Rookie on the Job

Tuesday June 19, 2007
After finally arriving Nairobi (at about 6:00am), I began the saga of traveling to Bungoma. I bought a cell phone in the airport and got the Safaricom service (as directed by Andrew). I haggled with the lady for quite a while on the price, but, in the end, I’m pretty sure I got taken on that deal – pretty standard for Mazunga (white dude) here. I kind of stick out…6’3” white dude carrying three bags. I might as well just wear a sign that says “sucker.” I’ll have to work on my negotiation skills.

I called Andrew (founder of One Acre Fund and my new boss) to let him know I was on the ground and would be making my way to Bungoma throughout the day. He had given me some tips on the best way to get there. I decided to get a taxi into town to try and catch a bus to Bungoma. The cabbie was a really friendly guy named Francis Muraguri. I was pretty blessed during my trip to meet some pretty friendly characters. On the way from the airport to the “bus station” area, Francis proceeded to tell me his life story and opinion on Kenyan and world politics – quite the education. He dropped me off at the bus station – but only after helping me negotiate a good price for the next leg of my journey. Without his help, I’m sure I would have had to sell my firstborn to secure a ride to Bungoma.

I had, of course, missed the last bus direct to Bungoma by 20 minutes, so I had to take a detour on a Matatu (crammed 14 passenger van) to Eldoreth, a town about 2 hours from Bungoma. That trip was hilarious. I’m pretty sure the road was a bombing run target for the military at some point, and the driver (a pretty disgruntled dude) found it amusing I guess to see how quickly he could get the van to go through the potholes without completely snapping the axle. I, of course, was in the back corner seat wedged in between the corner of the van (with a ceiling that was not high enough for me to lift my head) and a very nice fellow next to me named Chris Shiundu. Chris was my saving grace on that part of the journey – which lasted about 5 hours. In between smashing my head off the ceiling and window, Chris told me about his life. He was a Christian who worked for Christian Reform World Relief in Nairobi and Eldoreth. We actually had a great conversation, and he helped me learn a lot on the trip. When we reached Eldoreth, Chris, took me to a café and bought me some tea as we sat and talked for about 30 minutes in preparation for the final leg of the trip to Bungoma. He then helped me negotiate a 7 seater Matatu for my final leg. This time, my traveling companion, Dr. Stower, was a bit different. He was nice enough I suppose. He was a professor of applied mathematics, and stressed several times that he was a “Doctor.” He decided it was his role in life to convince me of the benefits of polygamy as practiced by the majority of Kenyan males. “How many kids do you have, Dr.?” I asked. “Oh, that would be impossible for me to determine at this point. It is pointless to keep track anyway.” Clearly…

After a long ride with the good doctor, I arrived in Bungoma safe and sound. The driver dropped me at the Sharriff Center (a local marketplace complete with café and “supermarket”). As I waited for Andrew to come and pick me up, I became increasingly aware of my ethnicity. I have traveled to many places, but I have always been with friends that I was traveling or working with. This time, I was the lone white dude in a busy marketplace. There was no need to be afraid at all, but I was suddenly very aware that I was different…that I was the minority. I got many, many curious (both friendly and not-so-friendly) stares as I waited there with my bags. The last time I was in a situation like this, the eyes I was looking into were filled with both fear and hatred. This time, there was certainly no anger or malcontent directed toward me because I was white or American or whatever, but I couldn’t help but notice the difference intensely. For most of the people I encounter and work alongside during this trip, I will be the first white person they will have worked with. It was a very interesting feeling, and one in which I look forward to exploring while I am here. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Ime before I left. He had mentioned to me that this trip would probably be a good growing experience for me as I experienced being a minority by myself for the first time. So, Ime…here’s to you bro – you were right.

I’m not sure what I expected, but when Andrew pulled up to pick me up, I almost busted out laughing. He was riding on the back of a bicycle (called a boda-boda) being driven by a local. He introduced me to the unlucky chap that was to drive the bicycle carrying me and my bags back to the place where I would be staying. After quite a bit of straining and groaning, he dropped me off and I paid him his fare of 10 Kenyan Shillings (about 16 cents).

