Living on a Kenyan farm

Each morning I wake to a room full of sunlight. There are curtains, but they can’t ever seem to win the argument with the sunrise, which is much stronger here in Kenya. When the light becomes impossible to ignore, I’ll yawn and heave my way downstairs for a cold shower. In the early days when we arrived, during Kenya’s driest season, we had no luxury of running water, and to avoid even more stares on the bus in the morning, we opted to keep clean with a ‘Kenyan shower’.

A Kenyan shower involves two buckets of water: one for hot, one for cold. Bring the cold water to a reasonable tepid temperature with the hot, then squat down in your birthday suit to begin throwing cupped handfuls of water over your back, head and crevices. After a few attempts I spotted some crusty flannels drying on the windowsill which, when wetted, are a significant aid to accomplishing ‘squeaky clean’. The bathroom door has a promiscuous habit of slowly easing open by the draught in the corridor, and one of my biggest fears during the dry days was that anyone sitting in the living room might be treated to a glimpse of my stark form kneeling with my head in a bucket, washing shampoo out of my hair and crying from soapy eyes.

Water can make life easy, and it can make it a chore. Only once do you settle in on the seat, having checked for a safe amount of loo roll, and then forget to check that the cistern has water in it. Whilst I would still call on a plumber when I get home, I have certainly learnt a lot about what piped water (and a lack of) allows you to do. Now that the rains are approaching and the council’s water rationing isn’t so strict, we can enjoy a regular shower as we take for granted at home on most days. Labour-saving machines like washing machines and dishwashers are simply not available though.

Washing clothes involves three buckets of water (one soapy, one less soapy, and one you try, and fail, to keep free of soap) and sore thighs after a good long squat out in the sun. Washing the dishes after a meal involves soaping each spoon, cup and plate, then filling a jug from a barrel to rinse the suds off. Every day, Violet the maid washes the floor with a wet rag, bending over to mop away the trading routes of the ant colony as they return from their explorations for food, on the floor, on the table and even on the ceiling. Daily chores are manual, time-consuming and exhausting.

Of course, life would be hard and exhausting if it wasn’t for the brilliant people I live with and call family at my new host home. The house is headed by a lady called Grace, a large and kindly grandmother who is heavily involved in community and charitable affairs, as well as the management of the few acres of land and the tenants on the farm where we live. In her working life she was a caterer and nutritionist and had a long and successful career, finally settling at Egerton University in Nakuru Town. She also has an interesting perspective of having lived through the beginning of Kenyan independence, and often refers to ‘whites’ with a frankness which at first I found unsettling. However, in one of her many projects since retirement, she has used her home to host many groups of volunteers from different countries and programs in the last few years, and even had a group of Balloon Ventures volunteers before Christmas. True to her pride in her work, she is an excellent cook, and has promised to teach me some of the Kenyan dishes before we leave in April.

Grace is assisted in her cooking and the housework by a maid called Violet. Even though my English is apparently incomprehensible to her, she has an honest humour which brings a smile with barely a spoken word. I often hear her singing as she moves about the kitchen, perhaps to her adopted niece called Joy, a sweet and timid little girl, who greets our return each evening by shaking our hands as we cross the threshold, then retreating to peek at us. Like most Kenyan children she is very shy to speak English, but she seems bright and sometimes shows off when doing her homework by loudly counting as she learns her numbers. Violet tells me that she enjoys stories; I would like to read with her one day to see how good her English really is.

We share a table most evenings with Grace’s grandson Jeremy, who is a year or two younger than us and enrolled at college in town. Studying IT, he is generally a whizz kid at phones and technology but his clear passion is for Manchester United and the Premier League. Breaking down the results of the weekend and the implications for his fantasy football team, it’s easy to feel embarrassed by the depth of his knowledge compared to mine! The other places at the table are filled by my fellow volunteers Mike and Dennis, from Scotland and Kenya respectively. Unusually we are a group of three living counterparts (the other volunteers are coupled in UK-Kenyan pairs), so with Jeremy as a fourth there is plenty of banter and gossip to bounce off each other without getting bored.

