I previously wrote a blog post on why opening a Nuru project in Ethiopia is so critical to getting the Nuru Model to proof of concept. As I reflected on that post, I realized that I had never written about why we chose Kenya to launch Nuru’s pilot project.

Most people who encounter Nuru for the first time quickly read about, watch, or listen to the story of our beginnings and the awakening I had on the battlefield in Iraq that eventually led to the founding of Nuru International. The natural question that quickly follows an introduction to Nuru’s beginnings is, “Why did you choose Kenya as the location for Nuru’s first project? It seems more logical that you would start in Iraq or Afghanistan based on your background and combat experiences.” I get asked this question a lot—at speaking events or in inquiries via email. It is an excellent question, so I thought I would spend a little time discussing it here.

So… Why Kenya?

At Nuru, we have a strong desire to bring meaningful choices and hope to people trapped in desperate impoverished conditions devoid of any choice or hope—to people who live in some of the most difficult, unstable areas of the world. For me, this desire comes from my intense, personal experiences I had with many of these individuals in combat in southwest Asia and the Horn of Africa. These encounters burn in me and drive me to bring the Nuru Model to these regions—countries defined as failed states or conflict/post-conflict zones.

But we want to be smart about how we do it. We want to set ourselves up for success. The Nuru Model is a radically new, untested approach to taking on the problem of extreme poverty. We are attempting to build a high-impact integrated development model that is completely self-contained—meaning that it can scale on its own—funded by capital produced in-country and led by nationals equipped to innovate and effectively manage large-scale projects. To accomplish this audacious goal, we have to create a model that consists of several new components that we need to prototype and test as part of this new approach. We felt that trying to introduce and iterate all of these new, untested components into a chaotic, failed state or conflict zone would be setting ourselves up for failure. We decided to first test the model in a relatively politically stable country that still demonstrated a deep level of need in four core areas: 1. Hunger; 2. Inability to cope with economic shocks; 3. Preventable disease and death; and 4. Lack of quality education for children.

So we began researching several candidates for our first project that fit that description. We narrowed the search to Zambia, Malawi, and Kenya. I was at Stanford at the time, finishing business school and raising our first round of capital to launch Nuru. One of my friends told me I should share my idea to create a sustainable poverty-fighting model with a professor that she knew who taught Swahili at the university. She thought he could provide some perspective, good feedback, and even help me coin a name for the organization. That next week, I met with Dr. Sangai Mohochi for lunch. Dr. Sangai was excited about the model we were developing, and he said he wanted to help in any way he could. He helped me sift through several potential names for the organization, but none of them seemed right. “How about ‘Nuru’?” he said. “It means light or hope in Kiswahili.”

Dr. Sangai proceeded to tell me his own story. He had grown up struggling against extreme poverty in one of the poorest districts in Kenya called the Kuria District. His father and mother sacrificed everything to ensure their children were able to go to secondary school. Sangai and his brother, Philip, did very well in school. Philip went on to become a successful businessman in Nairobi, and Sangai moved to America to pursue his doctorate. Dr. Sangai eventually landed a position at Stanford University as a professor of Swahili, which is how we were eventually introduced. I shared with him my plans for my business school internship that coming summer. I was heading to western Kenya to help Andrew Youn, the founder of a startup organization called One Acre Fund, to launch his model in a remote rural district of Kenya while designing and packaging a process to scale the model in rural areas. Dr. Sangai suggested that I visit Kuria that summer while I was in Kenya. “You mentioned that you are looking for a location to pilot Nuru’s Model,” he said. “Kuria has a desperate need in all the program areas you want to focus in. Plus, my brother, Philip, might be able to help you. He retired early from his successful career in Nairobi and has moved back home to help the poor in Kuria.”

That summer, I spent an adventure-filled 10 weeks helping Andrew figure out how to scale the One Acre Fund model in a remote area called Kakamega District of western Kenya. One week, I made my way down to the Kuria District to meet up with Dr. Sangai and his brother, Philip, to do a site survey and determine whether or not Kuria could indeed be a good place to launch Nuru. After meeting with numerous farmers, chiefs and other stakeholders in the area, it became clear that Kuria would be a great place for us to launch the Nuru Model. The need was great, the area was politically stable, and there was a low presence of other NGOs.

I headed back to the U.S., completed my degree, finished raising capital for Nuru, graduated in June 2008, and then moved to the Kuria District to launch our pilot project in September of that same year. We started with a handful of farmers that first fall. Since then, Nuru has grown to impact the lives of over 30,000 people in the Kuria District, and we have launched a second project in the Gammo Highlands of southern Ethiopia.

The lessons we have learned in Kenya from both our failures and successes have been absolutely critical to our development as an organization. We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, but we have been committed to admitting mistakes when we make them, learning from them, and quickly iterating to reach higher levels of performance and success as we move relentlessly toward our greater goals and vision for global impact in the fight against extreme poverty. After we achieve proof of concept of the Nuru Model, we will seek to introduce more volatility to the model by launching a project in our first failed state or conflict/post-conflict region. This will begin a new chapter in Nuru’s growth that will help us begin to realize some of that original vision that got us into the fight against extreme poverty in the first place.