Cornell students help corporations and Kenya’s poor build business partnerships

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of East Africa’s largest slums and the setting for the recent film “The Constant Gardener,” which presents images of grinding poverty, tempered by people’s spirit of endurance.

A story of another kind is also unfolding in Kibera and in Nyota township in rural Kenya — one in which a multinational corporation assumes the unlikely role of business partner to poor communities.

This past summer, a six-person team that included two Cornell University graduate students and one alumna worked alongside residents of Kibera and Nyota, about three and a half hours northwest of Nairobi, as part of a project called the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) Protocol. Headed by the Johnson Graduate School of Management’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, the project seeks to design and test a new process by which large corporations can work closely with poor communities to create new business opportunities for themselves and the community. Kenya, which is home to a subsidiary of SC Johnson — one of the BoP Protocol’s four corporate sponsors — was the first site chosen to test the protocol.

One of the team members, Erik Simanis, a doctoral candidate at the Johnson School who co-directs the BoP Protocol project, said: “We think that business partnerships between corporations and poor communities, when undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect, can be a powerful way to serve the needs of these communities, while creating new opportunities for growth and innovation in the company.”

But learning how to work in genuine partnership with people who are marginalized takes time, trust and an immersion in their daily lives, explained Simanis. To build trust in Kenya, he and other protocol team members lived and worked alongside their hosts in Kibera and Nyota. “We experienced their lives as genuinely as we could,” Simanis said. “We cooked and ate meals together, washed dishes and laundry as they do and shared their one-room homes.”

“Part of what became important was to learn about and actively participate in local chores — whether that was milking a cow in the remote rural township of Nyota where some of us stayed or helping sell mandazis [Swahili fried bread] on the street corners of Kibera,” said Tatiana Thieme ’00. Currently a consultant for Cornell professor of law and anthropology Annelise Riles, Thieme worked with small-scale farmers in Nyota, along with Justin De Koszmovszky ’99, a Johnson School MBA student, and another team member.

Before they began, BoP Protocol team members spent several months preparing for their work in Kenya, including training in participatory tools and methods. “An exercise in humility — how to not presume anything — was helpful,” said Thieme. “We learned how community members defined their scale of needs. They didn’t like to refer to themselves as poor. Having money to pay their children’s school fees was the marker, for many, of being above the poverty threshold.”

“If you choose to look at Kibera in terms of what’s lacking, you’ll miss the place,” commented Simanis. “People there have as much knowledge as you do, just a different world view, a different understanding of what a business can look like.”

The team’s work culminated in bringing together SC Johnson and local community groups for intensive business-generation workshops in Kibera and Nyota. The workshops explored how partners’ unique resources and strengths could be creatively combined.

In Kibera, a workshop with self-help youth groups who ran a trash pickup and recycling service led to a business proposal to diversify the service by adding home-cleaning and insect-control services, made possible by SC Johnson, which is working closely with the youth groups to test and develop the idea.

In Nyota, the team introduced SC Johnson staff to farmer groups and local entrepreneurs and ran a workshop that got the locals to “begin thinking about problems as opportunities and the broader network of people they could reach out to,” said De Koszmovszky. One idea that excited them was converting manure from roadside-grazing animals into dried fertilizer and selling it. They hope to get micro-financing for accelerated composting structures from NGOs and other groups.

Another proposal, for a community-level organic farm in Nyota that offers training and seeds to locals, also had appeal. The challenge: The township’s remote location means lack of a market for locally grown goods. “What’s needed is to get a quantity of goods, enough to attract out-of-town buyers,” said De Koszmovszky.

The team worked to ensure that the local communities derived lasting value from their efforts, regardless of the business outcome for SC Johnson. “We wanted to leave behind positive capacity building, said Simanis. “Through the workshops, we provided valuable training for people,” such as how to do a grant proposal for a new business idea. They also established face-to-face relationships between locals, NGOs and companies, which may lead to more collaborations down the road, he said.

Team members, who will return in November and March to take the project a step further, found that, despite the poverty, their host communities were welcoming, generous, neighborly and joyous, with a vitality and strong sense of family. “There’s a bond there, a sociality there that doesn’t exist in other places,” observed Simanis, who said he felt changed by his experience.

“The children made a game out of everything — carrying a sibling or water for their mother — and were part of the energy and vibrancy that inhabited each community we entered,” added Thieme.

Source: Chronicle Online (link opens in a new window)