Three Months in Kakamega, by Andrew Noh

Matatu_1.jpgNovember 12, 2009: Situating Yourself in a Kenyan Bar/Lounge

For such a communal society, Kenyans have a very distinct way of sitting at bars. At American bars and lounges, if there is a table encircled by chairs, a party of multiple people would definitely sit "around" the table. That is to say, you would seat yourselves opposite each other in a pseudo-symmetrical way so as to face each other while socializing. At Kenyan bars and lounges, if there is a table encircled by chairs, a party of multiple people sits on the same exact side in as close to a single row as possible with absolutely no one facing each other. I tried taking the opposite seat during a meeting with my supervisor at a bar just yesterday and I was told to come across the table to sit in the seat next to him. It was at that point that I noticed the table next to ours where three men sat on the same couch shoulder to shoulder, each nursing their own beers linearly aligned on the table. Maybe this has to do with the fact that in the Kenyan culture, prolonged eye contact in conversation is discouraged and even considered rude. Or maybe, sitting in a row together is a consequence of being so communal - you're so close with people, you want to sit in close proximity with each other and not across from each other. I can't figure it out.

November 2, 2009: Momentous

One of the trainings we are given through FSD is about Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), developed by professors at Northwestern University. It is a framework with which to analyze development situations by focusing on the strengths and assets of an organization (or community). How is this unique? Well, imagine entering a grassroots organization for the first time where you've been given the mission to "perform capacity-enhancing work", or in plain English, "add value as a volunteer". Where would you start? Almost inherently, one would start by observing the organization and brainstorming things that the organization needs. It would be easiest to think about where the organization is lacking capacity and what the organization needs to fill those gaps. Essentially, this is called a "needs-based" approach.

However, ABCD focuses on the things the organization already has, and as a result, how to effectively utilize those resources to making the organization better. If the "needs-based" approach is looking at a glass half-empty, the "asset-based" approach focuses on the flip side and looks at a glass as half-full. Instead of saying, "this organization needs something, so let me do this and that", ABCD says, "this organization has these strengths, so let me build on this and that."

In reality, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. You need both the "needs-based" and "asset-based" view of the organization. When I was first introduced to these development frameworks, I dismissed them as fancy rhetoric. Likely, these were professors in their ivory towers attaching academic jargon and frameworks that translated loosely at best into reality. Instead, in my latest project here at KES, I found this whole interaction between needs and assets to be super relevant.

As I looked at KES, I noticed two things. KES' greatest need was the need for improved KES-member interactions at the SACCO. Because of the organization's lean staff, it had traditionally relied upon members to physically come to KES' offices to conduct any transactions, whether to save money or repay loans (two of its main functions). In addition, KES only had about three ways of communicating with its members en masse. First, it holds an AGM once a year. Second, it holds a Members' Education Day once a year. Third, it just started sending a biannual newsletter (credit: previous FSD intern, Josh). With only mandated days of KES-member interactions, you have 361 other days of the year that is completely dependent on the member to maintain relations. As a result, members may never come by the office, or even if they are willing to, may be unable to because of financial or time constraints.

KES serves largely a low-income population of members. Although they are supposed to come into KES to make monthly share contributions (deposits), it makes little economically rational sense for them to pay 100/= for a round trip from a faraway village to Kakamega Town to make a 1000/= deposit. That's like levying a 10% tax on the poor for saving. Additionally, if a KES member has taken a loan and lands on hard times or, heaven forbid, is intentionally scheming, he can literally just disappear and never return to the KES offices. KES had no method of recourse for these types of members in default as well as for those members that weren't coming into the office.

Until now. As I looked at KES, the other things I noticed was that KES' greatest asset is the availability of a second staff member (named Alice). Alice had been hired only about one month before I arrived. KES is managed by volunteer committee members elected at the AGM. Despite their enthusiasm for hiring a second employee, they largely lacked the staff, time or resources to train her properly into any specific role. As a result, she was largely performing redundant duties at the office with no specific responsibilities or defined role. After working on a lot of small projects like member appreciation letters, a registry of borrowers, new member application forms and the like, it finally clicked in my head. The asset is the answer to the need. Combined, they enhance and build capacity.

Over the past few weeks, I focused on creating a training manual for the formal creation of a Field Officer position at KES. When I first arrived at KES, I was largely unsure of my "place" in the organization and I think that was one of the reasons I was inclined to take on smaller projects. However, almost halfway in, I realized I had the managerial support and authority to implement a seemingly large procedural and organizational change at KES. With this, I set off doing online research, interviewing and surveying members of KES, and also interviewing other heads of MFIs and officers at other institutions in the area. Compiling what I've observed at KES with this research, I put together a training manual for to train Alice as a Field Officer and also with the intent to make the training sustainable and scalable should, hopefully, KES expand in the future and require more Field Officers.