Sunday, April 12, 2009

Nuru's Small Business Development Program

So, I have received a lot of requests to do another blog entry. I have been working on several, but I often leave them half finished. After a day or so of sitting unfinished, they become dull to me, so I fear they we will be dull to others. I am never sure which portion of the job is interesting to other people. Is it monkeys stealing corn; is it a neighbor trying to shoot monkeys stealing his corn with a bow and arrow; or is it how we are training farmers to grow corn? I really don’t know what interests people, but I am willing to cater to my audience (as you should be quite few).

From this entry onward, I will work to publish more. In the future, I will try to keep my blog entries to somewhere between half a page and a page, but this entry is longer because I need to cover a lot of ground. As you may know I am developing Nuru’s Small Business Program, but I have expanded my mandate to encompass Nuru farmers as well because, in my mind, farming is a business too. In our work area, it is probably the most crucial business. What follows is a brief overview of the program.

Nuru’s Small Business Program is underway. I thought that it might be helpful to highlight some philosophical details of how we, Nuru, are confronting poverty. We are using a unique method, which has been showing some incredible results. Nuru approaches international development with a holistic model. Our programs are all intertwined with one another, and are constantly adapting to the environment within which they work. The business program has begun at a crucial time before the harvest. Our program is more than just microcredit and microfinance, we are teaching people self-sufficiency.

The “how” and “why” are to me the most interesting parts of microfinance programs (and life for that matter). Microcredit is a buzzword right now. It is amazing to me how the popularity of the field has grown in recent years. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, has deservedly become synonymous with microcredit. He is a great man, and I have read his book, Banker to the Poor. The Microfinance industry is indebted to him for his innovations, but perfection takes time, and I think there are issues with Yunus’s model that still need work.

I differ from Yunus, as well as a great deal of microcredit and BoP thinkers, in a fundamental assumption: I believe that not everyone can or should be an entrepreneur. This may sound harsh, but I find that it rings true. The Developing World is not a parallel universe. In my experience, if something doesn’t make sense at home, then it probably won’t make sense here. If we look at our societies, what percentage of it is made up of entrepreneurs? Then out of that percentage, how many of those entrepreneurs are successful? Entrepreneurship is hard, hard work. It is simply not for everyone.

Yunus also believes, quite famously, that credit should be a human right. While this sounds very nice, this is the same as saying debt is a right. While I agree too that microcredit can play an essential role in small business development, we cannot overlook something more essential than credit-- financial planning. Now, I know that aside from budgeting there are few things that sound duller than financial planning, but this is what I find is missing from so many microfinance programs. Often MFIs give business trainings, but skills like bookkeeping, while a very useful tool, do little good if you don’t know how to save and spend the money that you are recording.

I have a saying that I have used for years (and I wish my wife would follow). It is very simple, but it explains my philosophy of for development. It may be mine or is may be someone else's, but I use it:

"If you spend more than you earn, you will always be poor."

I disagree with Yunus because credit isn't always the answer. If someone can't run a business or a home, it does not matter how much money that you throw at them. We can look at our current financial crisis and learn. A bank is only as good as its loans. We don’t want to repeat mistakes. Anyone who has had a credit card for the first time knows the dangers of credit. I urge people to tread cautiously with credit. Loans (micro or otherwise) do not always lead to growth. Investments do not always lead to growth. Debt, however, will always need to be repaid (barring forgiveness, bankruptcy, etc.)

So, what am I doing, and how is Nuru different? I believe that while not everyone can be an entrepreneur, everyone can plan and save for tomorrow. One of the biggest obstacles faced by poor people worldwide is ... tomorrow. When you are trying to feed yourself today, then there is only thought for the here and now. Look around you. Poverty is a state of mind reinforced by the environment. If you spend all that you have (and more) today, then what will you do tomorrow?

Planning for tomorrow starts with saving, so Nuru is starting savings clubs. In order to save, you have to budget. In order to budget, you need to have an idea of how much you earn and how much you spend. This all involves planning. We need to help people work with what they have before we can introduce new capital. I believe in savings first and credit second.

