The One Thing

10 July 2009 at 00:00 27 comments

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…

Entry filed under: Africa, Kenya, KF8 (Kiva Fellows 8th Class), Kisumu Medical & Education Trust (K-MET). Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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  • 1. Huba Boshoff  |  27 July 2009 at 15:46

    Thanx for sharing your work and experiences at K-MET. Hope to hear good stories about newly found businesses in the near future.

  • 2. Kristin  |  19 July 2009 at 08:22

    Thanks for posting the link to the research study.

    You are doing important work at K-MET and I appreciate your dedication VERY much.

  • 3. Joneen Mackenzie  |  16 July 2009 at 11:13

    I love hearing about your experiences there.I love learning about K.MET and the focus on reproductive health. We do that stateside and it is amazing how many young women and men are not clued into how their bodies work. Young people are so jazzed about learning about themselves. And.. if they know about their bodies, they are much more likely be proactive in caring for them.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • 4. Alison Carlman  |  16 July 2009 at 03:08

    Thanks, everyone, for your kind words and thoughtful insight about K-MET’s work and the Safe Space. I will try to keep you updated about the Safe Space girls as we move along in the process of getting their businesses started. Truthfully, the biggest battle we face right now is the girls’ motivation – getting them to take ownership over their businesses, rather than feeling like it’s school where they have to show up every day and follow the rules, and that they can leave early if their supervisor goes to a meeting. Yes, they have had training on this – and yes, they will have more support… but ultimately, it is up to them to take charge of their own success.

    I think that these issues of attitude are extremely deep and they go back to the situations where these girls grew up; that’s why I think it’s still important to address the environment where they live, at least with the goal of changing the climate for their daughters and future girls in their shoes. This is a huge task, but since each of these girls was affected by early sexual activity and perhaps pregnancy, reproductive health is a big part of it for them.

    A MAJOR component of K-MET’s work here is their focus on reproductive health; educating people about how their bodies work, what their rights are, and what their options are for protecting themselves from STDs and early pregnancy. But as I mentioned – so much of this also comes down to the men in the community. K-MET recently did a study about the men, which they will use to help identify areas that they can work in to change these attitudes. But you can see… “A woman’s role is to give birth to children” ….these views of women, sexuality, and responsibility are deeply cultural. It will take extensive work by African leaders to determine African solutions to these issues.

    I’m not here to say to condemn anyone; but I am here to support a group of people who have identified attitudes and behaviors that they want to change in their own communities.

    As they do it, I’m here to learn, to offer support to local leaders where I can, and most of all, to tell the story. Thanks for learning along with me!

  • 5. Ryan Vitkus  |  15 July 2009 at 17:59

    Thanks for the information on K-MET!! Do they have a branch in Kibera? The Kenya Team last year provided some basic education on reproductive health…the women on our team spoke with the girls and were shocked by their stories – good to see that Kisumu has an organization like K-MET! It’s neat to see you and Joel work to provide basic physical, social, psychological, and spiritual needs…that’s what we’re trying to do in Eburru through David’s Hope International!! I guess this runs in the family. ; )

  • 6. Carol Robbins  |  15 July 2009 at 14:42

    Alison, I am not only awed by the determination and tenacity that you demonstrate, but at the enormity of the challenge you are becoming a part of. Changing moral perceptions is the tallest mountain of all. But, in the end, all each of us can do is keep trying different things until we find the thing that works. Just getting in there and “doing it” is, as always, the only thing that even has a chance of working! You are certainly giving it your all. In fact, you inspire me to go back into my classroom this fall with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. Thanks!

  • 7. Alicia Eakins  |  15 July 2009 at 06:10

    It’s great that you and K-MET both see holistically. Harder than a quick band-aid, but worth the time and effort, no?

  • 8. Kristin  |  14 July 2009 at 17:01

    Thanks for sharing your work at K-MET with us. It helps keep those of us who are lucky enough to reside on the prosperity pole in check with what we can do to share our good fortune with others.

    I am impressed that Kiva is flexible and humble enough to adapt/adjust programming as new information becomes available. I am confident that this management trait will ultimately lead to the program’s success.

    You allude to the issue of how men perceive these women, and the possible negative affect the lack of change in their perception may have on the success of the women attaining independence.

    Can you elaborate on this? Can you offer suggestions for how Kiva can help change the men’s (and surely many women’s) negative perception of female independence in this community?

    Might there be a program or local marketing campaign that communicates to men and the community-at-large the benefits THEY would see if women learn these skills and contribute to the community? Is something like this already in place?

    The seemingly negative impression men have about female independence may slowly wane if we can prove to them that they will benefit from the women’s independence (for example, they create new demand for services — the female caterer will need a mechanic to fix her delivery van, right?).

    I am eager to read your next post!

  • 9. Marilyn Robinson  |  14 July 2009 at 14:28

    I love sharing the stories that you tell. We celebrated Shea’s wedding this past
    weekend and included your inspiring journey in many conversations. The ripples of your impact continue. Bountiful blessings!!

