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The Dust of Africa

There’s apparently a proverb that says you can’t wash the dust of Africa off your feet. Looking at my laptop, I realise just how dusty a place Kenya is in October. My camera, my phone, my clothes, my shoes – everything seems to have developed a layer of grime that’s gradually getting permanently worn in.

Nairobi has certainly played its part in this, but it’s on the trips into the ‘field’, trundling along endless, rural dirt roads to meet Kiva borrowers, where I’ve really picked it up.

The dusty trek to a borrower's business near Thika.

Any such minor discomforts are quickly forgotten, though, when I get the enormous privilege of coming into these local communities, meeting the individuals who have taken out Kiva loans, and getting to visit the businesses they’ve been able to establish.

I’ve been guided each time by the local staff from Hand in Hand Eastern Africa, the partner organisation that Kiva is working with here in Kenya. The interesting aspect of how HiH operate is that they invest in an upfront 6 month training programme for potential borrowers, establishing strong community groups and teaching core financial and business skills before providing any loans.

A Hand in Hand field officer delivering training (Kuuga Na Gwika Womens Group in Limuru).

I’ve had the chance to sit in on some of these group training sessions, and saw first hand the commitment and skills of the HiH field officers. They work patiently with marginalised communities, who often have low levels of literacy (certainly minimal business and financial literacy), to gradually build individuals’ confidence and give them invaluable, practical skills from which they can build a future. It was evident how strong a bond they had formed with the groups.

And I’ve now been able also to see just how superbly effective the whole approach is.  Time after time, I’ve listened to women (sometimes men), explain to me the range of small enterprises they’ve established, the transformational impact the profits from these have had on their own and their families’ lives, and the ambitious plans they have for the future. I’ve had women of all ages (including energetic farmers in their 70s!), explain to me in detail the mechanics of the local market, how they can best capture part of the value chain, and how they’ve diversified to minimise risk.

Esther is typical of the Hand in Hand borrowers. Not only does she grow tea, she has dairy cattle, cabbages, carrots and a range of diversified businesses.
Salome, from Machakos.

These are savvy businesswomen, and it’s hard to believe that 6 months ago they were, in their own words, at a loss for something to do, financially illiterate and wholly dependent on their husbands’ meagre incomes. Now I could see flourishing businesses, zero delinquencies or defaults, food security, children being able to attend school and countless stories of lives fundamentally transformed. Not only that, I listened often to how the strong group structure had provided a psychological support network when an individual was going through illness, financial difficulties or other tough times.

Mary used her loan to invest in a hairdryer for her salon.
Esther creates bags, alongside running a soft drinks stall (and she'd love an international market for them !) She acts as chair of the local group.

I’ll soon be swapping all the dust for mud (if word on the street is to be believed, the rains are on their way: normally they are ‘short’, but talk this year is all about El Niño). But like I said, it’s most certainly worth it.

And besides, in a way I quite like the fact I’ve got some ingrained Kenyan soil sticking with me wherever I go. As the proverb suggests, maybe it’s a little symbol of how these amazing, inspiring people, and this exciting, dynamic continent have got under my skin in an even deeper way.

If you'd like to be part of the great work that Hand in Hand Eastern Africa are doing, look for their loans on

Kennedy lost everything he owned during the post election violence a few years back. But thanks to a small loan he’s been able to set up a successful shoe repair business. The profits mean he can send his 5yr old son to school. Both financially and psychologically, the loan has transformed Kennedy's life.
The Kitheuni Winners Group near Thika.

About the author

Alan Mathers

Alan grew up near Belfast, Northern Ireland. He studied French and Economics in Scotland, before taking an M.B.A from London Business School. Alan’s career to date has been in finance and management consulting, focusing on programme management of major business change in U.K. and U.S. banking and consulting organisations. In 2014, Alan took a break from life in finance to devote some time to the world of development and social enterprise. Over the past year, he has had opportunities to work with ‘The Ethiopian Education Foundation’ (an organisation in Addis which supports gifted but financially deprived children through education), and with a number of Kiva’s partners in Zimbabwe and Kenya. These have included Camfed Zimbabwe, Hand in Hand Eastern Africa and most recently, ECLOF Kenya. Alan has been struck by the eagerness and passion with which many in deprived circumstances embrace opportunity. He has witnessed how it empowers innovative, hard-working and intelligent individuals to achieve their full potential, whilst maintaining dignity, pride and self-esteem. He is passionate about the role Kiva is playing in this, and is honoured to have the opportunity to be part of the Fellows programme.