In the Field: Stories of KADET Borrowers

November 10, 2009

My field partner for the day, a credit officer named Joshua, is already in the field when I arrive in Baba Mdogo, and I must navigate his descriptive map to find him in the slum. Turn left at the butchery and enter a narrow strip of shops. Take a right at the tomato stand. When a blue sign reading “Obama’s Barber Shop” is visible, turn right again. From there, exit the car and walk through the tight space formed by the tin shacks on the left. Walk through the second-hand shoe store and exit the back.

There, I find several hanging clotheslines, and Joshua is standing between drying towels and skirts speaking to a tall borrower wearing a bucket hat and jeans. I’m introduced to Michael Otieno, a tailor. When the borrower profile form is complete, we enter Michael’s shop on the other side of the clotheslines. I slip on the wet dirt as we enter, and am steadied by a man holding several scraps of muted fabric.

Michael Otieno

Michael Otieno, in his shop, using one of the three sewing machines he owns for his tailoring business

Michael proudly tells me, in English, that this is one of his three employees. Michael is 40 years old, married and has six children. He took out his first loan from KADET three years ago and has since multiplied his income several fold, expanded into a bigger location and created jobs for young tailors in his community. With his third loan from KADET, Michale says he will purchase more fabric for waiting customers as well as pay for his children’s school fees. “My life goal,” Michael says, “is to do real estate business. I bought a plot already and hope to have the capital to develop it in the next few years.”

We exit Michael’s shop and make our way back to the main street. The morning rain filled the pot holes with deep sticky puddles, and it’s impossible to avoid being splashed by moving bicycle tires, hand carts and roving animals. It is the first time I’ve seen pigs added into the mix of wandering cows, goats and chickens. The only pink visible on their mud-soaked bodies is behind their ears. After a few minutes trudging through the muddy road, we duck under a corrugated tin roof and step into the wooden structure it covers. Three light bulbs bathe the room in a pale glow, and I’m surprised to be standing on damp straw in a small room full of chickens. A single chair sits in the 8’ x 8’ space, its blue vinyl seat barely visible beneath the white chicken droppings.

George Otieno with his chickens

George Otieno standing among his chickens

George, whose second name is also Otieno, is 41-years-old and has been in the chicken rearing business for two years.  He purchases chicks when they are a day old, feeds them for six weeks, and then sells them to butchers and farmers. “There must be 50 in here,” I say to George. “Actually,” he responds in Kiswahili, “there are 98. I bought 100 but two of them died despite my investment in body strengthening food. It was sad for me.”

With the help of his wife, Mercy, George also runs two other businesses: a general retail store that sells items like maize and sugar, and a hotel (café) in the room attached to the chicken coop.

Chicken rearing is George’s most recent venture. I ask him why he chose to enter this seemingly unrelated area of business.  “My hotel always has leftovers and I did not want to waste them,” George says in his deep scratchy voice, “I thought maybe I could feed these leftovers to livestock, like pigs. But then I noticed that pigs are too dirty and preferred to raise chickens instead. Now I never waste anything from the hotel and I can feed my chickens without really having to purchase additional food.”

George is a KADET success story. His first loan, disbursed just four years ago, was worth KSh 10,000 (~$135). At the time, George had been running his retail shop for six years and was not making enough money to care for his family’s basic needs. When one of George and Mercy’s two sons got sick, they could not afford to take him to a doctor. “He died of normal sickness in the stomach,” George tells me. I’m left wondering if this was a preventable death.

With the motivation of better providing for his remaining son and wife, George took out his first loan with KADET and opened his café. Now on his 7th loan, worth KSh 80,000 (~$1070), George plans to purchase stock for his retail shop and meat to serve in his café. A foray into the world of real estate is George’s next venture, which he will begin next year with the extra profits he anticipates from this loan combined with another loan from KADET.

George wears a gray jacket over a white button-up shirt, black pants and a matching baseball cap. As he prepares for his photo, he bends down to arrange the healthiest looking chickens around him. Joshua snaps his picture. “One more,” George says. Picking up a particularly plump bird, George laughs as he shoves it into my hands. “Smile” he says in English.

With George Otieno

With George and one of his chickens.

Joshua and I climb back into the van and head to our next borrower. On the way, Joshua waves at a child wearing a red jacket. “That is George’s son,” Joshua tells me. I take a closer look at the healthy boy laughing with his friends and wave.

