Reflections on Kenya & Uganda: Village Enterprise

August 26, 2013

After our 5:30 to 8 a.m. hike above the rainforest canopy, we switched gears and climbed into the safari van for a trip into Kakamega to meet the Kenya team of Village Enterprise. VE was started in 1987, the year I was ordained in the PCUSA, by Brian Lehnan and Joan Hestenes Lehnan, Presbyterian friends of ours. They had graduated from Eastern College (now University) with the hope of becoming overseas missionaries. A medical condition prevented their call from becoming a reality, and so after prayer and an assessment of the needs, they founded an organization to address deep poverty. The simple non-profit, initially run out of their Bay Area home, enlisted the aid of local pastors in several countries to identify the poorest of the poor in villages. Upon receipt of a business plan devised by at least three business partners, VEF LOGOVillage Enterprise provides two-stage grants for seed capital of new small businesses. What makes their effort unique is the fact that they give grants, not loans, and that they frontload the process with business training and mentoring, following the progress of new business owners through their first year.

Since its original inception, Village has further concentrated its efforts in East Africa (Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania). It’s goal: To equip people living in extreme poverty with the resources to create sustainable businesses. The most significant recent developments have been the addition of business training and fostering business savings groups, as well as providing “business-in-a-box” — startup capital of tools and business inputs instead cash, in some cases. You should really explore VE’s website to get the full picture of what they do. We have been supporters of this ministry for over twenty years, and my husband served on the board in the 1990s.

The incredible thing is that 75% of the businesses that start are still operating in four years. The small business success rate in the United States is something like 50%,[*] so we think VE facilitates a pretty good return on donors’ investment—only $150 in two installments per business—among the poorest of the poor!

We made our way to the Kenya office and were greeted by Assistant Country Director Francis Khamaluli, Business Mentor Gloria Veela, Field Coordinator Selina Otima and two American fellows Daniel Duarte and Doug Bove. What an able bunch of enthusiastic and passionate facilitators! Francis, Selina, and Gloria piled into our van for a day’s tour. First stop, a business training session taught by Nancy Shikuri. VE's Nancy Shikuri teaching a business moduleAbout twenty-five women and two men were gathered, sitting on the grass in the shade, while Nancy presented the instructional module on savings. Though she spoke Luhya, it was clear what she was teaching and how effective she was at involving her students in discussion. I was very impressed with Nancy’s teaching ability, and the group was responsive to her and highly motivated.IMG_4598

In a rural environment with limited access to banks—and because these participants represent the poorest of the poor from this village—the subject of financial savings simply hasn’t come up because there hasn’t been any cash to save. But Nancy laid out a way of thinking and a plan (increasing revenue plus managing spending) in basic terms to help these soon-to-be business owners stabilize their financial base. As honored guests, we were invited to give a word of encouragement to the group, for whom this was only a second meeting in preparation for receiving their first grant. I told them that this small step was the first of many, and that God would see this small thing through to become something big for them and their families.

After the training was complete, we visited local businesses primarily raising chickens for sale. IMG_4611The first woman we met had chickens at three stages of development, including incubation of eggs. She, and other subsequent owners we met, benefitted from local accumulated wisdom that taught them to inoculate the chickens against a deadly disease. If they had not have that kind of very practical support early on, I could easily picture them quitting in discouragement. But because of the networks set up by Village Enterprise and the strong instructional support that came with the program, these folks were slowly building their businesses. Chicks—VE small business IMG_4631One woman specializes in the phase from chick to adult growth, and produces chickens to local hotel restaurants.

Andy always asked the business owners we met, “How has your participation with Village Enterprise changed your life?” One pair of guys, growing kale for sale, just looked at us steadily and said, “Before, we had nothing to do. We had nothing to start with. We had no hope for the future. When we started with Village Enterprise, we created meaningful work for ourselves and a sustainable source of income for our families. VE changed everything for us.”

For these and thousands of others in rural villages of eastern Africa, the vicious cycle of poverty has been broken. Their lives as individuals and families have been invigorated by work, progress, and tangible benefits, not to mention the goods and services they make available to their communities. They can save a little money for an emergency fund. They engage in a business and social circle that offers them opportunities to help one another through “business savings groups,” one of which we visited that afternoon.

We felt such a tremendous privilege to have a role in this endeavor and pray for VE’s continued growth and for the wisdom of their field staff, with whom we were so impressed.


[*] Census data, reported on the website of Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, http://www.sbecouncil.org/about-us/facts-and-data/.

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