Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why I really went to Kenya

I could talk about the things I learned, or the hands-on experience I was able to get, or the opportunity to see and understand how everything works firsthand. All of that is important, but this video nicely sums up my real reason for spending the summer in Mombasa.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Frontlines

I’d like to tell you about the one thing I felt I needed to do while I was there. It's a big one for me - close to my heart. If I could go back and do Kenya all over again from the beginning, I would insist upon repeating this experience as much as possible.  I wouldn't wait until so close to the end.

But I did, and when all is said and done, I still got to do it.

That's enough for me.

I attended some center meetings in Yehu's Kisauni Branch. For those of you that don't speak microfinance (or maybe you just don't speak Yehu), these are the meetings where clients gather in their groups to make payments, apply for new loans, or discuss anything of importance to the group. This is the very base level of the organization, where all the most important exchanges take place. This is where the real people are.

These are the frontlines.

One thing that makes Yehu unique is its focus on the rural poor, and by extension, the small size of their loans relative to other Microfinance Institutions. It really has no competition in this arena, because all other MFIs in the area are more focused on urban clients. Rural banking brings challenges: costs are higher, and it can be more difficult to reach and keep track of everyone. But Yehu is holding firm to its mission to serve the rural poor.

Given that mission, Kisauni is a unique branch for Yehu. It is actually located right outside of Mombasa, so many of Kisauni's clients are urban (or as Yehu likes to call it, "peri-urban").  This meeting was easier for us to visit, because a few of the clients spoke English and could keep us up on what was happening.

At Yehu, their ladies organize themselves into groups of five. Once a group is formed, they can apply for loans. If anyone in the group ever misses a payment, the rest of the group is responsible for picking it up. No one in the group can apply for a new loan until all missed payments are taken care of. This has a lot of advantages - it keeps the default rate very low, it is self-reinforcing because the ladies will keep track of each other and will feel the pressure of being responsible for their own payments, and it encourages them to only find responsible people to be in their group. The downside is that this concept probably sounds okay when you're told in the beginning, but when you're waiting several months to apply for a loan because of a delinquent group member and you have to pay off her loan, it can be very frustrating.

At this particular meeting, two groups paid off loans of delinquent group members that had been in arrears since January, so they could finally move forward with their plans. It was an exciting day. I particularly enjoyed seeing these strong women speaking out and voicing their opinions - even if it was in frustration. I could see the progression, from those who were waiting to apply for their first loan to those who were paying off their third loan. They've all been enabled and empowered by the opportunities Yehu has offered them. I imagine most of them were not always so confident as they are now.

We talked to some of the ladies afterward. This is Alice and Purity. Alice sells charcoal, Purity will use her first loan to open a fruit stand.

They expressed a very sincere interest in learning about properly running a business and managing their finances. They know the loan is a blessing and they really want to do everything right. It spoke to a deep desire I've had to conduct training for that very thing. Not only would the ladies benefit, but Yehu as well. I had hoped to do some of this training while I was here, but there is just so much to be done for this bank. It would take a completely separate internship - or more - to reach out to that need.

We also talked to Carol, who has been with Yehu for three years and was about to apply for her third (and biggest yet) loan. She sells secondhand clothing and has high hopes for growing her business. I could see the wisdom and confidence in her persona at having been around the microfinance block and learned some hard lessons along the way. I could see how she has grown.

Some of the ladies brought children to the meeting to distract me for just a few minutes. As usual, I was smitten. What new opportunities will these children receive, either from the additional income their mothers bring into their businesses, or from one of Yehu’s education-based loans?  It's exciting to think about.

Overall, the center meeting was a very powerful experience for me. In one fell swoop, it allowed me to connect everything together and gave my work more meaning and purpose than I could find anywhere else. This is something that all interns should be required to do within their first week of arriving in Mombasa. I really believe it could shape one’s entire experience.

Someone recently asked me what my #1 favorite thing about Kenya was. Hands down, it’s getting out to the villages and meeting the people. I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything in the world.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Trying new things is hard!

For my last bit of time in Kenya, I get to try my hand at some different activities. One of the other interns put together an audit program, so I took a trip to one of the village branches and we conducted an audit. This wasn’t my favorite activity, because we had to be the police, and we were essentially trying to catch them in the act of…something we had yet to determine. No one is every really excited to see the auditors.

