Colson, Kathleen

KColson.jpgKathleen Colson is the executive director of the BOMA Fund, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that works to develop new opportunities for education, capacity-building, and entrepreneurial innovation in the Laisamis District and Karare village region of northern Kenya. Kathleen is also the CEO of African Safari Planners and has been organizing and leading safaris to Africa since 1986. BOMA’s mission is to improve the capacity of individuals to earn their own income through a locally run, grants-based training and mentoring program—a cost-effective and sustainable strategy for poverty alleviation. BOMA gives the poor in northern Kenya the resources to determine their own future, including: access to capital, training, university scholarships, and vocational training.

[Ed.: Since we posted this interview, the fund has been renamed the BOMA Project.]

See the website of The Boma Fund asks ...

Kathleen, what is the BOMA Fund?

KC: The BOMA Fund is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that works in Northern Kenya. We have three programs. We focus on economic empowerment, primarily with women, through the Rural Entrepreneur Access Project, or REAP. That's our signature program of micro-enterprise development.

We identify and train people within villages to work as business mentors. They must have strong community roots, work well with women, and have a sustainable income through some kind of business. They then organize small businesses around groups of five women and provide them with business skills training and a small grant of 150 dollars. The groups are mentored for two years.

Our second program is Cows For Kids. We provide livestock to the very poorest of the poor, giving them a source of nutrition and income. Unfortunately that program is now suspended due to the second round of a devastating drought that has killed most of the livestock.

Our third program is called Agents of Change. We're developing local leadership in two ways. We are taking outstanding candidates and sending them to Earth University in Costa Rica. Earth University has a unique mission of taking students from developing countries and providing them with math, science, engineering, and agricultural skills in order to go back home and make a difference. That education is paired with a lot of conversation about ethics and entrepreneurship.

Eighty-seven percent of all Earth graduates return to their home countries, which is one of the reasons why we're attracted to it. Most African students who study abroad don't return home. We want them to go home and be local leaders, start businesses, and focus on medium-sized enterprises that will provide employment.

Our greatest challenge is where we work. Northern Kenya is considered semi-arid but it's certainly on the frontline of global climate change. Many people in the aid business regularly ask me, "Kathleen, what were you thinking trying to work in this area?" because there's a debate over whether we should be talking about self-reliance when people are in survival mode. We believe we have a model to do that. We believe we can.

What does BOMA stand for?

KC: It is a cattle enclosure. It also means "to fortify" in Swahili.

How are you connected to this area?

KC: During college, I attended the University of Nairobi for a semester through St. Lawrence University. I made a number of trips back, started my own safari company in 1986, and have been leading and organizing safaris for people ever since. I'm still in the safari business, though my work with BOMA is my first priority now. I'm also a very close friend of a member of Parliament that represents part of the area where BOMA works.

You mean Joseph Lekuton?

KC: Yes. When I was a college student in Kenya, I hitchhiked all over East Africa, including into Uganda, and made my way to Northern Kenya. The only way to get up there—and it's still true today, it hasn't changed much—is to hitchhike on the top of these great big trucks.

I met Joseph when he was working at St. Lawrence's camp in the Adirondacks, and I was a guest at the camp. He told me where he was from. I didn't believe it. Nobody from this area goes to primary school, let alone high school and college in the United States. So he's an extraordinary young man who has gotten a lot of publicity. He founded the Cows For Kids program and asked me to take that over. That's how I got started.

That grew into the BOMA Fund?

KC: Yes. When he asked, I said, "Okay, but I don't want to just do the Cows For Kids program. I want to create an umbrella organization so that we can focus on the income as development strategy." In my experience, most aid is ineffective, particularly in Africa. This was my opportunity to found an organization and do it on my terms. I have done a lot of advocacy and fundraising for lots of African organizations over the years through the safari business.

What's your philanthropic philosophy?

KC: My philosophy is Africa-specific. Poverty is complex. There's a lot of good dialogue happening now about Africa and aid, and a lot of questions being asked. The reality is, most aid doesn't reach Africans. Donors, from governments to foundations to private donors, don't demand enough accountability.

There are lots of social entrepreneurs right now that say, "I've got a great way to save Africa." And my first question to them is, "Did you ask the Africans?" One of BOMA's founding principles is that all our programs are to be led by local people. I keep a very low profile there. I am there to problem-solve in a group setting. I've drunk many cups of tea under the thorn tree doing that, and investing time in listening to the people. It's the most important thing you do in trying to do effective work.

