Alumni, SigEp Blog

SigEp Alumni Spotlight: Supporting Small-Enterprise in Kenya

By Alex Villec COL ’13

Hey brothers!

As part of DC Gamma’s growing emphasis on alumni involvement, I wanted to say a few words to introduce myself, what I’ve been up to, and how SigEp fits into the picture. I spoke to some of this in a recent e-mail, so please excuse the redundancy where it exists.

Since graduating in May 2013, I have been working with an NGO that focuses on small-enterprise development in northern Kenya. The BOMA Project provides grants to groups of three women toward the objective of income diversification and drought resilience. Whether measured in nutrition, savings, or prevailing cultural notions of wealth, livestock is central to the pastoralist way of life. Climate change and conflict undermine the strategy of herd accumulation that defines “the pastoralist dream”, if there ever was such a notion. First, BOMA provides the capital ($100) needed to launch a small business. Second, participants receive training (e.g. record-keeping) and on-going support (e.g. weekly business visits) from local mentors who live in the very communities where BOMA operates. At six months, women receive a second grant ($50) to expand their enterprise, at which point groups form savings associations and begin extending credit to group participants and within the community. Our model rests on the idea that liquidity constraints and poor access to markets present pastoralists with high levels of risk that make it hard to plan and even harder to withstand negative shocks. Our model introduces a sustainable livelihood that complements pastoralism and equips women with greater financial freedom to fund medical expenses, invest in their children’s education, and purchase food.

My work with BOMA centers on monitoring and evaluation (M&E). In short, this means using data to improve our program. In the office, this involves designing surveys with relevant indicators, analyzing datasets, reporting internally and externally on changes in household characteristics and business performance, and then using our findings to inform how we define success among program participants. In the field, the monitoring component entails continuous communication between our local mentors, field officers, and office staff. Back checks, data collection, mentor visits, grant disbursements, and savings group meetings are all key components of our work in the “field”, either because I’m directly involved in their execution or because they serve as opportunities to better understand our program and its operations.

If you’re still awake at this point, I should simply mention that BOMA has not only been a stellar introduction to international development, but also to post-graduate life more broadly. It’s shown me what an organic and locally-run program can accomplish when development practitioners understand the communities in which they operate. It’s also shown me how fundraising needs, inter-NGO competition, and shortsighted planning can hinder non-profit actors in lifting large portions of the population out of extreme poverty.

I began with the BOMA Project by applying for a Princeton in Africa (PiAf) fellowship during my senior year at Georgetown. PiAf is part-placement organization, part-network, part-professional development program that places recent graduates with organizations based in Africa across the fields of humanitarian assistance, micro-enterprise, public health, and agriculture, to name a few. After the initial application and interview process, PiAf staff engages you in a personalized conversation about specific fellowship posts and potential fits, at which point you’re put forward as a fellowship candidate to interview with the decided-upon organization. It’s a fluid process that can last anywhere from 4-6 months.

A Georgetown degree will present you with incredible opportunities. Most important will be identifying what it is that you want from your first few years off the Hilltop. As I searched left and right, I placed a high value on gaining international experience, honing language skills, and developing a portable toolkit that would easily transfer across disciplines (e.g. data analysis, leadership, organizational/strategic planning). Once you can clearly articulate what you’re after, you’ll dive into the job hunt with a sense of direction and purpose. To me, these initial steps out of the Georgetown nest are prime for learning as much as possible, for growing my network, and for pondering how I wish to develop professionally over the next 5-10 years – all within a context where I have enough peace, flexibility, and freedom to think. Don’t underestimate how valuable it can be to live and wrestle with your own thoughts for a year or two! I’m talking about thoughts influenced, informed, and dictated by your judgment alone, not by a rigid syllabus, a mind-blowing extracurricular schedule, sacred words like “cum” and “laude”, a rapidly dwindling checking account balance, or a friend’s CV…)

Take this all with a grain of salt. Among those reading this are studs with a far firmer grasp on where they’re headed. Plus, there are so many other paths with so much to offer. While 90-hour weeks would make it tough to indulge in recreational reading on a Wednesday night or spend Sunday evenings learning a new language, I’d guess that a high-intensity career track can be one superhighway to long-term success. And, unless you join the Jesuit order, you’re not taking a lifelong oath to one fixed career path. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the beauty of post-graduate life – at least at the outset. Know that with momentum and motivation, you’ll be able to pursue Plan B if Plan A was a flop; just keep pressing ahead. It’s easy to turn a moving car.

Restore balance where it lacked in college, fill your brain, put yourself in uncomfortable situations, ask yourself difficult questions, and never stop meeting people.

Most important of all, don’t forget your brothers. The most meaningful exchanges I’ve shared since graduation have been with SigEps, and there’s a good chance I’ll be saying this 20 years from now.

As always, my door is open. Reach out with your thoughts and ask me questions – I’ll be challenged, more focused, and better because of them.

HFF,
Alex

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