Habari gani! What’s news!
We all hugged and laughed and caught up quickly. Alex is still working with Acumen and working with Suraj to plan a path to work in media. Herbert is working on his university degree and will graduate in October. “I have a-ha moments every day now,” he told me. “Last night, my family was discussing the new constitution and my mother said she was going to vote for the first time in too many years. She used to feel her vote didn’t count, but now we’re all feeling more hopeful. My a-ha is that when you start hearing things like this, there becomes room for real change.” I couldn’t have smiled more broadly.
Herbert reads Seth Godin’s blog daily and shares it with the other guys. “We all love Seth,” Dickson said (he’s working on getting into a university). “I read 'The Dip' as well as 'Tribes'”, said Alex. “I love Seth!” Right now, the Blue Sweater group
is reading Easterly’s "White Man’s Burden" and are finding they agree with most of what he says. Suddenly, my world was all around me, right here in Mama Hamza’s little patch of land in the Kibera slum.
And Chris...well, Biju, our country manager, helped him get an internship with Duncan Onyango, a friend of Acumen’s who runs a business consulting company. Prior to this opportunity, Chris was selling eggs on the street, but you can see the determination in his eyes, and he worked like a maniac. A week ago, Duncan offered him a permanent position with a good salary, and Chris told me nothing can stop him now. As for Kevin, he is now working with Suraj who is consulting to TED
to bring TEDx to the slums around Nairobi. They plan to do five in the next few months.
What a difference three months can make! What a difference Suraj has made – and not just to the lives of these extraordinary young men, but to the fabric of a community that is getting more interwoven by the day.
Three months ago, in February, I was standing in this same community center, talking to about 100 people who had read "The Blue Sweater" thanks to the hard work and organizing skills of Suraj and the seven young men. The evening’s stories were incredibly moving – of overcoming challenges, of desires to effect real change, and of the frustration of living in a world where corruption hits the poor hardest of all. Halfway through my speech, I shared my own a-ha moment: I was being given an honorary degree by Wofford College a few weeks hence, and the degree came with a financial award as well, though I’d not yet been to Wofford. And there I was standing in one of the slums where, in so many ways, I had received my real education. Yet many of its residents couldn’t go to high school, not because they weren’t smart enough, but because they couldn’t afford the bribes. I could not have been prouder of my new affiliation with Wofford, and yet the irony could not have been starker.
On the spot, I announced The Blue Sweater Challenge. We would use the award money from Wofford to create a challenge to individuals and groups who made the most change in their community. We would start by choosing three groups and award them $1,000 each, and I would present the awards personally when I returned in three months. Moreover, I said, the young men would work with Suraj to figure out the details.
In the past three years, that group did a lot more than figure out details. They decided to have a business plan competition, and then drafted members of the Acumen team and others to provide training and business plan assistance on each of three week-ends. Nearly 80 individuals submitted plans which they then whittled to 16. Judges from top community organizations were then brought in to analyze the finalists; and last Sunday, the judges selected five winners and gave on “Innovation Award” for the most creative idea. Instead of grants, they insisted on making one year loans and charging nominal interest (“according to Acumen’s value system”, Gerry explained to me)....
I’m guessing the energies of at least 50 people were released in the best possible way with a catalyst of $3,000. You may ask why the judges chose six winners rather than three. Two reasons: first, the majority of businesses needed only $500 to get started; and second, they were so inspired by the professionalism, enthusiasm and intelligence of the plans, that some of the judges pitched in their own money as well.
Exactly at 6 p.m., exactly at sundown, we were all seated again in Mama Hamza’s center. I was in front with Josiah who runs Imande Trust, a local NGO that generously agreed to make and service the loans, as well as give the team office space when they need it. Josiah is another community organizer, a leader born and raised in Kibera. He has a strong face, a direct gaze, and a big moustache. Wearing a kente cloth shirt and vest, he talked about growing up on the streets where we were meeting and feeling such a sense of pride tonight because we were seeing the best of Kibera. “Too many people think Kibera is nothing about nothing. But tonight, we are seeing Something about Something. And even more than that, this group did in less than four months what it takes most NGOs four years to do.” So I would say they are showing EVERYTHING about Something here in Kibera.
Kevin, of course, ran the show wearing a dark blue button down shirt and jeans. His pride at what this group had accomplished was palpable. He introduced Josiah and then Irfan, a soft-spoken leader who runs Honey Care and is a first-rate social entrepreneur. I also spoke, though the honor was truly for all of the organizers and those who made this evening possible. We announced the 16 finalists to much applause. And then finally, we announced the six winners.
The biggest awardee, Edwin, just 21 years old and wearing a red Kenya t-shirt, is creating a center to show live sports and films to young people that is alcohol free and will uphold a clean environment. “Young people learn how to play football by watching their heroes on TV,” he told me. “But we can’t have them at bars with too many bad things going on. They need a place that is theirs.”
Three women and a man were awarded loans of $500 each for trading businesses — jewelry, cothing, cosmetics, cereal and a hair salon. And Zena, wearing a grey pantsuit, won the Innovation Loan -- $500 to provide packets of food staples that she buys wholesale and then gives on a credit basis to people in the slums. It holds the highest risk business, but the judges feel the community will learn a great deal from it.
I hugged each recipient as they came up for their certificate, and each time, was impressed with the confidence of the individual and the sense of excitement in the room. I kept looking at the audience filled with our team, community residents, leaders of social enterprises. To say I felt blessed is sheer understatement. If all this weren’t enough, a little girl from the community named Shaneez presented me with a large cardboard art piece she’d created, a trace and mosaic painting with my name done in tiny tiles surrounded by block prints of the continent of Africa
, leaves, a child’s hand and foot.
This is what development should look like – people coming together across lines of ethnicity and class to work together on a common endeavor in which every person in the room gives what they can give, in which every person in the room shows up with their whole selves, in which every person in the room is left wanting to be a better person because of the experience.
And this is just the beginning ...
I will be forever grateful to Suraj and the seven men for making a dream real, and for keeping development real.
About the Author
As Acumen Fund's Founder and CEO, Jacqueline Novogratz is responsible for the vision behind Acumen Fund's unique approach to using philanthropic capital to invest in scalable businesses that serve the poor with life-changing goods and services. She has led the Acumen Fund team since its launch in 2001, and under her leadership Acumen Fund has invested over $40 million in companies serving 25 million low-income customers in the developing world. Jacqueline is the author of the NY Times bestselling book The Blue Sweater.