There can be a lack of common sense with African philanthropy. That's why I like speaking the language of business because it comes with a certain discipline. For some reason, everybody thinks that giving stuff away for free is a good idea. But in the process of giving stuff away, they have devastated markets.

All those great clothes that you donate at Goodwill get sold by the pound, shipped on a boat, and funneled into a used clothing market that has absolutely devastated the textile industry in Africa. The clothing market is all about used clothes.

I met some very enthusiastic people on my last trip who were doing Bikes For Africa, which sounds like a great idea. But nobody asked the guy that has the African bike store. Giving things away really hurts the market. Dumping grain on the open market is devastating to local economies and small, local farmers. There are times when it makes sense to give things away for free, like medicine and malaria nets. There's this romanticized idea about helping to save Africa.

Ninety percent of Africans are very capable, hardworking people. They're poor, but not because they're not hardworking, or not good family people, or not taking good care of their children. There's an impression to the contrary that, unfortunately, aid organizations reinforce by using negative imagery to help their fundraising programs. They're not all child soldiers with HIV running around killing people.

What they don't have are the institutions to make businesses successful. Land rights are an issue. Having a justice system that works, having effective organizations that facilitate starting businesses, and having recourse if that doesn't work right is what they lack more than anything else.

But then you have people that go on mission trips. And I'm controversial in this opinion. About the worst thing that I see in Africa is a group of people at 2,200 dollars per person flying to Africa on mission trips to build schools and clinics. Africans are perfectly capable of doing that. About the worst thing you can see is a group of white people caught up in their feel-good moment, digging and building a school with a bunch of Africans sitting around watching them. There is nothing more disempowering than that. It contributes to their sense of helplessness, and hinders their ability to be creative problem solvers.

That's why I'm so big on Earth University, because their whole program is about developing critical thinking skills and creative problem solving. We need to tap into that natural African instinct of creative problem solving. Where I see that now is in technology. I can pick up my phone in Dorset, Vermont, and I can call somebody in a cow dung hut in Northern Kenya. They're illiterate, but they have cell phones. They're learning how to use computers. They love computers. They figure it all out. When my vehicle breaks down, I'm surrounded by people who love creative problem solving.

Many organizations focus on what the people don't have. BOMA focuses on what they do have, and we build from there.

How do you find people to serve as the business mentors?

KC: We have a network of people that work with us in each of the villages. We have a country director who's from the area that we work with to identify people. Understand that in our area, ninety percent of the women are illiterate and our preference is for, obviously, women leaders. So we're working with a pretty small pool. There is a very small pool of people in business because, typical of Africa, it is perceived that if you want to make a lot of money, you go into politics.

If you went into a classroom of college students right now and asked, "How many people want to start their own business and be an entrepreneur?" few hands would go up." If you ask them "What do you want to do?" ninety percent would say, "I want to work for an international development organization or the government," because they see that as a good job. And we're working to change that dynamic by creating role models within the communities.

You give grants rather than microloans. And you seem to have some strong feelings about those two things.

KC: I am a big fan of the microlending program that Muhammad Yunus set up. It is a great solution for many parts of the world with devastating poverty. But data is emerging indicating that it is not this magic panacea.

Loans are really for people that have skills and access to markets. You're encouraging poor people to take a risk. Many microlending programs are expensive to administer. When I started BOMA, we thought that we would do microlending. I tried to attract a microlending partner to our area. Nobody would come into our very rural, remote area.

I went in search of a grants-based program and found Village Enterprise Fund. Since then, I have identified a few others. I think that grants are the right way to go for an effective poverty alleviation program when you're dealing in areas where you have the truly ultra-poor who don't have experience or skills with business. It's not so much about the 150 dollar grant as it is about the business skills training program and helping people identify the discipline that's required in starting these very small businesses.

Northern Kenya is at the forefront of climate change. The droughts are devastating, so the pastoral nomadic communities are starting to settle into the villages. They're surviving on remittances from the educated members of the community or people that have found jobs outside of the area and send money home. As that dynamic happens, you go into those villages and there are no shops, no services. There's nothing. We're trying to stay ahead of that.

I see. As a nomadic culture settles in these small villages, they've just been tending herds for generations, so there isn't any understanding about how to set up a business.

KC: No—especially for the women. Culturally, they don't see themselves as businesspeople. But that is changing as we celebrate and identify certain role models in the community that are highly successful individuals from their areas.

