Thursday, December 14, 2006

kazi ni kazi tu

i figure i should write at least something about the work that i'm doing, lest you believe i don't do anything except have fun (though that belief wouldn't entirely be false). i don't really remember the last thing i wrote about work, so hopefully i am picking up where i left off. i think i mentioned that sebastian (my supervisor) and i were discussing the suspension of the SFMAP (small farmers marketing assistance program). this potential suspension was due to several factors - perhaps first, in order for you to fully understand the issues of the program, i should briefly explain its origins.

SFMAP was created about two years ago by seb and luke, the peace corps volunteer who i replaced, to meet the need of local small-holder farmers for accurate and reliable marketing information. it was intended to be a organ of information dissemination only - to relay market prices and availability to the farmers, who could make their own decision about how to sell their produce. previously, and even currently, farmers were often "taken advantage of" by brokers, who would buy their goods at cut-rate prices and transport them to the markets in nairobi for several times what they paid the farmers for them (i use quotations because even now that the farmers are aware of the markup earned by the brokers they continue to sell to them without complaint. i don't entirely believe that this connotes exploitation). SFMAP intended to equip the farmers with the knowledge and capacity to transport their own goods to market without the intervention of brokers, who they believed to be redundant.
This was the main problem that seb and luke believed to exist among the farmers (whether i agree or disagree with them i'll discuss later). however, as is often the case, the problems seen by outsiders are not always the problems that the farmers themselves believe are the most pressing. if you ask almost any farmer in kenya to express their number one problem, they will unequivocally respond with "capital." capital, of course, meaning cash. so inevitably, as SFMAP began extending their information services to the farmers, they came under pressure to provide material support for the transport of goods to nairobi. to this end, luke injected some of his own funds into the program in order to give loans to the farmers for the hire of transport. the first few attempts at delivery, which SFMAP coordinated and oversaw, failed to realize a profit for the farmers, who continued to request funding - this time, for general farm inputs (fertilizer, seeds, etc.) and other small businesses. somehow - i'm not very familiar with how this transformation of purpose came about exactly - SFMAP began running a credit facility for farmers, using luke's personal money as well as funds from the parent organization, YARD. as the marketing arm of SFMAP shriveled into virtual nonexistence, its credit counterpart became the overwhelming focus of the program. loans were given to farmers on the basis that they use them for anything related to business - fertilizer, transport, stock for their dukas (small stores) - without any real accountability for the expenditure of this money. repayment of loans was the measure of success. with microfinance gaining so much attention these days in the world of development organizations, this was very attractive to observers and friends of YARD, who lauded its progress.
the problem - a problem whose recurrence is so common that it has become a cliche - is that things aren't always as they seem. one reason that microfinance has become so popular is because its measure of success - repayment rate of loans - is easily understood and quantifiable. it is especially popular because it has the added effect of earning money for the lending organization while theoretically increasing the incomes and living standards of the borrowers. if my description of such a program sounds cynical, it is because such a program has as much potential for harm as it does for benefit. a well-run microfinance enterprise, with proper preparation on the part of the borrowers, can indeed produce fantastic results. a poorly run MFE, on the other hand, can have disastrous effects. unfortunately, SFMAP turned out to be the latter.
in my opinion, SFMAP should have stuck by its original diagnosis - namely, that farmers are in desperate need of information rather than capital, and that by providing information capital creation would be made possible. providing extensive training on business basics - financial management, project planning, marketing, etc. - would enable the farmers to manage the businesses (including farms) that they currently own more effectively, thus mobilizing their own capital for potential investment. this information dissemination does not necessarily preempt the existence of brokers, either. markets originated out of the services of brokers; middlemen facilitate the exchange of goods between parties who might otherwise be unaware of each others' existence. brokers perform a vital service, enabling the farmers to focus all of their efforts on production, maximizing the quality and quantity of the goods produced.

