Thursday, July 26, 2007

3rd Dispatch from Muhuru: MicroFinance edition




Squinting my eyes in the late afternoon sun, I watch two toddlers toying with a piece of plastic. I lean in to listen closely for familiar words in the Luo banter among the older members of the family. They are trying to calculate how much the family spends per person on clothing and footwear each year. This question is one of the more challenging on our fifty-six question survey. I sit back and wait until Michael, my translator, announces the decided amount.

Perhaps you are wondering: what is the purpose of a survey full of questions about shoes and school fees? These questions provide the skeleton of a complete poverty assessment, which will produce a snapshot of the economic condition and needs of the Muhuru Bay community. We are one week into the second phase of the three-part process to accomplish this task. The results will be used to demonstrate to existing Microfinance Institutions the specific needs of the Muhuru Bay community. The ultimate goal of this effort is to bring the specific financial services to the community that will fill these unique needs.

The “we” I refer to is the WISER Microfinance Team: Jason Pate, Sunny Kantha, and myself, Lucy McKinstry. Throughout the spring, we worked with several Duke professors of Economics and Public Policy to complete the first step of our project: a needs assessment tool tailored to the specific cultural and economic climate for households in Muhuru Bay. Step two is the random sampling of 300 households in the area. The daily routine entails biking throughout the 28 sub-areas and visiting five random houses to each complete a survey. The final step will be the econometric analysis of the survey results this fall, again working with Duke professors experienced in this field.

This project is fascinating and exciting for several reasons. By personally visiting the houses and listening to the problems each family faces, we are experiencing the vivid reality of these families in a way that would be impossible to replicate in a book or a website. Looking at home economics through their eyes has illuminated with sharp clarity the luxury and privilege that saturate our American lives. Despite the language barrier, we are immersed on a daily bases with the challenges these mothers and fathers face, the trade-offs between a new roof and school fees or the blunt truth that for half the year there simply is not enough food to go around. Even my simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a tangible sign that we are living in two different worlds: jelly is such a luxury item that none of the families we have visited thus far ever enjoy on this sugary treat.

On a lighter note, the field work can also be fabulously entertaining. People are both curious and warmly welcoming. Many families graciously insist that we take part in their midday meal or a snack of porridge. People are full of business ideas and often ask questions on how they can learn more to improve their income and raise capital. There are also many comical scenes such as chickens flying inside the house. Occasionally we provide the comic relief for onlookers while biking over the uneven hills and rocks on the Muhuru Bay peninsula.

To me, the most exciting aspect of this trip to Kenya sandwiches our field work here in the community. Our first few days in Nairobi we were able to meet with several Microfinance Institutions and microfinance NGO’s, and we will conclude the trip with several more next month before we fly home. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn from their experience and also establish relationships that we hope will evolve into partnerships with the Muhuru Bay community.

Although the survey process can be slow and tedious at times, we are thrilled to have this opportunity and inspired by the warmth of this community. We are constantly driven by the incredible thought of what an positive impact a strong microfinance program could have on the lives of these families.

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