Be that as it may, it was quite interesting and informative. Almost all of the records for the branch are kept on paper, so the very methods of recordkeeping they utilize are different than one may expect.
I wish technology wasn’t such a great hurdle for Yehu. Having more access to technology would make such a big difference in the quality control of recordkeeping, it would reduce the chances of someone being able to manipulate the system, it would get the info back to the head office in a timely manner, and it would save some time for everyone across the board. The problem is that you’re dealing with people who have never developed any trust for technology. Kenya in general is still trying to catch up to us there, but especially in rural areas, you’re not going to see a lot of people who are jumping at the chance to do everything in Excel.

Change may be on the horizon for this little bank. People around here are aiming high, when it comes to technological advances. Fiber optic cables are in the final stages of being planted in Kenya, and Yehu wants to take advantage of the new and improved Internet connectivity. Hopefully we can do all the important background work (read: training) to make it happen.

Branching out...

I’ve decided the optimal time to be in a new place is longer than two months. My friends here and I all agree that we have just barely hit the point where we feel really comfortable with everything at Yehu and we really understand everything. Now we are ready to dive in and find new things we can improve upon. What a shame that I won’t be around to fully enjoy the benefits.

A few of us were brainstorming about new incentives we can offer to employees, and that conversation evolved into a conversation about redesigning the brand. We’ve been in touch with graphic designer friends and other people who could give input, and we’re all getting really excited at the prospects. This brand – and the incentive-related products we’re coming up with – should be such that employees and clients are proud to associate with the bank.

We also want to advertise after the manner of Safaricom and Zain, which basically means painting an entire building the color that represents the brand, and then stenciling the brand name sporadically all over the place.

We’ve got it all wrong in America with all our billboards. Why not just advertise directly on walls of buildings, homes, fences, whatever? So, okay, Safaricom is lime green and Zain is bright pink, but you have to admit that they stand out. You’ll pay attention and remember, like it or not. I think I will forever associate lime green with Safaricom. Such could be the effect for Yehu.

This idea could go far, depending on how well it is received by the right people. I won’t be around to really implement it, but I am definitely tempted to return later to help paint some buildings.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Using a little creativity

My time at Yehu is winding down. During the week or so I've got left, I'm trying to spend as much time as I can outside of the office, in the villages with the people. I've mostly finished the templates and tables I wanted to create, and I'm really happy with the way they've turned out. I think it'll really save time for people here, and it will help them to pinpoint what they really need to focus on. Since I started working on one particular weekly report, I've knocked the time to completion down from about 4 hours to a little less than 2, on a slow computer. If I'm working on a better computer, it could be done in less than an hour. That's a lot of time saved every single week. Yehu has such aggressive plans for growth, and this is the time for them to clean up and tighten all the processes that will allow them to accomplish their expansion goals.

The next step is to empower everyone outside of the corporate office with training, greater responsibilities, and more tools to do their job. Yehu just got a new COO who really seems to have captured the vision of this. He has a solid understanding of what is needed out there, based on over a decade of experience in working with other microfinance banks in Kenya. He's committed to the cause, and he's got the understanding of the processes and the people to make it happen. I'm excited to have him on board. He's only been here a couple weeks, but he already has a clear idea of what he wants to do and how he's going to do it. Discussing these things with him gives me a lot of hope for the future of this organization. I'm actually a little sad that I won't be around to help with this part. I would love to get out to the villages to train these people.

I got to visit another village with representatives from CHOICE this week. We visited a school in Mulunguni to conduct an art project with some of the students. They drew pictures for us of their homes, trees, animals, family, cars, or whatever came to mind for them.

CHOICE is going to auction off some of these drawings to raise some additional funds for the school and raise awareness. They've worked pretty closely with this school, to build brick structures and supply desks and other supplies. Over 700 students attend this school, and there are only about 9 or 10 classrooms.

I'd also like to draw your attention to the background of the picture below.

All of the kids are in line for lunch, which is provided every day by the USAID School Feeding Program. It may not seem like a long-term logistical solution to just give handouts to the kids, but just think of how many of these students are coming to school just to get that food. For some kids, it's the only meal they'll get every day. It is incentive for them to educate themselves. Sounds like a pretty clear long-term solution to me.