Besides those who sleep inside the walls of the house, there are a number of tenants who live in a few outhouses. I occasionally see them hanging their washing out, enjoying a radio on full volume, but their work hawking goods keeps them in town for long hours. There is also a menagerie of animals who form part of the house, earning their keep with their allotted roles. A dog, a bitch and her pups are required to lie around in the shade all day, and come nightfall, to join in the nightly barking practice with the other dogs in the neighbourhood. Their principle role is as guards, so when we return after a night on the town the first sounds we hear in the moonlit driveway are a pattering of paws and growls as they sniff us out. Now they know our smells, this checking over of us is a little less thorough, although they are still partial to giving Mike’s ankles a little chew just to show they are still on the job.

Their rivals for leftover chapattis and rice are the cat and kitten. When we arrived, the kitten was a quivering nervous ball at one month of age. Now, it has become a constant bandit in the living room, scampering around on the floor, ambushing its weary mum in endless playfights, and even surprising us all and itself one evening by clearing a meter in the air from the sofa back to the dinner table. Inside a cluttered garage live a number of egg-laying hens, and outside in the paddock by the water store stands a lonely and forlorn calf – its mother and a remaining cow were sold after the rest of the herd were stolen by rustlers before Christmas, at a great loss.

Although breakfast is now a rushed affair before commuting to town, the company shared her during evenings and dinners are as central to the experience of volunteering here as our daily work. We continue to learn about, be fascinated, surprised and frustrated by each other’s cultures, which allows us to integrate better in our separate working teams as well as appreciate the extraordinary and unforgettable experience which this program offers. Dennis has gained a scholarship to study a masters in Environmental Science come September, and we have great fun alternatively winding him up and reassuring him how life will be different as a Kenyan Geordie. Soon we will organise a casual Swahili lesson at the dinner table, and next week Michael and I will try and convince that ‘foreign’ food can be delicious and satisfying by cooking a humungous bolognaise.


Greetings from Kenya!

Our plane touched down smoothly at Nairobi Kenyatta airport, and we had our first experience of a glorious African sunrise. I don’t think I will forget the dusty smell of the ochre earth, and our excitement as we made our way to arrivals. We were met outside the airport by Lollita who packed us and our bags into matatu buses to make our way across the country to Nakuru. Squinting out the window we caught our first glimpses of Kenya, as well as a glorious vista of the great Rift Valley.

Exhausted and smelling, we finally bumped and rolled our way into the Imani Guest House in Nakuru, where we were greeted by the Balloon staff and our Kenyan volunteer counterparts. We were to spend the next week at the guest house eating, living and studying the Balloon curriculum together.

For the first ten days we studied the methods and tools of the Balloon curriculum, a course combining a collection of business tools used in understanding and teaching entrepreneurship, with the experience of the successes and failures from several years of running the program placements in Nakuru and other towns in Western Kenya such as Kericho and Eldoret.

The objective of this period of training is to equip the team of 19 Kenyan and UK volunteers with the knowledge and tools to teach and mentor the Kenyan entrepreneurs who sign up to the program. Working in small groups, we will help the entrepreneurs map out, test, explore and develop their business ideas or existing businesses, learn to manage their finances effectively so that are able to pitch for an interest-free loan to inject some capital into their sustainable business idea or existing business. In some cases, the entrepreneurs come away from the program and choose carry on their vision independently without pitching for a loan.

The training we will be sharing with our entrepreneurs will be held in sessions looking at questions such as ‘why do businesses fail’? Is it due to lack of skills and expert knowledge, is it selling something customers don’t really want, or is it having poor financial management skills and understanding of cash flows, which may cause the business to run out of money or even fail to break even?

Why are some businesses successful? Using tools as simple as the Business Model Canvas (BMC) LINK to map out a business into its components can help raise the question of how things can be done differently. Doing SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) tests of a business can help someone see a business it from internal and external angles. Developing and testing Minimum Viable Products, a cheap prototype of a product or service, can be used to assess the product-market fit a potential business offers before investing significant capital into it. The competitive edge of successful start-up businesses, some of which are now famous as Dropbox or Ryanair, can be explained in this way.

