Sunday, July 29, 2012

Half year update

The first six months of 2012 were memorable in Kenya and for my company Juhudi Kilimo.  We reached the historic financial milestone of “break even”.  After three years of initial losses we are now making a profit.  We were able to raise our required capital with some new investors such as Soros Economic Development Fund, Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.  Their funding should fuel our growth for the next several years.  The journey was not an easy one.  In 2008 I started with a small non-profit pilot program with a few thousand clients and about $800,000 worth in loans.  The organization was losing about $20,000 per month.  Now we are profitable and have over 13,000 clients working with us.  Half of them are servicing loans worth over $2.5 million.  It is fun to see the $7 million we raised go into our business system, help the rural smallholder farmers, come back out to pay interest to our investors, pay all our expenses, pay the staff salary and still be left with extra money each month to re-invest in the business.  We have a cool new logo too.

In the last few months, I spoke at the Columbia Business School, a United Nations Business Call to Action event, and an agricultural finance conference sponsored by the World Bank to get the word out about our emerging social business model.  Both of these events were nice opportunities for me to speak about Juhudi.  Everyone still seems interested in what we are doing and I hope to keep up the momentum.

One of the highlights this year was my overnight stay with one of our smallholder farmer clients in the rural town of Litein. This was a valuable experience for me because I was able to learn more about life as a smallholder farmer and witness the day-to-day challenges.  After one of my managers dropped me off at the farm, I spent some time entertaining the small children who kept calling me “Muhindi” (which means “Indian” in Swahili) because they have not seen many other foreigners. 

After a nice dinner of chicken and rice we all went to bed early and slept to the sound of the rain on the roof.  In the morning I was awake at 6 am to help feed and water the chickens which were all financed by our company. 

My next task was to milk one of the cows.  It wasn’t easy, but I managed to get about six liters of milk before my hands gave out.  I learned that milking cows is hard work.

I have also tried my best to get in some personal traveling.  Recently, a group of my friends took advantage of the low-season rates and rented a castle on the beach in the coast town of Lamu (the same place the pirates kidnapped all those foreigners).  The castle was well insulated against any pirate attacks with its 20’ walls and massive iron doors.

I visited the Middle East including Lebanon and Jordan in April and June.

Beirut, Lebanon had an extremely modern and cosmopolitan feel while Jordan still maintained its historical roots in places like Wadi Rum (from the Laurence of Arabia story) and Petra.

Many have asked me how long I intend to stay in Kenya and my answer depends on how long it takes to get Juhudi Kilimo to the next level of operation where we really look like a thriving business.  We are headed in that direction.  So far, so good in Nairobi.

Friday, February 24, 2012

2011 Year in Review

Dear all,

I did not realize how many people were following my blog until I stopped posting. Yes, I am still in Kenya. Here is a year-in-review post for 2011. I am giving the top five highlights at our company, Juhudi Kilimo, and the top five personal highlights for the year.

Top 5 Highlights at Juhudi Kilimo

1) The company received investments from the Acumen Fund and the Grameen Foundation of $1.2 million and the Ford Foundation of Program Related Investment of $2 million. It was a long and hard journey but we are now able to really start growing the company in 2012.

2) Juhudi Kilimo was recognized at the World Economic Forum last May for the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Schwab Foundation.

3) We somehow attracted rock star volunteers from McKinsey and Google to work with us some key IT and operational initiatives.

4) AMSCO which is a consortium of the UN, IFC and African Development Bank, flew me to Helsinki to present at its board meeting and to some of their stakeholders about the work we are doing at Juhudi Kilimo.

(this is a sunset picture of Helsinki at 11:30pm!)

5) The Mulago Foundation invited me to join its class of fellows and I attended a retreat in beautiful Bolinas, CA

Top 5 Personal Highlights

1) My twin brother got married in September on the ranch near Vail, CO where we once taught fly-casting lessons. Two of the bridesmaids and I was almost killed by a runaway hay wagon and trampled by two draught horses. Luckily I can still move quickly in cowboy boots.

2) Adopted a baby elephant named Kainuk from the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi.

3) Went diving in the Gulf of Aqaba off the cost of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Climbed Mt. Sinai to see the sunrise and view where Moses received the 10 commandments. I did not find anymore commandments.