that's all theory, though, and probably boring. the reality is that the SFMAP program failed. money was borrowed to pay school fees and medical expenses - activities that wouldn't lead to future income. repayment was high merely because at the date of repayment, the farmer would borrow the loan amount from his neighbor. after repaying, he would take another loan to satisfy his new debts. farmers were making themselves poorer. even those that did make conscious investments didn't make adequate preparations or calculations for the project's success. john njau, for example, borrowed 20,000/= to buy a calf, which he planned to sell after a year (my own calculations lead me to believe that he would have lost money anyway on this venture). the bull died a few months later, cause unknown. he lapsed on his payments, but within about six months he had saved enough to buy a new calf for the same project!
had SFMAP trained john in simple record-keeping methods, cost-benefit analysis, and project planning, not only would he have been able to save enough to buy the bull on his own, but his likelihood of success in the venture would have greatly increased. unfortunately, the incipient training given to the farmers was a two hour 'farming as a business course'. two hours! how they ever expected the farmers to succeed is beyond me.
by the time we got around to giving the farmers the business training they needed, the project was past the point of salvation. SFMAP had two project officers - one for credit (tony) and one for marketing (jackson), neither of whom knew how much money SFMAP had in its control. to compound the problems, jackson had only made about three avocado sales in a year - entirely ignoring all other crops - while he complained incessantly about his salary. tony, it was revealed, had a very poor relationship with many of the farmers' groups, and in fact owed them a lot of money (not counting the money that i suspect he had pilfered from SFMAP itself). after a lot of discussion and field assessments involving outside advisors, we decided to let jackson and tony go and to disband SFMAP indefinitely. we are currently discussing with farmers how to proceed. ultimately, extensive training will be a necessary component of any business program with the farmers. we have developed a concept paper as well, for the development of an agricultural demonstration plot, to benefit local PLWHA (people living with hiv/aids) groups. ideally this would entirely replace any former SFMAP program, by providing farmers with access to research gains in the areas of production as well as marketing.

the library is doing really well - we received a 100,000/= (about 1,300 USD) for the purchase of new materials, which we used to buy a TV, video player, videos, new furniture, and about 100 new books. we intend to rent the TV and video player out to primary and secondary schools beginning in january to show some of the videos that we purchased. these videos cover topics like biology, geography, and guidance & counseling (hiv/aids, smoking, etc.). hopefully the rental of these videos will generate enough to pay our librarian's salary - i hired a 20-something guy named njuguna, who miraculously has been trained in information management and who is incredibly excited to be able to manage a library on his own, as small as it is. already in the two weeks here he's accomplished more than the previous librarian did in his six months at the library. we have a lot of plans for the coming year, including painting a world map on the wall, holding cultural events for the community, and starting a children's reading program.

while i have plenty of issues with contemporary development theory, the library is a program which i believe in strongly. rather than imposing outside standards for success, it merely provides each member of the community with a choice. the information that the library contains can be accessed by anyone, to do with it what they will. if they choose to ignore the information, fine. if they choose to use it, fine. the library is a non-confrontational, equal opportunity program, the potential for which is limited only by the amount of information it contains and the creativity of the user. it contains an inherent message of self-reliance - you get out of it what you put in. no one is going to come along and solve your problems for you; you can find your own solution and implement it if you want. i'm not going to breathe down your back until you start using a condom - i'll tell you what AIDS is and what condoms do and let you make your own choice. that's all i can do with a clear conscience: give choice.


  1. Sarah Boblett1:23 PM

    Jonny, Let me know if books in English would be welcome in the library. I, at times, have access to children's books that I could donate. Sounds like you are making a difference in their lives! Love ya! Take care of the little sis for me while she is visiting!

  2. Books would always be welcome. The kids who use the library the most have been asking for new novels (they like John Grisham and Clive Cussler and other thrillers) lately, but any newer books would be great! Especially any "how-to" books, which would really help out with the self-education aspect i'm trying to promote. Love ya!


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