Learning to work in the city
What’s your image of where people live in Kenya? In crowded, polluted slums? In huts on savannahs? Even though about two-thirds of Kenyans live in rural areas, more than 1.5 million people live in informal settlements around Nairobi. Spirit in Action works with partners in the slums, in the rural areas, and in emerging “in-between areas” like the growing city of Eldoret. And each area has it’s own set of unique challenges and opportunities. In the past, much of the Small Business Fund focused on helping rural families and it was just last year that we expanded into Nairobi, adapting the program to fit the new context.
A son of a SBF partner plays with a tire, running and pushing it along the courtyard of Josephine’s compund in Korogocho.
Visiting Kenya’s Korogocho slum this summer, I was struck with the many unique challenges that come from living in such close proximity to others.
First, there’s no room to grow any food. Sure, that’s pretty obvious. I’d just never thought about it before. Even very poor families in rural areas can have a kitchen garden and grow kale and tomatoes to eat. (Over the years, Spirit in Action has sent seeds to many rural families to do just this.) In the slum the ground is hard and there is a shortage of space and water, so people have to buy everything they eat.
Secondly, there’s not a lot of free space. It seemed like mothers kept closer watch on their children in the urban area. I met with a group of women who have received Small Business Fund grants and many mentioned that before – when they were unable to afford school fees – their children had to stay inside all day. In the rural areas there is ample room for kids to run and play safely.
Lest you rural folks begin to feel smug, let me point out some of the distinct advantages of the urban areas.
Women from 8 Small Business Fund groups in Korogocho slum. Wambui, the local Spirit in Action coordinator stands behind Tanya. Some women in the back hold the bags made by Josephine.
The SIA businesses in Nairobi are wonderfully close to both their suppliers and their market. The reason that Madina and her mother and sister were able to really leverage their $150 grant is that they had ready access to wholesale used shoes for their stall. With so little stock before they might have days with no sales. Now they have many options to display. And Madina doesn’t have to travel for hours on multiple forms of transportation to get the new stock, because they live in the city.
The biggest challenge for rural Spirit in Action businesses is that they may have to travel both to purchase materials AND to sell their product. In the slum, the customers are right there, everywhere. Josephine sells the beaded bags that she and her daughters make along the roadside at one of the busy intersections. All day, people are walking past, waiting for matatus (mini-buses), and hanging out. She doesn’t have to travel, transporting her cumbersome stock of bags to another town or city to make a sale.
Remember I mentioned last week that I’m constantly finding out how much I still have to learn? This summer was a great opportunity to learn how to best tailor our Small Business Fund program to overcome those obstacles that urban Kenyans face while helping them seize the many opportunities that cities provide.
More about Spirit In Action in Korogocho:
Related article, which got me thinking on this topic today: 5 tips to bridge Africa’s rural-urban divide