4) Led a trip of friends into the depths of Tsavo National Park where the lions are known to eat people.

5) After 3 years, my parents finally came to visit me in Kenya after 3 years. They arrived during the worst rains in 30 years. We were flooded in at the game range in Loisaba. My Dad and I spent an unsuccessful two hours pushing the safari truck out of the mud against a raging river bed. Fortunately the owners of the lodge chartered a helicopter for us to escape. I took them to the coast of Vipingo where we had to hit the ground to avoid a swarm of killer bees. On the day of the flight home, I managed to mix up the flight times and ended up driving from Mombasa to Nairobi, nearly getting killed several times by oncoming trucks and buses along Mombasa road. All-in-all the trip was a great adventure for my parents. They now know my friends, coworkers and living conditions in Kenya.

Friday, December 24, 2010

End of Year Post

I recently celebrated the two year anniversary of my stay in Kenya. It is hard to believe that I have been living abroad for so long. What began as an 8 month consulting assignment has evolved into a fantastic 26 month experience. Juhudi Kilimo has grown from a small pilot project into a real business. We have a new website and we were featured in several news articles. Our partnership with Kiva in 2010 has been quite productive by helping us distribute over $550,000 worth of loans. Thanks to all of you who have provided our clients with loans through the Kiva site. Next year will be exciting as we finally hope to close on our funding and will roll out new projects such as M-Pesa and the SMS survey tool called mSwali.

Some personal highlights of the last few months include my rafting trip on the Nile to Jinja in Uganda, a trek through the jungles of Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas and a few other stories I wanted to share.

In Uganda we rode the big white water on the Nile before a new dam destroys the whole valley.

I enjoyed some bungee jumping into the river as well.

In November I joined a group of friends on a trip to Rwanda to tour the genocide museum of Kigali and see the mountain gorillas. We were charged several times by the gorillas who were drunk on bamboo shoots. One person in our group was actually slapped by a young male.

Diani Beach Generosity

I was biking in Diani beach with a friend and some 20km south of our hotel when we rolled into a thorn patch along the beach. Dozens of razor sharp thorns quickly cut clear to the wheel-well of our tires. We slowly walked our bikes back to the main road and into the nearest town. The afternoon was approaching and I was getting worried that we would not make it back to our hotel before dark. After asking around the village, we found a group of kids who directed us to a bicycle repair shack. There we found an old man with some super glue and a few strips of rubber. The initial diagnosis uncovered nearly 30 puncture holes and resulted in a bill of 500 shillings (about $6).

Unfortunately, I had spent our last 200 shillings on a few bottles of water and did not have a single cent to my name. We begged for help but the old man would not consider doing the work pro-bono. The group of children who had followed us from the beach all banded together, dug deep into their pockets and scraped together the money we needed for the repairs. I will never understand why these children spent their month’s savings to help two strangers from the US fix their flat tires. In many parts of Kenya a gang of children would easily steal our bikes and leave us stranded in the streets or worse. Kenya continues to surprise me.

M-Pesa in the Farms

In August of this year, Juhudi Kilimo held a training event and a new office launch in the town of Eldoret which is in the western part of Kenya. We invited 150 farmer group officials who represented about 3,000 farmers to participate in a free training session on agriculture and animal husbandry. The training is our way of expanding our lending operations into a new area. During the registration, one of my regional managers noticed a large crowd of farmers who were gathered in the lobby of the seven-story hotel where our training was being held. The manager discovered that these farmers from the rural parts of the country had never been inside of an elevator before. They were terrified of the small box that seemed to swallow people and disappear with them. We finally convinced everyone to make the journey to the 7th floor (many opted for the stairs) where we began our training.

At the end of the event, I was telling the crowd about Juhudi Kilimo’s plan to roll out M-Pesa, the mobile money payment system with Safaricom, and asked how many of them were familiar with the new mobile technology which is not even available in the US. All the farmers raised their hands. Safaricom did an amazing job in identifying an appropriate technology for the rural Kenyan farmer and then in distributing it to the most remote regions of the country. It gave me lots of hope for our plans to integrate M-Pesa with our loan administration system.

I am looking forward to a great 2011 with Juhudi Kilimo in Kenya.