Saturday, September 02, 2006

early bird

and august bleeds into september without warning, as quickly as august had come. the air is still cold in the mornings, biting and stinging the skin at times, but by midafternoon most days the sun has burned off the clouds that crouched over the village, and activity slows down. everyone - animals, plants, people - seek shade anywhere they can find it.

i've taken to running in the mornings lately - about 5:30am - with my friend Waithaka, who is expecting to receive a military appointment by our area member of parliament in the near future. he has told me of the army's high standards for physical fitness, and wants to be prepared. it was big news for him, when the MP offered this placement, as military appointments are difficult to come by, and very lucrative. military officership is a fast track to wealth and prestige in kenya, as they are compensated very well for the little work that they do. the work, far as i can tell, consists of wearing faded fatigues, swinging a heavy baton and/or carrying an automatic rifle, and eating a lot. the magnitude of their diets is belied by their protruding stomachs, which put the strength of their belts to the test. the high athletic standards that are set for recruits must relax soon after recruitment.

5:30 is the best time of day to run. the icy air invigorates the body and clears the lungs, and the hazy, encompassing blackness propels the legs faster than they would move under normal conditions. the darkness keeps you from realizing how fast you're actually moving, and everything that passes - trees, rocks, napier grass - drags by as if in a dream, but disappears before you can be sure that you actually saw it. i've been getting up about 3 times per week at this hour to run 4-8 miles, depending on how determined i am on the particular day. i've never considered myself a morning person, and peeling myself from my bed before sunrise has become an excruciating process. i'll set two alarms - one for 5, one for 5:30, so that if i get up and shut off the first one in a daze, the second will, in theory, shock me to life. to be honest, though, after the exhilaration i experienced during my inaugural morning run, it's easier to motivate myself to get up. this exhilaration is caused not only by the flood of endorphins to my brain, but also by the blinding darkness which heightens every other sense in my body. the cold pierces my skin and invades my lungs, the symphonies of waking birds reverberate in my ears, the clean smell of the air and trees fills my head, pervaded at times by wisps of wood smoke, or pungent manure, or processed coffee beans, each welcome in its own uniquely pleasant way.

perhaps i should take a few minutes to fill you in on work-related news - not that there's much of it - else i forget completely. in SFMAP (small farmers' marketing assistance program, you will remember), we have suspended the loaning program in order to accomplish two objectives. one - to get an idea of how much money is actually floating around the farming community. when i first arrived, no one could tell me the amount of money that was being loaned currently, only how much the program had started with - it didn't occur to anyone, apparently, that the 5% monthly interest that we were charging would accrue to our account. the first time i calculated the total it came to just over 300,000 shillings - about $4,000 (from a initial outlay of 150,000 less than a year earlier). a month later i redid the calculation and came up 50,000 shilling shorter than before. ignoring accusations of corruption (which i'm not ignoring and which i'm still looking into), this discrepancy indicated a major problem with the credit program.
the second objective of the loan suspension is to assess the actual benefit that the farmers are receiving from it. the original aim of the program, as is probably the aim of most micro-finance institutions, was to increase the income and capacity of small-scale farmers in the area. SFMAP would issue loans, which would be invested in farm inputs (fertilizer, high-quality seeds, irrigation systems), leading to increased production and crop revenue. the major problem with any lending program, however, is that it has the distinct probability of making the borrower poorer than when he started. this happens when the borrower uses the money for something other than investment, i.e. school fees, medical expenses, immediate consumption, or any other expense. because the loan carries a rate of interest (very high in our case), the money borrowed should ideally be invested in capital that will increase the income by not only the amount of the original principal of the loan, but also by at least the amount of interest.

let me explain further. say a farmer borrows 5,000 shillings for two months. SFMAP charges 10% interest on this loan, or 500 Ksh. ideally, the farmer will purchase fertilizer or similar input with this money which he would have been unable to afford otherwise. this fertilizer would increase his farm production by an amount at least equal to 5,500 Ksh, enabling him to repay the principal and interest on the loan without issue. if it is any amount less than that, however, he will be forced to draw money from other pockets in order to repay the loan with interest, effectively leaving him poorer than he was previously.

a major problem arises out of the ignorance of the farmers (ignorance not being used in any negative sense, but merely to connotate an unknowingness, or lack of awareness) about financial management. because their business (the farm) and their personal households are treated as an identical entity, it is virtually impossible for them to account for losses or gains realized on either side. they have no idea that loan mismanagement is making them poorer. they merely see "capital" - money - as the ultimate hindrance to their financial success.

i should be careful here or i'll bore you to death. i could go on for pages about the role of money in an economy and how it relates to farmers, and while it would help explain the situation a bit better, you probably don't care. i'll try to stick to the point at hand.

so we suspended the loan program, and the farmers have been clamoring for us to bring it back. jackson and i met with rwanja self-help group, one of the larger of our groups, to discuss this issue with them. i asked them how many, if we started giving loans today, would need one. every single one of the 25 members present raised their hands. i asked how much they would need, and for what. the first two members said that they needed 10,000 Ksh for a pressure pump. the third said she needed 15,000 for a pressure pump (why does she need 5k more than the others? who the heck knows? not her, i can guarantee you that). the fourth said 100,000 for "large-scale farming." another 100,000 for a timber business, another 100,000 for "poultry-keeping," 20,000 to dig a well, 6,000 to sell second-hand clothes. to clarify a point, except for a brief period at the very beginning of SFMAP in early 2005, we haven't issued a loan larger than 5,000 ksh.

i then asked how many of the farmers had never taken a loan with us before. two members raised their hands! lord be praised! finally, a light in the darkness! surely these two members will be a positive force for the financial management of the group! that's when jackson asked them something in kikuyu. he turned to me following their response. "they say they haven't taken loans because they're new members and haven't been allowed to borrow money yet."
we're in the process of implementing a training program in business principles for all of the groups, beginning with record-keeping. i have no idea how long it will take - we're trying to leave it relatively open-ended so that we can make necessary changes as we go, to accomodate for slow and/or fast learners. as behavior change is the ultimate goal - to get all of the farmers to keep records, enable them to assess the strength of their business based on them, and make decisions accordingly - it may take a while. but hey, what else do i have to do?


  1. ariel6:28 AM

    hey jonny -
    2 things:
    i really really enjoy your blog, & more specifically, the way you write.. its not only informative & intellectual, but entertaining and easy to read
    also, wanted to say happy late birthday- you're an old man. i'm glad life seems to be treating you well - i'm back at madison for senior year, crazy. anyway, take care :)

  2. Sarah Boblett10:09 AM

    Jonny I am happy to see you are keeping your heart healthy with an early exercise routine. I want you to keep that heart healthy by remembering that we all think about you everyday. Love yas!


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