You focus on women. Why?

KC: If you take care of the women, you take care of the village. These are very small enterprises. Culturally, they see women as doing small enterprises. Men, they see themselves as doing very large enterprises.

But there aren't any large enterprises there, so—

KC: That used to be livestock. And don't get me wrong, there are some very wealthy people in the livestock industry who are very good businesspeople. But they had six hundred cattle one year, and now they're down to four. So they're multi-millionaires who lost everything. Women are the best investment.

Having said that, though, we are not doing our REAP program exclusively for women. One of the most neglected groups in Africa right now is educated young men. They have the equivalent of an eighth grade education and are caught between two worlds. They're living traditional lives, surrounded by many of the uneducated kids they grew up with, yet they have an education, but they're not educated enough to get a really good job. The angry young man, I've always said, is one of the most dangerous animals on the continent. We need to figure out ways that we can engage the angry young man.

We want to make opportunities available to some of these young men in starting small businesses. We also offer vocational training because that gives people the skills to become employed. We've already got a number of people that we've provided technical and vocational scholarships to who are learning how to be drivers and mechanics.

It's a huge problem right here in the United States. Unlike Western Europe, which has these very elaborate vocational training programs, we've neglected that group. It's assumed that college is the only way to go and that just doesn't happen for a lot of folks.

KC: With the dropout rates in the U.S., all those kids could be going into something else. We know what we pay electricians and plumbers. They can make a very decent income. The same is true in Africa.

How is fundraising this year? Or shouldn't I ask that?

KC: BOMA's still very small. We have spent a lot of time in program development, in building relationships. But I can tell you that from 2007 to 2008, we were up 24 percent. I think our model is starting to resonate with people that understand the African development world. I was one of three speakers at the Voices for Africa conference at Harvard University talking about social entrepreneurship and education. I presented our model and theory of change, and it withstood some pretty strong questioning by some very good minds in the field.

The biggest challenge for fundraising for Africa is engaging donors in the work you do. Donors like tangible things like building schools or digging wells. We are not as tangible. Our cows are tangible, but REAP is less tangible.

Most of our donations will come from foundations or government or major donors. We have a Facebook group. We're trying to tap into viral marketing. But it's not going to be thousands of 50 dollar donors that will put us over the edge. I think it's going to be grants over the course of two to three years to effectively implement and then evaluate our programs.

We now have our program development pretty well solidified, and we've also got lots of stats and feedback on the viability of the program and the impact. We measure the impact of our program by using status of living indexes. We can't ask the people that are running these little businesses how much they made this year. They'd never tell. They're poor, and they don't want any of their neighbors to know how much they have because they'll be constantly hit up for loans.

We ask them, "Do you have a mattress now? How many meals a day do you eat? How much sugar do you put in your tea? How much livestock do you own? What's your house look like?" We ask them about 25 questions when they first enroll in the program, at a three-month and then a one-year interval. That's how we measure.

When we have those stats in a few months time, despite the drought, we think we'll still be able to make a very good case for the viability of our program.

These drought conditions still exist?

KC: The last time it rained was November.

So it's conceivable that this whole attempt to keep livestock could end for this region.

KC: Yes. I was talking to one of the elders the other day by phone. He said, "This is the end of the livestock industry for us." They can never get ahead. The cycles of drought are now more severe and more frequent.

So what we're also doing is identifying industries. We've identified four right now that are sustainable, viable industries for semi-arid areas. We've looked at what people are doing in Mali, Ethiopia, and Sudan. One of the big industries is gums and resins, which is basically frankincense and myrrh. It's the sap of acacia trees, an important ingredient in confections and colas. Not a lot of people are collectors in our area right now. It could be a very viable industry.

What are some of the other industries?

KC: Jatropha is a perennial weed that can withstand up to three seasons of drought. It produces a berry that is a very high concentration of biofuel, which you can then process and use in diesel engines and generators. They've done a lot with jatropha in Brazil, India, and China. Two of our Earth students are doing a lot of research on jatropha and we've been approached by an organization asking if people in our area would be interested in growing it.

People are interested in bringing it to our area because it is not only a viable plant for a semi-arid area, but we're not displacing agricultural areas that have typically been used to provide food. There's a continual clash between income-producing crops versus food. Kenya's still importing a lot of food to feed its people. There's not enough.

