead of untouched $50 FIFA certified balls. Not even because the game is affectionately referred to as football instead of complacently labelled soccer.

This world was different because it was streaming with significance.

Here in the slums, as in many places throughout the world, football is much more than a pastime. It's much more than a game. More than a source of entertainment. Rather, it is purpose, meaning, pride, identity. As in the case with the team I was recently invited to join (at a youth rally in Mathare… read Aug. 24th post), many of our players have entered into the chalk protected safe haven with a burdened past. One of drugs, violence, gangs, broken homes and extreme poverty.

When the founder of Community Transformers (Nick Omondi), decided to start the football team with Steve Sacher, they had a vision. A vision to use the three balls they had been donated to restore community and hope and purpose into the broken lives of the Mathare youth. A vision to use football to encourage young men to live the lives they were created to live.

William is one of these young men. As one of Community Transformers United's (CTU) leading strikers, he wears a halogen-light bulb smile but takes his role as forward very seriously. He also participates in the homes visits that CT makes to women with HIV and helps share with kids the message about prevention. Prior to joining the squad, however, he was literally on his death bed, with little chance of survival.

As early as 13 years of age, William was involved in a notorious gang in the slums. He had become a victim to the illusion of drugs and violence and was eventually put in prison for 'gang activity.' After his short time in jail, however, he paid a much larger price, and was shot several times in the stomach/chest. He was taken to the local hospital, where the doctors gave him little to no chance of surviving. Even his family had written him off, and left him to become another addition to the startling statistic of youth who are dying preventable deaths (the World Health Organization conducted a study showing that 2.6 million young people are dying each year, 97% from preventable deaths in low or middle income countries).

Fortunately, Nick and the CT team were not willing to give up so easy. When they discovered William's story, they began visiting him daily in the hospital. Miraculously, he slowly began to recover, and became stable enough that the hospital could discharge him. He came to live at CT -- because his family didn't want to deal with him -- and slowly began to gain strength and overcome his addictions. It seemed as if he was finally on the road to restoration, physically and spiritually.

But was it sustainable? Or would he eventually be pulled back into his past lifestyle? How could CT continue to make William feel as if he belonged and was a lasting part of their community?

The answer came through football. Like so many other young men on the squad, William was once a devote footballer, but had lost sight of his passion through the blinding lenses of the gang life. CTU provided that opportunity to rediscover his passion, while becoming a part of something that was bigger than him. Football became not only an escape, but William's shot to redefine and re-establish himself.

Several years later, a liberated and recreated William joined me and the other 18+ boys of CTU, as we stepped on to the pitch for a local tournament. Without even completely knowing the stories of William or others like him, I sensed that this tournament had a much more profound significance than just acquiring more goals than our opponent. Whether we won the trophy or were eliminated in our first game*, there was something being created. Something bigger than myself or any one of the individual players on the team. Something that was truly transforming lives and the community of which we had become an integral part.

*Unfortunately we lost both matches over the weekend (one in PKs), but are looking forward to anouther tournament at the end of the month. 

Fans, doin' work, PKs, disappointment and unity (photos taken by Haley, a visiting team member)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New news (Part 2)

Two weeks ago -- on a warm, semi-cloudy day at the Nairobi Holiday Inn across from my office -- my colleague and I had the privilege to enjoy a cup of tea and many profound words with the founders of Rachel's Bargain Corner (or, what I like to call, the of Kenya). Even before I emailed the two to request a meeting, I decided that the story of Rachel and Enoch is one that needs to be shared: one of vision and courage and dependence and opportunity.

Rachel and Enoch conceived the idea to launch an online business while studying biomedicine and computer science (respectively) at the University of Egerton. With the growing domestic popularity of the Internet (underwater fiber optic cables were recently laid, connecting Kenya to the 'world network') and Enoch's background in building websites, the 26 year old couple knew the time was right to start an online business. The question then became, what is a product that is in demand that they could provide to Kenyans in a way that would be valued.

Kenyans don’t read

Founding an online bookstore would likely be an idea few would consider viable, given the prevailing typecast that 'Kenyans don't read.' Fortunately for society, however, entrepreneurs tend to look at things differently, and the Essendis believed that Kenyans actually have an aspiration to read, but struggle to conveniently access reading material. The closest bookstore for some could be day-journeys away, and for others, long queues serve as determent if the stores and books are available (particularly when buying text books). The Essendis also believed that books never go out of fashion and recognized the low cost of shipping and handling in order to deliver the products to their customers. Thus, Rachel's Bargain Corner was conceived.

