The Potential of Developing Local Leadership

Nuru recognizes the potential of developing local leadership as a powerful vehicle for driving impactful, long-term change in our projects.  However, we also recognize the significant obstacles that must be overcome in order for leaders from extremely poor backgrounds to rise to their full potential in a rapidly growing organization. As I’ve continued to work on this project I’ve developed a deeper understanding of what these obstacles are.

Learning is not a passive process. In order to grasp a new concept, learners must engage in actively developing new understanding. This often requires individuals to examine new concepts through the lens of experience and discuss them. For our team in Kenya, facilitating meaningful discussion could be difficult if staff do not feel comfortable to speak or feel that they lack sufficient experience to provide valuable perspective. With this in mind, we have given a lot of thought to the methods we use to facilitate discussion.

Over the last few months our training team has worked to develop a curriculum and a teaching methodology that removes many of the barriers to learning that leaders with non-traditional education and life experience have faced in the past. Last week brought the first real test of our work as we launched our first full-fledged training series, called Basic Nuru Leadership Training.

There were two goals for this intensive training:

1)     To introduce the fundamental components of Nuru’s development model  (sustainablility, holistic model, scaling and grassroots development)

2)     To introduce the concept of service leadership and link it to specific, concrete norms within the organization (how and why we lead the community with responsibility, authenticity and humility)

The week was a great success. The entire process was managed completely by our local 3-person training team. John, Paul and Francis demonstrated remarkable adaptability to unforeseeable challenges throughout the training. For example, when a death in the family required one of our trainers to leave in the middle of the week, the other two members of the team covered his lessons with clarity and ease. This was only possible due to the deep understanding the team possesses of the curriculum and the facilitation skills necessary to deliver lessons they have never practiced.

Furthermore, the methods of facilitation the team used to deliver our curriculum created a safe environment for all participants to engage in the training. Most remarkable was the high level of participation from leaders who have typically remained reticent in prior trainings or public forums in Nuru. This group is comprised of leaders who fit the profile of what I believe is the ideal Nuru leader –  individuals who are truly from the poorest of the poor in the community, but who very rarely get the opportunity to lead at a high level in NGOs due to their limited education and professional experience.

The challenges of facilitation are compounded when one considers the mixed group of leaders being trained. While a few of our staff are university graduates who have travelled around the country and speak English fluently, many others have not finished primary school and have never travelled beyond 30 kilometers of their family’s farm. The tendency in previous group trainings has been for the more educated leaders to drive discussion (often in English), while the leaders from the humblest of backgrounds remain quiet in their seats.

However, by the second day of training last week, an outside observer would not have been able to differentiate. Two of Nuru’s strongest women leaders, neither of whom finished primary school, stood up on several occasions to give input to highly engaging debates about leadership and grassroots development in Nuru. Another man spoke at length in Kirkuria (the local tribal language) about the power of our holistic model. In a debate about sustainability, some of our younger managers were deferring to the wisdom of older farmers who have never held a job outside of Nuru .

This was exciting because the level of participation these leaders demonstrated, and the support they received from the rest of the staff, reflected a bigger shift in the organization. As the voice of this cohort of leaders grew stronger throughout the week, I think everyone recognized the wealth of wisdom, vision, and leadership this group possesses, despite their nontraditional leadership backgrounds.

Below I’ve outlined some of the key ways we were able to do this:

  • Curriculum was concrete and practical –We stayed away from purely academic explanations of concepts, and used concrete examples and stories from participants’ daily lives.
  • All lessons and discussion moved fluidly between Kiswahili and Kikuria (local language). For many participants, English is a challenging language to use for communication. We created a safe environment for people to express their views fully by training and leading discussion in languages common to all participants.
  • Trainers understood the curriculum deeply. Their depth of understanding permitted a high level of flexibility and positivity in leading group discussion.
  • Our activities and games were fun. Our non-traditional learning activities, such as role plays and relay races, continued to erode rote-style norms that stifle open discussion.
  • Facilitators solicit and respond to feedback. The facilitators solicited and responded to feedback from participants each day. This made training more engaging, but also reinforced the idea that we are all (even the trainers) learning from each other.

Of course, last week was just one small step in the bigger picture of leadership development in Nuru. There is still a lot to be done in terms of developing out the curriculum and scaling training as we grow. However, it is encouraging to see how much momentum is built when we invest enough time up front in developing a forum for leaders to share their deep understanding of extreme poverty and how we can work to eliminate it.

About Chelsea Barabas

Read More Stories of Hope

Because everybody deserves a chance at a better life.

Together, we can help farmers in Africa chart
a path to a better future.