We head down yet another narrow, muddy street to find our next borrower: Edward Abisalom Obongo Olero. Dozens of kids surround me as we walk, grabbing to clasp my hand or touch my leg. The now familiar chorus of “Hi, how are you?” trails me down the road; it’s the first English phrase they are taught in school. I am a novelty; most of these children have never seen a mzungu before.  We take a sharp right down a tiny alley, dodging a young woman carrying a massive yellow bucket of water on her head, and step into Edward’s retail store. The shelves are filled with coffee, tea, sugar, toilet paper, batteries, detergent and other general merchandise. A tall refrigerator sits in the middle of the room stocked with a variety of sodas. Edward offers one to me and I accept, handing him KSh 40. A window opens to the crowded main road, and while Joshua and I interview Edward for his borrower profile, four women stick their heads in to purchase various items.


Edward pulls a green vest over his black t-shirt for his picture. He says he wants to look his best.

Edward will be 40 years-old this year and is married to Maureen Akiny, who is 21. Maureen lives upcountry with Edward’ parents and he sees her only once or twice a year. They have one child together, and although Edward would love to see his daughter on a daily basis, the business opportunities near Nairobi are much better than upcountry. Five years ago Edward decided to quit earning money as a casual laborer and open his own shop. When he first started his business, Edward did not have an actual store; he carried his merchandise from market to market selling items from a blanket. With a KADET loan he opened a kiosk; with a subsequent loan he opened a shop; and with yet another loan he relocated to his current location.  Now applying for his eighth loan with KADET, Edward wants to open another store that will specialize in both wholesale and retail supply. He plans to hire someone to run one of his shops. “I’m proud to be creating a job for someone else that might just be getting started,” Edward tells me. “I want to hire someone like who I was five years ago. To give someone their first start at making consistent money.”


Emma, standing in her shop

Emma Akinyi Mugwanga: It is obvious the moment we arrive that the residents of Lucky Summer generate a higher income than those we visited this morning. Emma Akinyi Mugwanga owns a weaving business called Ragwanda. With a cement floor and walls and a tin roof, Ragwanda is a cheery shop filled with weavings of yellow, blue, green and purple. They hang across the length of the store on two clotheslines. A loom, half filled with yellow and white yarn, is pushed against the center wall. Emma’s customers purchase her weavings to use as decoration on dining tables, chairs and in their bathrooms. It is clear that her customers are those that can afford to spend money on aesthetics. Emma started her weaving and embroidery business four years ago and has since built up her income to 25,000 Kenya Shillings a month. She never took formal classes, but always had an interest in learning how to embroider and weave. Emma sought out a knowledgeable friend and learned the basics from her. Through her own practice and dedication, Emma became an advanced weaver. She now wants to diversify her income by entering the fish distribution market. This is Emma’s third loan from KADET, but the first which she will use for a brand new business. Emma’s dream is to go to college and conduct training in interior design. She is hoping that her fish distribution business will provide her with the money she needs for tuition.

Behind a squat red door is Francis Kamau Kaniuki’s home. We conduct our meeting in the living room, a spacious area filled with two armchairs, a long couch and a television set. The walls display a map of Africa, family photos and a picture of Kenya’s President. Francis is poised and confident, speaking in an animated accented English. He offers Joshua and me tea and tells us to relax on his couch, gesturing to the embroidered decorations covering the red couch cushions. Francis is married and has eight children, ranging in age from 21 to 40. He purchased his plot of land 21 years ago and started building rental homes shortly after. With this loan from KADET, his sixth, Francis will purchase cement, sand, stones and labor to complete the building he rents to tenants. “My next business,” Francis tells me, “will be to enter the transport industry. I want to own a truck and carry greens and cereals from upcountry to sell in Nairobi. My wife has diabetes and I want to be able to pay for her medicines for the rest of our lives. I am certain I will accomplish this.”

With Francis in front of his rental building

With Francis in front of his rental building

It takes almost two hours to drive the six kilometers back to the KADET head office. My experience with traffic and moving vehicles in Nairobi has made me forever grateful to live in a society where stop lights aren’t optional, distinct lanes exist and exhaust fumes aren’t a constant source of nausea.