  • 10. Unilove  |  13 July 2009 at 20:43

    A wonderful post. This story is educational yet inspiring, informative and illustrative. Please keep us lenders updated on your Fellowship…

    Unilove aka Lisa

  • 11. Laurie  |  13 July 2009 at 13:46

    This sounds like such a great program. I am glad Kiva has found this group to work with as I am sure they do not always have a strong avocate voice. I am excited to follow the progress of your work with them.

  • 12. Amy Gilford  |  13 July 2009 at 10:03

    Wow, what an interesting, well crafted article. Your compassion and concern for the people that you serve is quite evident. Obviously, this is not just a 9 to 5 job for you! Not being overly familiar with the entire situation, this is an outsiders’ perspective: It seems like you have all your bases covered expertly, and that you ought to have the government officials shadow your students to see what limited opportunities there are for these now-skilled laborers. Kind of like being all dressed up with no where to go. Second, is there a faith element to this education process? I recognize that moving against cultural stereotypes is like paddling upstream, but it seems that apart from the Lord, it would be hard to continue pressing on. I will study your site to learn more about what you are doing. Keep up the good work.

  • 13. Sandra Gardner  |  13 July 2009 at 09:58

    Allison,it’s fascinating reading your story. Have these girls ever thought about forming babysitting co-ops to exchange some free time, even if it means for barter instead of money.

    Such a great life education you & Joel are getting. Kudos for your great efforts & dedication.


  • 14. Vicki  |  13 July 2009 at 09:20

    Thanks, Alison, for such an interesting article about the work you are doing in Kenya. The women there are fortunate to have you with them for a time and I have no doubt that your accomplisments will be many. Good luck with the braids! Please keep us updated on your successes. I hope these girls and women learn to stand strong and become the changing force that their community needs.

  • 15. Jennifer Estabrook  |  13 July 2009 at 06:23

    Bless you, Joel and Alison, for doing such a good work! It will take many partners to make it all happen and we support you. I wonder if training classes for the Kenyan men would help also, changing their views of these young women.

  • 16. David Bohr  |  12 July 2009 at 23:17

    You highlight a very important issue concerning development; only a multifaceted approach will lead to improvements. Good luck getting your muzungu braids, I am sure Joel will hold you to it. Either way it sounds like your inspiration will help the SFC girls meet their quota.

  • 17. Kathy Carrillo  |  12 July 2009 at 19:25

    Oh, so interesting. You are Thanks for all your support and will continue to read the updates.

  • 18. Nikki Vitkus  |  12 July 2009 at 13:52

    Thanks for the detailed description of your current work with K-MET. i hpt Milena know you are continueing to strive for success with Safe Space-one hairdresser department at a time! Hope to see the braid pictures soon!

  • 19. Sloane Berrent  |  12 July 2009 at 10:45

    Thanks for sharing, I’m really excited to hear more about your placement and please give my best to Joel too!

  • 20. Erin Arnason  |  12 July 2009 at 08:19

    I am impressed with Kiva’s persistence in revamping the program to offer more focused development for the girls. It seems Kiva has now targeted the skills and development needed for the girls to have a successful business. Now I guess you have to wait and see what happens when they “fly from the nest”. Kudos to all of you over there supporting them as they work to create better lives for themselves and their children. I look forward to any updates you can provide.

  • 21. KF8  |  11 July 2009 at 13:44

    That was really interesting, and I like that you called on Kiva lenders to keep fighting the many other battles besides microfinance–that’s so necessary.

    Good luck out there! 🙂

  • 22. Robert Mittelman  |  10 July 2009 at 10:53


    I think you have to go with the Bo Derek from the movie ’10’ braids.

    And pictures are a MUST.

    It will also give you another ‘Awkward is…’.


  • 23. Stephanie  |  10 July 2009 at 09:03

    I think the point you made about marketers telling us its about “one thing” is so spot on. Obviously, Development would be a more digestible aim if it could be “one thing” but thanks for reminding us its a many sided coin. Thanks for keeping us updated on the K-Met girls! We believe in them!

  • 24. milena08  |  10 July 2009 at 09:00

    You are making the sacrifice and getting braids? I too made that mistake. It takes TWELVE HOURS and you will smell like a barbie doll for five weeks. But the girls will love it. Send pictures when it happens! I appreciated your post and analysis. I hope the girls can get their businesses going.


    • 25. kathy  |  8 February 2011 at 14:14


  • 26. Suzy Marinkovich  |  10 July 2009 at 08:27

    Great post. I love your perspective. This is so important to remember, especially in our world’s lesser developed nations: “to get a micro-loan you must have economic opportunity.”

  • 27. Jessica Blackstock  |  10 July 2009 at 05:51

    What an exciting organization and kudos to K-Met for continuing to identify the skills and programming these girls need to advance themselves. No doubt all of this is easier said than done but it also sounds like everyone is on the brink and with just a little more encouragement (or a few braids) you will see something come to fruition. Keep us updated on the girls and in particular I would love to see some highlights about any girls who specifically get their businesses moving!

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