Of course, the kids always love getting their picture taken, and I was more than happy to oblige after all the work was done.

Monday, June 29, 2009

I'm eradicating poverty!

Lately I've been thinking more how my job really relates to the mission of eradicating poverty. After all, that's what I came out here to help with. I feel like it's important to make this connection, because sometimes I need the internal motivation.

I know how important it is to tie all work back in to the overall strategic plan. So how am I doing that? One of the pillars of Yehu’s strategy is to improve and increase institutional capacity. So what do I have to do with that? I am taking the current reporting structure and streamlining it and making the results more useful. I’m eliminating and automating steps in the compilation of the data, and I’m putting the outcome into a format that will allow at-a-glance utility, in the form of summary tables, charts, and ratios. This also means higher quality control. I’m helping these people to work smarter, in my own little niche.

In the short run, I will get to see the effects of these tables. I’ve completed enough of the reports already to know how much time will be saved by implementing the changes I’ve created. This will free up Omar's schedule to focus on the actual analysis of the data, or to improve other processes that he just doesn’t have time for now. Also, because he will be compiling the tables more quickly and because they’re already in a format that is easier to analyze, Adet and the branch managers will have access to them sooner, which means that they can spot areas that need improvement more quickly and act on them before any problems grow too large.

In the medium term, as Yehu grows and more branches are formed, this will not translate into more work for Omar in compiling the reports because everything is automated. He’ll just have to do a little work upfront to add rows to the tables to account for the new branch, and then continue doing everything as it is already being done.

The long-term effects, I will not be around to see. But this is where I’ve found I can connect my efforts to eradicating poverty. With the savings of time I’m giving to Omar, he won’t have to work so hard, which will give him more of a chance to find ways to work smarter. He may find new types of information to gather from branches that will give them a greater scope of what is happening. Or he'll actually get to take a Saturday off every so often. I think the biggest difference will be in the information that is delivered in a timely manner to management. They can make changes more quickly, and spot areas that need tending to before they get out of hand. They can put more focus in areas that are growing faster, let go of employees that aren’t carrying their own weight, and know which sub-branches are ready to grow, and which to hold back. They will have a more complete picture of the state of their respective areas, and thus they’ll be able to be more effective in reaching out to those who are in need of the loans Yehu can give.

Voila. This summer, I am eradicating poverty.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Life at Yehu and CHOICE Humanitarian

Work has been interesting. I've been learning a lot about what it's like to be a non-profit company that is still trying to grow and be self-sufficient. Yehu has made incredible progress over the past couple years. There is just still so much to be done, but who will do the work? The corporate staff is all stretched so thin. They work long days and come in on the weekends. (Although you would never know when you talk to them - they are all so kind and I've seen no outward displays of any kind of stress that they're all no doubt feeling.)

Yehu needs more employees who are qualified, but they just can't afford to pay the kind of salary that would attract said employees. And at the same time, they've got some heavily aggressive expansion plans over the next couple years. Who is going to market this to new potential clients, and who is going to accommodate these new clients when everyone is already so busy? Enter the interns. This year we're focusing on solidifying the strategic plan, and next year they'll be more marketing/communications-based.

Yehu is definitely making the most of having access to educated, free labor. I've been keeping very busy with working on my own projects, and with helping the stats guy, Omar, to get caught up. One of the big things I'm focusing on here is making processes more efficient - using shortcuts where they're available, eliminating steps that aren't necessary, and so on.

I'm learning that the corporate office may have some inefficiencies, but one of the biggest problems is getting those in branches out in the bush to use technology. They all have access to Excel and have been given forms they simply have to fill in, but they still turn in handwritten numbers. Perhaps they don't trust the technology, perhaps they just don't want to have to deal with the learning curve and they're comfortable with the way it is. I'm hoping to make it out to some villages to do a little training with these people, to help them to get more comfortable with what they have. Plus, I think meeting with people in the villages will be one of the best ways to incentivize me to keep going - I'll be able to really connect what I'm doing with where it's going.

With that in mind, today I visited Samburu (north of Mombasa) with people from CHOICE Humanitarian, which works sort of in conjunction with Yehu. They're working on the communications aspect - interviewing people in villages for videos they'll put on their website. I think especially with my generation, this is one of the best ways to get the word out and get people involved. It creates such a personal touch, and lets people see exactly who is being affected by their efforts, and how. It's exciting, to be involved on such a grassroots level.