My First Day in the Field (Part 2/2)

October 16, 2009

Gachi and I traipse through the dusty, pebble strewn streets for 20 minutes before arriving at our next stop. My second group meeting of the day takes place in a turquoise

Standing in front of a barber shop, which doubles as the location for Kiva borrowers' group meetings

Standing in front of a barber shop, which doubles as the location for Kiva borrowers' group meetings

painted corrugated tin shack that upon entering, I realize is actually a barber shop. A large poster containing 64 numbered photos display hairstyle options from the 70s (80s? 90s? Definitely not this decade). The space is cramped and hot; I can feel sweat oozing from my pores after less than a minute inside. I’m thankful that I remembered to put on deodorant, disappointed that some of the others in the confined room had not. Seven of the twelve group members are assembled inside, and I’m given the only real chair. I try to refuse this honor, but they insist. Four of the members present are male, three are female. The meeting takes place in Kiswahili, and I observe as Gachi checks the members’ passbooks for accuracy and signs his name next to various repayment schedules. Throughout the meeting, the treasurer rotates her small child back and forth between her breasts, allowing her daughter to eat while she collects money and conducts financial business.

The next Kiva borrower we visit to photograph and talk to is a woman named Flashiah. Flashiah is a tailor, specializing in dresses. Her shop is located directly across the street from the turquoise barber shop, and she is the only one present when we walk through the doorway. Flashiah wears a floral print tunic, long black skirt and flat mary-jane tennis shoes which are covered in the thick orange dust that intrudes on everything here.  A single black sewing machine sits on a folding table and bears a sticker that says: “On this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Several garments hang from the walls, and a few scraps of fabric litter the floor. Chickens wander in and out, not paying attention to the beautiful colors of thread in their paths.

Standing with Flashiah in her dress shop

Standing with Flashiah in her dress shop

This interview takes place in English, and I’m thrilled to be an active participant in the conversation. It’s been one year since Flashiah opened her store on these streets, although she previously had a store in another village (unprofitable based on its location, she says). Flashiah tells me that she learned to make dresses in “dress making college.” Her husband, a newspaper vendor, saved for several years in order to put her through this training.

Flashiah’s last loan was for KSh 20,000 (~$266); this new loan is for double. The loan repayment term brings about a discussion over interest rates (14.625% for 9 month term or 19.5% for 12 month term), and after an internal debate, Flashiah decides to go with the 12 month term. This loan will be used to purchase additional fabric for her shop as well as to buy another sewing machine so that Flashiah can hire her first employee.

We leave Flashiah to find several other borrowers: a father of 6 who walks up and down a busy road selling cds and dvds (his loan is to purchase more merchandise), a mother of two who supports her family by selling french fries from a kiosk (her loan is to expand into the business of fruit sales), a woman who sells used shoes on a tarp on the side of the road (her loan is to purchase additional used clothing). I photograph all of them for Kiva’s website, and Gachi conducts the interviews in Kiswahili, patiently translating thereby allowing me to engage with the borrowers.

Walking to our final borrower interview of the day, I stumble on some uneven ground and almost land on my face, alongside a black and white goat trying to swallow a muffin wrapper. I’m saddened by all of the trash that fills the land here, and watching the various animals eating discarded papers and plastic bags in an attempt o find food breaks my heart.

We arrive at Nicholas’ carpentry kiosk, a stand comprised of four wooden posts and a malleable tin roof. Chairs are assembled for us in the open air, and Gachi buys me a ginger soda while we wait for Nicholas to finish what he’s doing. Nicholas’ wife runs the attached food kiosk, and she takes out two filthy, empty glass bottles (Fanta and Coca-Cola) and goes to fill them up in another part of the village. Three goats lay in the rubble at our feet, and as we drink our lukewarm sodas, the goats munch on mouthfuls of dust. Nicholas joins us after 20 minutes.

Nicholas is the Chairman of his borrower group. He started his carpentry business in 1994 and earns profits of about KSh 10,000 (~$135) a month. Over the last several years, Nicholas has taken out loans from KADET to diversify his sources of income. In addition to this carpentry business, Nicholas also owns the food kiosk and operates as a bread and milk supplier. With this new loan, worth KSh 50,000 (~$665), Nicholas is set to also become a meat distributer. Nicholas will purchase a cow at wholesale and then distribute the various parts to retail butcheries.

With Nicholas, in front of his carpentry kiosk

With Nicholas, in front of his carpentry kiosk

It is obvious that Nicholas is proud of his accomplishments. Smiling wide, he even showed me the two fingers missing from his left hand as a result of a mistake early in his furniture making days. Perhaps the thing about Nicholas I am most awed by is the impact his success has had on others in his community. Nicholas employs four other men, all operating from his small kiosk at the end of a dirt road.

It is almost cliché to say that I have never met such dedicated, hard workers in my life. These individuals are industrious; they believe in their own capacity to succeed and have changed their lives for the better through entrepreneurship. I am honored to put their profiles on Kiva’s website so that lenders around the world can take part in their journey upward.