The place where we are staying is quite comfortable. Andrew showed me to my room and I began to unpack. I have a bed (complete with mosquito net), wooden table and chair that serve as a desk, and a wooden box in the corner that serves as a dresser of sorts. The small 3 bedroom house is rented by One Acre Fund for about 100USD a month – pretty similar to the rent some of you guys are paying in Manhattan right now. There is a small kitchen with a small toaster oven type stove, sink, and small refrigerator. We have a bathroom and a “shower stall” where we take bucket baths. We have electricity and occasionally running water. We get most of our water from a well nearby. Showers are “fun” – reminds me of canteen showers in Iraq – except they are relatively warm. You just heat up water from the well, poor it into a small basin, and pour cups of water on yourself to wash. It works quite well really. I live with Andrew and another intern named Makiko Yamashita from Kellogg Business School. She’s really nice – also interested in doing nonprofit work directly after school. In the house next door, lives Chris Herron (an intern from Yale School of Management and all-around good dude) and Moises (a hilarious Spaniard who has spent the last few years changing jobs more often than I have and is in the middle of a 6 year “travel till I find myself” adventure). Both these guys seem to be extraordinarily talented and are very helpful. After a quick dinner, I finished unpacking and setting up my room, and then went to bed – exhausted. I had a big day ahead of me the next day. There was a lot to learn, and they needed me to learn it very quickly.

Wednesday June 20, 2007
Today was a really good learning day. Jet lag has never really been a problem for me before, but I found that I was pretty exhausted again by the end of the day. Chris is the most experienced intern at this point (he has been here for three weeks), so Makiko and I went with him to the field today to begin learning how One Acre Fund helps the poor.

I guess at this point, I should pause to explain how exactly One Acre Fund (OAF) accomplishes its mission. Unlike many other agriculture NGOs, OAF empowers farmers in extreme poverty to pull themselves out of poverty in a lasting, sustainable way. OAF’s main focus is combating chronic hunger in East Africa as a way to help these farmers to rise out of extreme poverty. Currently, hunger is causing the death of one in six children and is responsible for a growing trend of stunted growth among the children of these families. Through a small investment package for each farming family, OAF empowers the farmer to bring in a sustainable income to his/ her family that allows them to feed their families throughout the hunger season as well as send their children to school. I will try to describe the program in more detail.

OAF helps only farmers in extreme poverty – those who own usually one acre or less, and suffer from lack of food for their families during the hunger season. OAF selects a cash crop (such as passion fruit) that can be profitable for both the farmer and OAF. Groups of 20 or more farmers enroll in the program together. A Kenyan Field Officer is hired to lead, train, and supervise the performance of the group. The Field Officer is trained by OAF in the techniques and tools required to successfully raise passion fruit. The Field Officer then trains his/ her farmers in these techniques through hands on, step by step training sessions structured as part of a curriculum developed by OAF. OAF conducts detailed research and receives expert consulting from Kenyan horticulturalists and other specialists or NGOs to ensure that the techniques they use are effective and capable of implementation by the farmers. OAF then provides all the inputs to the farmers – passion fruit seedlings, fertilizer, wooden stakes for trellis’s, etc. The Field Officers supervise the farmers as they plant and care for their crops. The farmers are directly accountable to the Field Officer for their performance through a weekly diary the farmers keep and daily inspection visits that the Field Officers carry out to help the farmers as their crops progress. At harvest time, OAF then manages the harvest of the crops and sells the produce to local (and eventually international) markets. OAF splits the revenues 50/50 with the farmers. OAF uses its share to recover the costs of the inputs and administrative costs, and the farmers use their share to purchase food for the hunger season and education for their children. Typically, OAF passion fruit only takes up 1/8 of a farmers total land, so they can plant the rest of the land in crops (such as maize or beans) to help feed the family throughout the year. OK, back to my first day of work…

Chris, Makiko, and I first went to observe a training session in the Maliki field area. A senior Field Officer (FO), Moses, would be training a junior FO (Edith) in charge of about 19 farmers in the Maliki field. The topic for the training was composting. OAF had developed a simple curriculum to train the farmers in how to build their own compost pile to use to fertilize their crop of passion fruit using supplies organic to their farms. We met up with Moses and Edith at a small school near the field and then walked to the “classroom” which was an area near one of the farmer’s fields. The farmers were very humble and kind when we arrived. They are very appreciative of what OAF is doing to help them overcome poverty. They associated us with that work, and (much to my chagrin and guilt) began thanking me for that work – me, the guy who had been there for all of one day.

