The One Thing

By Alison Carlman, KF8 – Kenya

As a graduate student of International Development at an African university, I wish that the answer was as simple as finding the “one thing” to alleviate poverty.  For marketing purposes, NGOs and “experts” tell us that the answer is so simple, whether it’s access to clean water, economic liberalization, universal healthcare, education, modernization, or microfinance. But 50 years of “Development” in practice teaches us that it’s not so black and white.

Kiva will be the first to tell you: microfinance is not the solution to poverty.  Provision of financial services is simply an important part of helping people improve their lives; microfinance is only a “tool” that can help people to meet a portion of their basic physical, social, psychological, and spiritual needs.

Alison at K-MET with Deborah, the Coordinator of the Food Security Program.

Alison at K-MET with Deborah, the Coordinator of the Food Security Program.

I’m working with Kisumu Medical & Education Trust (K-MET), a reproductive health organization in Kenya.  One of the many services that K-MET provides is reproductive health education and life-skills training to at-risk young girls ages 10-24.  These girls are often young mothers, survivors of rape and unsafe abortion, children of polygamous families, girls who had to drop out of school and work as prostitutes in order to meet theirs and their families’ basic needs.

A loan alone won’t solve these girls’ problems; they need counseling, support, marketable skills, food, daycare, education, encouragement, mentorship…. the list goes on.

K-MET's Sisterhood For Change trainees practicing hairdressing skills

K-MET's Sisterhood For Change trainees practicing their hairdressing skills

K-MET works to empower these girls with information about their health and their rights; they are trained as peer educators to share the information with their family and friends. The girls go through an extensive 6-month training that includes drama, sports and poetry to explore these issues.  But K-MET found that the information just wasn’t enough.  They saw that the girls were still dependent on men for income, and therefore still vulnerable to early pregnancies and HIV. So K-MET added extensive vocational training to the curriculum; the girls each learn marketable skills (hairdressing, tailoring, catering) so that they could earn their own incomes.

Unfortunately, after 60 girls graduated from the intensive K-MET program, only 12 girls were able to find jobs or to start their own businesses to meet their own needs.  So back to the drawing board – K-MET began Safe Space, a “phase 2” launching space for graduates to develop their business skills together using K-MET space and equipment, allowing them to save up their own income and move out on their own when they’re ready.  A “pilot program” has been started with 12 graduates to help launch them into their own private businesses, which we *HOPE* will begin with Kiva loans in the near future.

Participants of the Safe Space Entreprenurial Training

Participants of the Safe Space Entreprenurial Training

But the girls have to be ready to run their own businesses. The microfinance textbook tells you that to get a micro-loan you must have economic opportunity.  These girls were trained in entrepreneurial skills – they wrote business plans and marketing strategies.  They even have significant income-generating abilities (in catering, hairdressing, and tailoring).  But they are trying to operate their businesses in a slum – business is slow-going, and motivation is lacking.

Milena, the Kiva Fellow who helped launch the Safe Space before me, described her angst with getting the girls off the ground: “I would smile. I would pump my fists in excitement. I would lure them with cookies. Still, they seemed disinterested.”  Milena made a phenomenal effort, and I’m now here to continue what she helped to begin – if I can figure out how. “Ok – hairdressing department, if you have three days where you meet your sales targets in a row, you can give me mzungu (white person) braids.”

On the books, the girls are ready. They are empowered. They have information. They have support. They have mentors and they have skills. But I wonder – will they make it? Will they leave the K-MET nest and go out on their own to successful businesses where they can support their families?

What other things need to happen in Kisumu and Kenya to provide the right economic, political, and public health environments to enable their success?  Joel, (my husband, also a Kiva Fellow) and I often speak of the opposing “poverty” and “prosperity” poles that each of us are tied to because of where we are born.  He and I, only by chance, are fortunate to be tied to the “prosperity” pole that includes safety nets of insurance, education, and health.   But how do things like the men’s view of women in Kisumu keep these girls tied to a pole of poverty, despite whatever steps they make in a positive direction?

Development is not a one-sided issue. There is no “silver bullet” to fight poverty. I stand behind the belief that microfinance is an important, powerful tool for development.  But, as Kiva lenders, may we not give up the other valiant fights that we each believe in when it comes to equality, sanitation, democracy, education and public health – and the many other pieces to the picture that is ‘Development’.


Alison Carlman is in her 4th week as a KF8 Kiva Fellow in Kisumu, Kenya with K-MET.  Join the K-MET lending team here, or see if K-MET has any fundraising loans posted!  Alison is also an MPhil student at Stellenbosch University studying Community and Development.  She is not totally excited about getting “mzungu braids” – but… whatever it takes…


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