There are many things we take for granted. The thing I realized today is that we take opportunities for leadership and advancement totally for granted. In the US, almost every single job has some way to advance. If there’s no advancement in the job, then it’s seen as a stepping stone to some other job. But as an impoverished farmer, there is no advancement.

Either for you or your family. You really need to go to extreme measures even to get your kids out of poverty. One of our CDC (Community Development Committee) members is saving 90% of he and his wife’s combined income to send their kids to university. Other than that, there’s not much hope. You could be a farmer. And, well, you could be a farmer who gets a bit of money on the side.

We thinking about going from 700 farmers to 2500 farmers by the end of next year, more than a threefold increase. We are creating jobs, but more, we’re creating career tracks. There is a clear path from representative to Field Officer to Field Manager to District Manager. Like any career, not everyone makes it. But some do. And because some do, there is hope. Real, tangible hope. As in “Be light. Be hope. Be Nuru.” We are blasting a path through the mountains of poverty.

Beyond simply creating jobs and career tracks, Nuru is building leaders. Nuru has a radically high view of the poor. They’re not lesser people. Really. We really believe that. They’re actually equal to Americans in value and potential ability. They could be powerful leaders given the opportunity and a bit of training. For reals.

Already we’ve recruited a nine-member Community Development Committee who are leading our five program areas. Under them are about thirty Field Officers. Under the Health and WatSan (water and sanitation) Field Officers are about 70 representatives.

All these people used to be poor people. Most of them were farmers earning what they could. My Field Manager, Nelly, was a fully trained nurse working for no pay at the health center. They were poor. But Nuru told them they were leaders and began training them as such. And not just leaders, but servant-leaders. And guess what? They’ve become leaders. Fully-fledged, real life leaders. And another thing: they’re now inspiring the people under them to be as they are.

I admit that I used to think that poor people were poor because they couldn’t think like leaders. In my elitism (and when I read Plato), I am tempted to believe that this is only a result of nature. But that is a lie. The reason Nelly was not a powerful community leader last year was because there was neither leadership opportunity nor example. For our Field Managers it was an issue of circumstance, not natural ability. The team before us did an incredible job of finding those in whom the ember of humble leadership resided, but it would never have produced a flame if it remained buried in the clay of Kuria. Nuru has been able to fan it, fuel it, and now, even to spread it. In spite of their lives of extreme poverty, our people have become powerful leaders in their community and have begun to teach others as well.

Are leaders born? Or are they made? I say both. A seed of leadership needs to be present, but that seed must be planted in a soil which allows for growth, and watered with training, mentorship and experience. And like a great tree leaders grow. In due time, they will yield sweet fruits which can themselves be planted.

Perhaps the answer to the desert of poverty is not to shower it with more aid, or clear it of the rocks of bureaucracy, or limit the runoff of corruption. Clearly all these are good things. But maybe the key to turning the desert into a paradise is cultivating leaders like trees; tiling the soil, fertilizing it, and then planting good leaders from native seed. Then carefully watering, not the vast and burning sands, but the soil around these tender plants. And after a few are established, no further gardening will be needed. The water from the rains will be retained, and the roots as they go deeper will draw up water from below. The shade of these trees will provide a pleasant refuge for others who would grow up. An oasis in the desert will form, and then continue to grow until there is no desert left.