Moses then began the class. He opened up the class in a prayer asking God to watch over the class and help them all to gain knowledge from the session. I was very surprised at this, but have grown to see that many of the farmers are very strong Christians, and that they see their faith as a very real part of their daily lives. Most of the class was taught in Kiswahili and the local language, but once in a while, he would use some English. Most Kenyans demonstrate some level of understanding of English, but the farmers in the most rural areas typically do not know English – or even Swahili in some cases. Moses taught the theory of composting first, and then he and the farmers built a demonstration compost pile. It was very interesting to see how he conveyed the knowledge he had been taught by the OAF staff earlier that week. All the farmers actively participated in the construction of the compost pile and asked a lot of questions about the details of construction and maintenance. They carefully took notes as Moses taught. Following the training, they all went to immediately begin construction on their own piles – helping one another as they went. This attitude of collaboration is crucial to OAF’s model. Farmers work together in groups to grow the crops.

Moses and Edith then took Makiko and I to visit some of the farmers. As we walked from farm to farm, the sights I saw were all too familiar. The poverty I witnessed – mud hut houses, malnourished children too weak to walk, etc. – was shockingly similar to the voices and faces in the Middle East that had haunted my dreams from the time I had left in the summer of 2005 – two years ago now. I couldn’t help but notice how different it was now. Instead of ignoring these faces and moving on to try and capture some insurgent cleric hiding in their village, I was able to stop and get to know them – to pick the kids up and play with them – all the while knowing that I would be directly helping them move toward a better life. It was a great feeling, and I felt that my life had finally come full circle in a way.

As we walked, Moses shared his own story with me. He had originally been a farmer in OAF’s program. As he progressed through the program, he was able to provide three meals a day for his children – even during the hungry season. He was so dedicated to the program that OAF eventually hired him on as a Field Officer. Now Moses had almost 100 farmers under his supervision, and he still manages to farm a small plot himself.

At our final stop of the day, I was extremely humbled as a young farmer (a girl of about age 20 with four children) insisted that we stay for lunch. She had heard that we were coming and had prepared a meal for us. We sat and ate – chicken, greens, and maize ugali (a staple of the people in this area). It was delicious, however, I felt ashamed as I ate what must have been 2 or 3 meals for her children. She put the food before us, bowed her head, said a prayer of thanks to God, and then left. She was very shy and would not even stay in the room with us while we ate, but she was very pleased that we stayed to eat the meal she had prepared. How selfless… This attitude of humble servitude reminded me of Jude, Sumitipala, and Chrisnason – three poor but proud Sri Lankan men who took care of me during my missions trip to Sri Lanka. They too had been willing to give all they had to come to the aid of others. If only I had that same attitude…if only we all did.

Thursday June 21, 2007
So…it’s day 2 and I feel like I’ve been sucking on a firehose for about a month already. This internship will definitely challenge me and push me in my understanding of international development – particularly agricultural development – which will come in very handy for Nuru operations. Andrew and I had a meeting last night where he laid out his expectations for me for the summer. It’s aggressive, but good. I work better that way anyway. He made an interesting comment, “Any effort you put in here is not for me, and it’s not for yourself…it’s to help the poor farmers we’re working with. If you keep that in the back of your mind while you’re here, you’ll have a rewarding summer.” OAF has been operating to date with farmers in the Bungoma District. Andrew wants to grow aggressively and begin expanding operations to other districts. His first target for expansion is the Kakamega District to the south. His goal for the expansion is to be working with 20,000 farmers in the Kakamega District within four years…and he wants me to start it. It’s pretty exciting for me because the task is basically to initiate a social venture startup in Kakamega. Andrew knows about my plan for Nuru, and he wants to help prepare me for that by putting me in Kakamega to expand OAF. It is also a pretty overwhelming task because I will be moving down there by myself with no infrastructure at all in place. The challenge will be to start an OAF branch from the ground up – networking to develop Kenyan contacts with buyers and producers, figuring out an efficient system to identify and enroll eligible farmers, and then to develop a thorough infrastructure to support all this – finding a house, office, meeting place, plot of land for a nursery, warehouse storage space, etc. Anyway, it should be an incredible learning experience.