A low risk business model

Instead of buying books and maintaining a burdensome inventory, the Essendis have been able to establish key partnerships with over a dozen publishers and retailers, who provide books to Rachel's Bargain Corner at discount (usually 25-30%). Once the Essendis receive an order, they can then go to the publisher's site (all of which are located in the same area in Nairobi) and purchase the book directly.

Rachel's Bargain Corner sells all of their products at retail price, and provides free shipping to anywhere in Kenya, so the margins they make are small; however, they've adopted an perspective (it took Amazon over 6 years to earn a profit) and realize that as time develops they will become increasingly profitable through volume (i.e., as their popularity grows, they will receive better discounts from publishers, enjoy greater synergy when shipping, be able to sell higher margin products, etc.).

Doing business in Kenya

Doing business in developing countries has certainly proved challenging for many entrepreneurs and multinational organizations. Fortunately for the Essendis, however -- having been born and raised in Kenya -- they are very familiar with the culture and economic landscape and can organize their business in order to best take advantage of opportunities that others might have failed to cease in the past. For example, although sells and delivers to Kenya, the shipping costs are very high, and more importantly, a majority of Kenyans do not have credit cards. Rachel's Bargain Corner has realized the hindrance these two provide, and as a result, provides free shipping and accepts mobile payments via M-Pesa (which nearly 1/3 of the population uses).

They have also realized that many Kenyans are not familiar with buying goods online (e.g., phrases like 'Add to cart' have little meaning to someone who has never shopped online before), and so they have focused on educating consumers. They also have to focus on establishing trust with their constituents, as some are unaccustomed to the practice of paying for a good before it is received.

The never ending story

Although the Essendis just launched their site less than two months ago -- and are still operating out of their home office -- they are already receiving over 30 book orders a day and plan to hire additional help soon. They have also begun to sell CDs and DVDs, and look forward to providing other higher margin products as they gain their customers' trust and develop new industry partnerships. And the story will only continue to grow, as they move forward, page by page, on their way to becoming known as the of Kenya.

Me, Rachel, Enoch and my colleague Annah

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New news (Part 1)

I am constantly amazed at how little of the good news -- or what I prefer to call the 'new news' -- about Africa is getting through.
-Charlayne Hunter-Gault

It's not a well kept secret that a majority of the news covering the continent of Africa is negative. Stories of disease, corruption, violence, terrorism and the like seem to easily strangle out those of success, opportunity, hope and achievement. As a spokesman from the Red Cross recently said, More than 75 percent of the stories in Africa were negative. And research firm Media Tenor echoed the same concern: Africa received the worst overall rating of positive stories versus negative stories of all the continents.

Although there are undoubtedly many overwhelming challenges facing the continent (a few of which are mentioned in this blog), there are also countless rays of light and beauty to be discovered. So, in an effort to unveil just a fragment of this beauty, I plan to highlight the stories of several entrepreneurs that are making the continent a better place through their tireless efforts.

But first, a few thoughts on entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship has been recognized as the foundation to economic development, stability and poverty alleviation in Kenya (and in most developing countries). As a government official recently noted, No country will realize sustained economic growth without supporting small business ventures (The Standard). And as a local professor stressed, if Kenya is to evade its 'developing country' status, it needs to produce job creators, not job takers (The Daily Nation).

Sure, there are countless political issues that -- if sorted out -- would make an unprecedented impact on the well being of millions. But unfortunately, these are not easy fixes and rely on factors that are less controllable by an average citizen. Fortunately, however, economic development -- catalyzed by entrepreneurship -- is much more accessible and tangible and can even occur despite the ongoing political landscape transformation.

And the entrepreneurship opportunities are more than abundant. From basic goods and services such as clean water, public latrines or affordable mosquito nets, to higher end offerings such as designer clothes, online book stores or even event planning. If one were to compare the established business offerings in a developed country to those in the developing world, the possibilities would be astonishing.

Unfortunately, however, most educated Kenyans do not look to entrepreneurship (outside of farming) as a lucrative career option. Perhaps the risks are too high, or the status garnered is subpar (compared to, say, a doctor or lawyer) or access to credit is limited. Whatever the reason(s), the problem is undoubtedly perpetuated by the absence of existing entrepreneurs who can serve as entrepreneurship advocates. Because individuals do not see their peers achieving success through a tool such as entrepreneurship, they are much less likely to consider that tool viable.

For this reason, it is critical to unveil the 'new news' and share the successes of those that are creating a better world through their entrepreneurial ventures. These are the stories that need to be heard.