These money management programs show people how to climb out of poverty, but they need a bump to that first rung. Most NGOs work very hard to get the poor to this first rung, but make little effort to keep them there. This proves costly. So much time, effort, and resources go into getting people to that first rung only to let them slip down back to where they started (or sometimes worse). Nuru works in a more efficient manner.

Our job is not completed with getting people on the ladder. The true test is teaching them to climb on their own. It is an easy and expensive solution to subsidize the poor and keep them on the ladder (by continually lifting them up), but time has shown this method as having done little to help the poor escape the poverty mindset. In fact, handouts only reinforce it. If I know that another handout is coming, then why should I plan for tomorrow?

Nuru gives no handouts. It is our goal to not only get people on the ladder out of poverty, but to show them how to climb. The agriculture program is that first bump to that first rung. From that point, I see that it is Nuru’s job and #1 interest to keep them on that ladder, while showing them how to climb. Showing people how to climb is a group effort.

Nuru has the Health Program to teach people and their families’ how to lead healthy lives. Anyone who has been ill knows how expensive illness can be. To the poor, illness is devastating. A healthy person can be a productive person- productive today and productive tomorrow.

The Water and Sanitation Program works in unison with the Health Program by helping to ensure that people have access to safe drinking water. Water is life. Without it, no one can survive. Families (often women and children) spend hours collecting water. This water is often polluted and disease-ridden. By investing in clean water, Nuru helps the poor by saving them time (which can be used in income generating activities) and by reinforcing their health.

Now, with Nuru farms producing 400% more than the usual harvest; hunger effectively eradicated; clean water that is readily available; and healthy families, these people are on the ladder. The question is how do we keep them on and climbing? Planning for tomorrow. My program and the Education Program show people how to plan for tomorrow.

Poverty is an extremely complex problem. I don't think there is one answer that I can provide, but I do believe that I can prepare people to come up with their own answers to their own problems. It is this preparation that will help them climb out of poverty. The Developing World has no safety nets. NGOs will not always be there to catch people when they fall, so people must learn to deal with what the future brings. I understand why people seek a miracle cure to poverty. I understand why people believe that cure to be microcredit, but I see microcredit as nothing more than a tool in a very large toolbox.

The next entry will go into more detail with a step-by-step of how the Small Business Program works within Nuru.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Getting ready for Kuria

So I am digging through suitcases, boxes, and garbage bags thinking that after 10 plus years of traveling I would be better organized. Last fall I nearly hung up my traveling shoes, when I moved back home to Orange County, but, as it seems, I am well-suited, if not well organized for traveling.

Rifling through my belongings, I am going through a patchwork of other lives: sweaters from my days in the German Alps; loafers from my days in Rome; coats upon coats from my days in London, but I am not looking for any of this stuff; I am looking for Africa.

In less than a week I fly to Kenya. Being that the next six months will be spent in a village on the border of the Serengeti, I should probably pack something a bit more appropriate than a trench coat and white loafers. After a bit more searching, I have come to realize that I haven’t even unpacked my bags from London and I have been home for nearly six months. I guess, despite recent poor weather, I haven’t had much need for cold weather clothing. Dig dig dig… and -eureka! A pocketknife, a pair of cargos, and a headlamp; now I am on to something.

The last time that I moved to Africa, I over-packed. I came off the plane with 80 lbs of luggage looking like I came straight out of the REI catalog. I spent the next 18 months lugging around bags through the Sahel Desert. Not again. This time, I am traveling light- mainly due to the fact that I haven’t found any suitable clothes. By the looks of it, I am going to be traveling really light this trip.

It’s funny going through the suitcases, boxes, and garbage bags. They represent so many different lives that I have led and hats that I have worn. This trip to Kenya represents the culmination of a decade’s work. In a week’s time, I will be applying all that I have learned, so that I can learn one important lesson. That lesson is change.