As part of this project, Andrew wants me to learn as much as possible about how OAF operates in Bungoma. So, I’ve been trying to visit a lot of the different pieces that make up OAF operations. I spent the day today with Andrew (Kenyan Andrew), OAF’s logistics manager and general go-to guy. We visited the “timber operations,” the warehouse for inventory storage, and the nursery. My favorite stop was the timber operations. Growing passion fruit involves the construction of trellis’ that will support the plants as they get bigger. The trellis consists of a series of 9 foot wooden posts with wire running across their tops. The seedlings are planted between the posts and grow out the wire toward the posts as they get bigger. These posts are 3” by 3” by 9’. 100 seedlings require about 100 posts – that’s a lot of posts. Well, you can’t exactly go to Home Depot and pick up some lumber…thus the “timber operations.” When we got there, I was once again amazed at the Kenyans’ resourcefulness. We hear timber operations, and we think of a sawmill or large lumbermill that cuts trees to size for various lumber orders. We pulled up to the sight and I saw three guys with chainsaws cutting these enormous trees to length using a small 25’ tape measure and their close “eyeball measurement.” Remarkably, they were able to produces extraordinarily straight posts cut quite accurately to size…Ronnie Opel, eat your heart out. By the way Dad, you’d be disappointed to hear that they weren’t using Stihl – they use Husqvarna.

When I got home, Moises and I had a 2.5 hour meeting going over crop research (we still have to select a crop that will be the best fir for operations in Kakamega) and possible contacts in Kakamega. Moises is hilarious. The guy pulled out a folder with about 10,000 tiny shreds of paper with names and addresses on them, and then proceeded to try and make sense of all of them. He’s one of those incredibly organized genious dudes who may seem a bit of a yardsale at first glance. Moises is definitely going to be a tremendous resource while I am here – and it looks like he will be a good friend as well. We’re going to head to Kakamega tomorrow for my first networking trip – and to find a place to live. That means we have to take another 3 hour Matatu ride…sweet. Moises says that we should only have to wait about 45 minutes at the Matatu station to get a ride. “No reason to get upset,” he says. “You can’t do anything about it, so we’ll just buy a paper and catch up on the latest news!” I’ve gotta learn from this guy’s patience…

About Jake Harriman

Founder & CEO — Jake graduated with distinction from the US Naval Academy and served seven and a half years as an Infantry and Special Operations Platoon Commander in the Marine Corps. Jake left the military and enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business to found Nuru International. Upon graduation, Jake led a team to launch Nuru’s first project in Kenya.

8 Comments

  • Jessie says:

    Thanks to the magic of bluetooth, cellphones, and laptops, Luke, Diane, Michaelanne, Jessie, Mike, Dad, and Mom just read your post sitting together in the Harriman living room. We’re so happy that you’re able to do so much writing and reflecting on your time there. Talk about HOP! This tops them all! We’re all proud of you, we miss you, and we love you so much.

  • Tom says:

    It was great having a quick chat…keep it up fella.

  • kate326 says:

    Hi! I’m so excited to read about how you are changing the world. It sounds like God is really working though you and has blessed you with some awesome co-workers. Only wish I was there to help…kate

  • ime says:

    Can’t stop, won’t stop!

  • john says:

    wow, your already experiencing so much of God’s provision!
    melissa and I are so inspired to read what is happening. we’ll be praying and can’t wait to see what’s next!

  • Rooski says:

    Isn’t it amazing how beautiful life becomes without all of the “noise”? I remember taking bucket showers in Africa. It was hard not to laugh at the strangeness of the situation, but I also remember enjoying the sound and feeling of water more than usual. Like there was a whole new energy to life, that more was possible despite the relative lack of everything, especially infrastructure.

    Miss you and hope you continue to be inspired!

  • Terry says:

    Hi, i don’t know if you’re still in Kenya. But its surely a small world. I’m surprised to find my Husbands name on your blog, Chris Shiundu. Your story is amazing and its just like him. He loves helping people especially foreigners, he says that he is the Father of all Foreigners.

    Thanks.

    Terry

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