I'm including some pictures from my visit to Samburu. My two biggest take-aways were that these people are all extremely hard-working, and that they are all so happy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Random facts and random stats

For those of you who don't know, I like stats. I've actually been collecting a few since I got here, for all of you to enjoy...

* Times water at home has turned off: 2
* Power outages at work or home: 5
* Times I’ve washed my laundry by hand: 3

* Number of mosquito bites I’ve gotten on the inside of my right leg, from my knee to the bottom of my foot: 14

* Number of mosquito bites I’ve gotten everywhere else: 6
* Pirate ships I’ve seen: 1 (Come on, humor me. Doesn’t that look like a pirate flag?)
* Times I’ve tried to get a picture of a lady carrying her baby on her back: 11
* Times I’ve succeeded: 1

* Hours I spent in the Yehu Senior Management meeting last week: 7.5
* Number of roommates (permanent or temporary) I’ve had here so far: 8
* Number of shillings we’re paying for each Swahili-speaking lesson we get from Adet’s wife: 250

Now, for some facts…

There is one word in Swahili for “aunt” and three for “uncle.” Apparently when it’s an uncle you need to clarify whether you’re talking about your dad’s older brother (baba mkubua), your dad’s younger brother (baba mdogo), or your mom’s brother (mjoba), but when it’s an aunt (shangazi), you can just go ahead and leave it at that.

The respectful term used for older women is Mama. There are two women in our office that everyone calls Mama Rose and Mama Rita. I’ve found it to be really endearing, whether or not this is the actual intention of such usage.

Kenyans are all obsessed with Obama. They sell kangas (A.K.A. sari, lava-lava, sarong, etc.) with Obama’s face on them, and women in the little distant villages in the bush wear them with pride. They even named a street in Mombasa after him. The upside for me: Since Obama is associated with America, Kenyans love all Americans. I think we can all agree that this is a good thing.

Work here has been quite interesting. In short, there is much work to be done and not enough people to do it. I'm doing what I can, though, to simplify the processes they're currently using. I've seen a lot of room for shortcuts, and a lot of possibilities to eliminate steps to make this system a little more efficient. Hopefully I can make some solid changes here that will last long after I'm gone. Next time I post, I'll tell you more about what the work environment is like at Yehu.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Week one in Kenya

I've had a chance to upload some pictures, so you can see what Kenya is like.  This is the entrance of Yehu.  

It's interesting adjusting to the way things are done here - not only in the culture of Kenya, but the culture of a small non-profit that is trying to grow.  It is expensive to hire full-time employees who have the intellectual capital they need to really make things happen, which is why they depend on the interns so much when we come here.  The difficulty with this setup is that things take a long time to get done around here, so we may not finish all of the projects we begin before we leave.  

There is so much that is not yet structured or set in stone, so it gives a lot of freedom in the work I do (a major change from the structure I was used to at the Census).  I see a lot of opportunities to do exciting things out here once my main project is finished - mostly out in the field.  One possibility is to take pictures of all of the clients and get information about who they are and what they plan to do with their micro loans.  (Can you imagine how fascinating those mini interviews would be?)  We could partner with Kiva and use these pictures and bios to really get the word out to more potential donors.  Nowadays, online is the way to go.

Because Internet is so spotty, they don't rely on email very much, and printing is expensive too, so most everything in the corporate office is passed around with flash drives.  They don't really have the funds to buy any extra computers for the interns, so we've all brought our own from home.  (FYI, Africa is not very Mac compliant.  Take note, Mac users.)  Here is the desk/office area I share with Andi and Aaron (and probably soon to be a few more), and we're fixin' to dig into our lunch, which was conveniently brought to us in little black baggies that were tied shut.

Mmm…beef stew and rice…

Kenya’s Independence Day was on June 1, which meant we all got a 3-day weekend. We took advantage and headed south. We got to visit the Coast Coconut Farms factory to see the process of making coconut oil.

It was interesting! They husk the coconut…

Crack it open and shred all the meat out…

Then you dry out the meat and press out all the oil. Anyone want me to bring them back some?  Oh, by the way, apparently it solidifies at 78 degrees Farenheit. That's not a problem, is it?