I found the classes in the training period exciting and inspiring because the Balloon curriculum was practical in a way I have never come across in education before. When tasked with coming up with a new business solution for the exhausting problem of buying school uniforms in January, we were sent out into Nakuru to speak to customers in the extraordinary queues snaking out of uniform shops, to test our assumptions we had about process and to come up with a new business idea with proven customer interest.

Pitching and critiquing our new businesses in class the next day, we came up with some interesting angles and ideas, but also found some underlying issues that some of us had not initially seen. For example, many of these customers would love the idea of shopping online and having uniforms delivered to their homes, but would be wary about paying for it online. Also, the uniform suppliers’ shops may benefit from this process, perhaps having made behind-doors deals with the schools in order to distribute exclusively.

The Balloon program brings together young volunteers from the UK and Kenya, of varying ages and backgrounds and working experience, so that this variety throws up questions and new angles. This is a bit like ‘creative’ focused enterprises in the UK and elsewhere hiring designers, architects, historians, medics and chefs in order to design a hotel booking website- no approach or experience is the same or invalid, and each throws up new questions of why and how?

This week we learnt a lot about Kenya and the UK through each other (why do British people become so attached to their animals as to keep them inside their homes, even naming them, and just how do you eat a meal of ugali paste and beans, with just your hands?). More importantly we learnt about our strengths and roles we can play during the process. The In-country volunteers are invaluable in building connections and translating Kenya to us Brits, whilst our fresh eyes and experience of the UK will ask why and test each assumption along the way.

By the end of the week we were ready to move into our host homes where we will call home and family for the rest of the placement, as well as being divided into our working groups of volunteers. I am working with Grace, who has a degree in agricultural business management and calls Mount Kenya home, as well as Dave, a graphic designer and night club owner based in Cardiff. We will be working with six young entrepreneurs, who all live and have come through polytechnic college in Barut, a farming village someway south of Nakuru town, near Lake Nakuru.

Tomorrow we will be delivering our first session to our group entrepreneurs, focusing on teaching the Business Model Canvas. As homework before the next session on Wednesday we will ask them to create a BMC for their own business or business idea. They can’t wait to get started, and nor can I!

The Week Before Kenya

My suitcase is on the bed, and I’m wondering what to put into it. Next weekend I will be flying to Nairobi Kenyatta airport, with the first group of ICS Entrepreneur volunteers to work for Balloon Ventures. I’ve been emailed some helpful descriptions of what to expect when we arrive in Kenya, as well as a list of what to think about bringing with me. It’s finally starting to seem real now, and a bit scary!

The staff who are already out there tell us that at this time of year, although the evenings and nights are quite cool, we should be prepared for hot, dry and dusty days during Kenya’s hottest month. January in the UK is so dark, cold and wet that it is hard to imagine what lies ahead, but I’ll be pleased to leave the weather behind! Mostly though I’m thrilled to be taking on the challenge of working as a fellow for Balloon Ventures, where I expect each day to be different from the last, and to learn a great deal about Kenya’s entrepreneurs and startup businesses.

There will be lots of exciting and new experiences over the next three months, but I am also aware that I’m likely to find that some things aren’t too different from home. I, like many of my fellow UK volunteers, have never been to Africa, and only outside Europe a couple of times. But a bit of reading and advice from Balloon Ventures has told me to expect a country fully in the 21st century. Gadget technology, consumer brands and global connections have shaped Kenyan culture just like Britain’s. It will be really interesting to see which ideas I have about Kenya right now will be challenged when we get there, and which ideas were just about right.

That said, a google search of the town Nakuru where I will be staying brings up pictures of giant flocks of pink flamingos: the famous and much-photographed Lake Nakuru is one of the jewels of Kenya’s national parks. I guess some things really are unique to Kenya!