Other industries are aloe or capers. We're in the early stages of researching aloe. We found out that there was an Italian priest who worked in one of our villages many years back who had started an entire capers operation, and was exporting to Italy. An agricultural student at one of the universities in Kenya said he'd like to discuss reviving the caper business. That's a great day in BOMA world, when people come to us with solutions, and see us as a facilitator of business solutions.

We’d like to see small businesses in these industries developed around REAP and then see those businesses scale, which is key. Those are the kind of industries that we can start with our REAP program.

When did you found BOMA?

KC: We started in 2005.

So you're still pretty young.

KC: Yes. But I'm more optimistic about Africa and the work we are doing than I ever have been. One advantage is that because of the remote nature of the place and security concerns, there haven't been a lot of aid organizations in the area to mess things up. I have a bit of a clean palette to work with.

It's exciting and incredibly challenging. Some of the finest minds in the world are working on this, with not a lot of success. I'm in the William Easterly camp. He wrote the book, White Man's Burden.

His thesis being that the Western developed nations are just throwing money away—

KC: Jeffrey Sachs says, "Throw more money at it and we're going to be effective." William Easterly says, "No. The reason it's not effective is because the institutions aren't there." Instead of starting with the big picture, you've got to start down on the ground level.

As you said earlier, kids growing up there think that the way to make money is to go into government. I'm guessing a lot of that money is aid money that's coming from the U.S., right?

KC: Absolutely. The ironic thing is that by providing all that aid, we've eliminated the need for governmental accountability. We've built roads, schools, and hospitals. In Western countries, we expect our governments to do that. And so if Western countries are coming in and doing that, then why should the local people hold their politicians accountable for anything? They're not the ones doing the work.

That's a huge stone to turn given everybody there has grown up in this environment where accountability hasn't existed.

KC: There are some elite African thinkers who are taking this on. They're saying aid has disempowered and taken away their rights as citizens and they see the connection to demanding accountability. Check out some of the speakers at the TED Conference Arusha, like George Ayittey. The finance minister from Nigeria said, "Yeah, do aid. But do aid that gives us the infrastructure that allows us to thrive. Let us be responsible for some of the other parts of this." Again, that goes back to engaging and asking.

One of your underlying fundamentals seems to be listening.

KC: Listening and letting local people lead. That's why I love our Earth students. My goal is to have ten to twelve Earth graduates in the field. I know that they will do more than I could ever do in a lifetime.

John Wood from Room to Read has the same philosophy about involving locals, having them do the work, and making sure they're invested. I don't know that I would totally agree with you about not getting those 50 dollar donations, however. I think people are interested.

KC: People have a hard time wrapping themselves around the concept of income as development. I can't tell you the number of times I've presented our REAP program to sophisticated philanthropists and they walk away saying, "How do I buy a cow?" All I do is talk about investing in REAP and they say, "How do I buy a cow?"

We're working to make the REAP program more tangible. Fifty bucks, you're sponsoring a woman, 250 dollars for a five-person business, and 25,000 dollars for a village for three years to launch an entire REAP program.

We are giving social media a try. We need an expedition quality truck. We've been borrowing and renting vehicles. And as our programs scales, that's just not sustainable. We have an organization that's giving us a grant for half the purchase price of a used Land Cruiser. We need to raise 12,500 dollars to match it. We're going to let people have their name on the side of the vehicle, for a donation over a hundred dollars. The biggest donor gets to name the vehicle. We're doing this through our Facebook group.

The three things we need right now are a truck, a media advisory board, and three major donors to get us through the next year and a half until we're on deck to get the big funding.

Excellent. Maybe somebody in our community can help out.

KC: I hope so. We understand that people want effective philanthropy. Transparency and accountability are big challenges in remote parts of Africa. We have a paper trail for everything we do, including when we buy goats as a part of our Cows For Kids Program. We buy goats from the local goat herder, the transaction is written in the sand, and we take a picture.

That's a great story, very visual.

KC: I struggle with the fact that many people want to make the story about me. The reality is, I'm a mom living in rural Vermont with three kids. And then I go off to Africa and I run around in a Land Cruiser with guys with machine guns and spears. That's very much the reality of what I do. So people always want to make the story about me. I'd rather make the story about the people of Northern Kenya. They are the extraordinary ones. What I do there is not extraordinary.

It seems like a great cause, Kathleen. Thank you for your time.

KC: Thanks, Erik.

Websites: BOMA Fund
                 Cows For Kids
Facebook: BOMA group
Email: info (at) bomafund (dot) org