My humbling trip to Kenya

I've just returned from an incredible five days spent with some of Five Talents' partners in Kenya, and wanted to share my feelings and thoughts. I came into the trip a novice in the world of microfinance, and have departed with a sense of optimism about the Five Talents model that is being delivered with significant success across the country. Even more so, I came away with a huge amount of admiration for the people involved - the Anglican Church leaders who are supporting and promoting the programme; the passionate, dedicated and talented staff who are coordinating everything through development trusts in three separate areas; and also the individuals and groups who are embracing the opportunities the programme is giving them.

The Structure of Microfinance

My group's trip took in visits to groups in Thika, Embu and Nakuru, where I was able to see the programme at different stages of development - from being well established in Thika, to maturing in Embu, and developing in Nakuru. Each area faced its own unique challenges, but all three were changing the lives of their communities for the better. The Church - whether by providing in kind support (land, buildings or structures) or channels for the programme to take root - was clearly a huge factor in the programme's success, and it was heartening to see how it was affecting such positive outcomes for the community. 

I was very much taken with the structure and format of the programme: groups had to save for 6 months before they could take out loans. A loan was capped at double what an individual had saved. Individuals had to be part of a 'cell' in their group - and this cell would guarantee their loans. Many times people told me how their social bonds had been strengthened with fellow cell members. Everyone clearly understood that the regulations - fines for not making a savings deposit, fines for not turning up to the monthly meeting, fines for late payment of interest. The 'Discipline Master' was unapologetic about the importance of their role in ensuring group members adhered to the rules. The groups appreciated that they succeeded or failed together - and I saw countless committee members patiently doing the books and giving up their time to ensure the groups ran smoothly. 

I heard from people who had achieved success and grown their businesses as a direct result of loans from their groups: the two who stick in my mind were Zachary and Immaculate. I marvelled at their entrepreneurial spirit, their confidence, and their plans for further loans to grow their businesses. Zachary talked us through the finances of raising chickens, brushed off a hiccup with the pig-rearing side of his business, and detailed how he had branched out into selling feed, initially to get himself better prices but then also to supply other farmers in the area. Such growth, he said, had been made possible by three separate loans from his savings group - and he wasn't going to be finished there! Immaculate had identified a market for timber but simply could not afford to buy enough to supply to her clients. With her first loan, she had been able to virtually double her business and now never runs short of stock as she used to do before. 

It was encouraging to hear staff in Thika and Embu not resting on their laurels, despite their achievements, and thinking about the medium to long term sustainability of their programmes. Rev Mark (Embu Programme Manager) and Peterson (Thika Programme Manager) were able to focus on delivering success for their existing groups and building new groups, but also had an eye to strategic changes in how they operated, to make them self-sustaining, with reduced need for the support - financial or otherwise - of Five Talents. 

In Nakuru, I saw the huge distances across which Rev Anthony worked, which made his job so difficult. Working with extremely rural groups, for whom saving was extremely difficult. It was a testament to the respect with which he was held that these 25 groups had been established - and indeed others were clamouring to be set up. Remoteness was a problem - one group we met were able to save around 4000 KSH (around £30) per month, but the cost of transporting this money to the nearest bank was 500 KSH - more than 12%! Such challenges did not diminish the desire of these groups to continue. 

Seeing It For Myself

I feel that 'humbled' is often a misused and therefore devalued term - but I can say that on every step of my time in Kenya I felt humbled by the kindness, hospitality and generosity of everyone I came across. People took time out of their day - from their work, from their businesses, from their families - to greet us and treat us with warmth and respect. I saw how Peterson, Rev Mark and Rev Anthony were held in the highest esteem by the savings groups. I saw how they were equally at ease with a senior Bishop, a Five Talents trustee, a savings group member, or a naive mzungu (white person). Being able to experience this first hand has made me want to get more involved with the programme, as I can see the myriad of positive effects it is having in these areas. 

I hope it is possible to bring the programme to more of Kenya. To my mind, Five Talents balances the ability to stand back and let their partners drive the delivery of the programme, whilst still providing the support and guidance where necessary. From my time here, I can see the path to self-sustainability will not be easy, but is within grasp. I look forward to being part of that journey.