My First Day in the Field; Anything but Ordinary (Part 1/2)

October 16, 2009

This was the reason I became a Kiva Fellow. All of my preparation, training, fundraising, crazed matatu rides, nightly battles with mosquitoes, and long days at KADET headquarters have been for this: impacting borrowers. I was surprised to realize I had butterflies in my stomach, a combination of nerves and excitement, for my first day in the field. Although I was scheduled to leave for the Thika Road branch office at 8:30, it was 10:45 before I actually climb into the KADET van with my driver, Sam. Hey, that’s 8:30 in African time.

As Sam navigated our way through the crowded city streets, I realized this was my first time leaving Nairobi. I’ve found Nairobi to be a compelling place with enormous vitality and character. The controlling ethos is commerce rather than community, and there is never a quiet moment in the free-for-all of commuters, shoppers, merchants, police, and traffic. However, Nairobi’s commercial landscape disappears only a few miles outside of the city. Replacing massive car jams and the sound of honking matatus are dusty roads filled with bleating goats and clucking chickens. In Mwiki, an area where many Kiva borrowers live, the dirt roads are lined with sidewalk vendors and tin storefronts selling everything from second-hand shoes to beauty supplies to charcoal.

I was so engrossed with the scene around me that I didn’t even realize Sam had come to a complete stop and was speaking to someone. He was introduced to me as Erastus, the credit officer with whom I was to spend the next three days. Once Sam had departed and Erastus and I were alone, Erastus confided that he’d rather be called by his African name: Gachi (pronounced Gah-she-ay). [I will have to dedicate an entire post just to the concept of names and name use in Kenya.]

Gachi led me to a kiosk selling soda and cellular air time. He spoke to the owner, retrieved a key, and steered me through the kiosk’s back door and into an incomplete brick structure divided into several open rooms. We walked through a door-less gap and Gachi motioned for me to sit on one of the two thin benches leaning against the rotting brick. I carefully avoided animal feces as I took my seat in the tiny room. A bicycle leaned against the opposite wall; I swatted at the flies buzzing in my face. After a few minutes, my first group of borrowers arrived for their weekly meeting. (Although this was my first encounter with borrowers, Gachi had been in the field since 7am). Every group chooses a name for itself, and this particular group of five is called Simba (lion in Kiswahili). The meeting takes place in Kiswahili, with short moments of English when Gachi translates for me and I ask questions. One member is applying for a new loan. Though it’s his third, Matthew struggles to complete the loan form independently, relying on the other group members and Gachi to help him determine a repayment schedule and other details.

Gachi, waiting for our first borrower group to convene.

Gachi, waiting for our first borrower group to convene.

When the meeting adjourns, I shake hands with everyone in the group (a standard greeting and goodbye to any stranger or friend) and follow Gachi out the same way we entered. Gachi informs me that one of the group members, Lydia, has recently applied for a loan and will be put up on Kiva’s website for funding. As we walk to her business, where we will take her photo and gather information for her borrower profile, I ask her questions about her trajectory and how she became a landlord to 35 families.

Lydia is 50, and it wasn’t until 5 years ago that she decided to start a business. Motivated by the desire to send her sons to secondary school—an expensive undertaking—she started out selling kerosene. Eventually Lydia was operating three pumps, but she faced thievery on a weekly basis, so she decided to take her savings and purchase a building in 2004. We maneuver through dusty alleys and makeshift roads, sidestepping dozens of emaciated goats and thirsty chickens, and finally arrive at Lydia’s building. It has 35 rooms; each is no bigger than 8’x6’ and each room houses an entire family. Lydia’s first loan was used to paint the building. Subsequent loans from KADET were used to implement weekly trash collection, install running water and an electricity meter. With these improvements, Lydia has increased the rent she charges from KSh700 (~$9) a month to KSh 1,500 (~$20) a month. The loan Lydia is applying for now will be used to add additional electricity meters, so each pod of families can control their own usage.

Lydia and me in front of her rental building.

Lydia and me in front of her rental building.

“My entire life has changed since I started borrowing money and running my business,” Lydia tells me.  Her children are in school, she now owns a vehicle, has moved into a new home and has begun to expand her source(s) of income (she recently purchased two cows for dairy farming). Gachi tells me Lydia is average. At 5’6” wearing a floral top and black trousers she may look average, I tell Gachi, but Lydia is anything but ordinary.