They even use the old shells to make charcoal. How many of you knew that coconut shell charcoal was a valuable commodity? (This is Luis Pope, one of the founders of Yehu and head of the Pope Foundation. I can’t say enough good things about him. He is such a generous man, beloved by many people in the Mombasa area. He’s taken over 20 trips to Kenya over the last 10 years.)

We also visited Mwambalazi, Yehu’s first branch (there are now six). My first trip into the bush. It was enlightening! 
This is Mwambalazi's well. They use this water for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

The branch meetings take place in this little hut, and this man is the groundskeeper.

We visited one family and got to meet the three wives and all of their darling children.

They weren’t afraid of us, for the most part…probably because of all the Yehu reps who come to the village.

Smiling at the camera is not a process kids here have been conditioned to do, so they just stare at the strange silver box you point at them. I am very proud of this picture. I think it’s my favorite so far. What do you see in these little eyes?

We also stopped by the beach.  Let it be documented: this was the first opportunity I've ever had to dip my toes in the Indian Ocean.

One day we took a walk after work before we jumped on a matatu and headed home. I just wanted to be out in the middle of everything, in slow motion. It's so much easier to experience the true character and personality of a place. We were able to get a closer look at the people, the street vendors and their wares, the scents and billboards...the general pulse of Mombasa. Cognizant of the fact that we already stand out, I tried to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) snag some photos of the real world - Mombasa style.

Anywhere there is a pothole around here, the lid is missing. There's metal in that lid, which means quality material for a roof. Thus, the lids never last. Rather than leaving a gaping hole in the sidewalk for people to fall in, they just cover it up with something else!

This is the view from the bridge we cross to get back to Nyali. Since Mombasa is technically an island, it's all salt water.
A very typical sight of Mombasa - a matatu (packed with people since it's rush hour).

Another very common sight:

I often see these men pulling their overloaded carts. Most of them are barefoot. Often, their loads are so huge that they have two or three more men pushing the cart from behind. These are seriously heavy loads - you can see how hard they are straining, how much they are sweating, and how hardened their muscles have become from doing this every day. I even saw one guy hanging from the handles of one, putting all of his body weight into it, while three other guys lifted it from behind so they could get it started rolling. It was deeply humbling to see how hard they were all working, and then to think that this was all probably to take home the tiniest fraction of what we'd make in a half hour of sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office in America. It was a powerful reminder - this is why I'm here. I can't help all of them, but I can help some.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Today is my second full day in Kenya.  I made it safe, I'm all settled in my place, and I intentionally had a crazy sleeping schedule on my 28-hour, five-city flight so I could sleep through the night once I got here.  It actually worked - I slept like a rock and was mostly awake for the whole next day.

Just to orient everyone, I'm working in Mombasa (It's an island. Sort of.) and living in Nyali Beach, just north of Mombasa. (It's the "rich" area, where supposedly all the white people live...although I haven't seen any other white people yet.) You can see them both here. Not such a bad living situation. I think it'll suit me just fine. So far, there are two other interns here that I live with, Aaron and Andi - an awesome couple that got married about four months ago and will be working here for a year.  

I'm at Yehu now, still trying to figure out what exactly I'll be doing. I just met with Adet, the CEO, and he gave me an overview of the kind of information he wants me to be organizing.  I've got a few manuals to read through and lots of tables of data to try review, and boy am I excited!  There is a man here who does the statistics now, Mr. Oman.  I'll be working closely with him, but I haven't met him yet.  In such a small organization, everyone has to be in several places at once!  Adet said that soon we'll get to do some visits to the villages where we give loans, to see how the process works and meet with the people.  That is what it's all about, and why I most wanted to come here - to see where this work really goes, how it's done, and who it helps.  I can't wait!

Over the next week or so, I'm going to try to get more oriented and take some pictures of everyday things (like my mosquito net-covered bed, the Nakumatt A.K.A. Wal-Mart, and the packed matatu taxis I ride to work, and maybe the massive potholes in the sidewalks), so you can get a feel for what life here is like.  Essentially everyone in the city speaks English and Swahili, so communication hasn't been a problem...that will likely only come up in the villages, and we'll always have people translating for us.

I'll try to include pictures as often as I can.  Internet is really spotty here, so it often takes more time than I really have to get it done.