Ingrid Munro is in the habit, when guests come to visit Jamii Bora, the Kenyan microfinance institution she founded in 1999, of candidly introducing her borrowers and staffers as former prostitutes, criminals, and beggars. She does not mince her words, does not avert her steady gaze. “This is Jane,” she will say by way of introduction to one Jamii Bora member, a slender, graceful woman whose husband left her when she was young, and who then joined a brothel in order to feed her children. “She has been HIV positive for nine years, but she lives positive.” Today, Jane runs a successful tailoring business, sends her children to school, and is training three apprentices whom she persuaded to work with her instead of joining the brothel themselves.
Munro seeks out such clients because she believes that no one is too far beyond the reach of grace to reclaim their lives and begin the exhausting climb out of poverty. She believes this not just because she still, after 68 years on a cruel planet, suffers from a chronic case of optimism, but also because, as the founder of one of Kenya’s most prominent microfinance institutions (MFIs), she has seen it happen. So while most micro-lenders work with the millions who live on under $2 a day (that’s half the world’s population), Munro concentrates on the slums of Kenya, proving case by case that the very poorest of the world’s poor make some of the best business people.
“To us,” Munro said when I visited her in Kenya last May, “it doesn’t matter where you come from; the only thing that matters to us is what you want to be, where you want to go…. The only thing that matters to us is that you want to go out of poverty – then we’ll be there for you.”
Hunched slightly, Munro has a delicate complexion that betrays her Swedish heritage, wears her wispy shock of silver-white hair tied loosely back with a frayed scrunchie, and rotates between the approximately three blouses she seems to own. She’s tougher than she looks. Her husband, Bob Munro, a Canadian environmental policy advisor, likes to say that she’s the only person he knows who can “twist arms without breaking bones.”
It’s partly for her tenacity that Sam Daley-Harris, director of the Microcredit Summit, is one of Munro’s biggest admirers. Daley-Harris is old pals with Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel-winning grandfather of microfinance, and he insists that Munro represents the future of microfinance. “I think 50 years from now, when the history books are written, the breakthroughs in rural microfinance and rural development, including issues around environment, will have Muhammad Yunus and Fazel Abed at the top of the list, and when the history is written about urban, slum-focused microfinance, that it will have Ingrid’s name at the top of the list,” Daley-Harris says. “Those are the rule-breakers. Those are the innovators.”
Mama Ingrid, as Jamii Bora members call her, arrived at microfinance by accident. Disillusioned by years spent dealing with the United Nations’ empty, impotent language and politics, she and Bob had wanted to get back on the ground. Ingrid took a job working for the African Housing Fund (AHF), and Bob founded the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), an athletics-driven vehicle for social work.
Before they knew it, they were of retirement age and looking forward to spending their golden years adventuring around the world. It didn’t happen. On the day Ingrid retired from AHF, a group of 50 women with whom she’d worked showed up at her front door. Mama Ingrid could not retire, they told her, because she was their mother, and a mother does not retire. Unable to say no, Munro decided to try her hand at a new model for microcredit financing. She and the women started Jamii Bora on a shoestring – they could borrow two Kenya Shillings (KShs), Munro told them, for each shilling they saved.
Munro remembers the day she made her first loan collections. The women pulled coins and bills from their hiding places: shoes, bras, underclothes. That night, Bob walked into his bedroom to find Ingrid counting the money on the bed, the sticky bills and coins spread over the quilt. “Don’t you dare laugh,” Munro told her husband. “This is going to be big.”
She was right. Today, Jamii Bora Trust is one of Kenya’s fastest-growing MFIs. With more than 170,000 members, it has reached 25 percent of homes in Nairobi’s two largest slums. The fund posted its first profitable quarter in 2004, with an average loan of just $95, and has attracted high profile partners such as Acumen Fund and Unitus, a microfinance accelerator.
Munro herself is attracting attention, too. She has received four Nobel Peace Prize nominations, was named an Ashoka Senior Fellow, and spoke alongside Kenyan environmental revolutionary Wangari Maathai at last year’s Clinton Global Initiative meeting. She even counts the Kenyan political establishment among her supporters. At the end of my visit with Munro, I found myself seated on a flight from Mombassa to Nairobi next to MP Boaz Kaino, who raved about her. As it turns out, before Munro ever went into microfinance, she had worked on three successful water projects in Kaino’s district. “I know this lady!” MP Kaino told me excitedly, as soon as I mentioned Jamii Bora. “She used to work at African Housing Trust. Everything she touches is so nice. Tell her I thank her.”
Jamii Bora’s success, though, was not enough for Munro. What good was she doing, she thought, if Jamii Bora members were starting businesses but still had to go home each day to the slums – stepping around “flying toilets” (plastic bags used for defecation and then tossed into the streets), sleeping under tin roofs, living with the certainty of crime and the likelihood of disease?
“There is nobody I have come across in all my 24 years in Africa who wants to stay in the slums, nobody. And most donors, most well-wishers, they think we can patch up the slums a little bit, we set in a better water pump, we put in a latrine,” Munro said. “The only thing that happens if you do that is that the rents go up and the poorest people are pushed to other parts, but it doesn’t change the basic life.”
And so, in 2002, Munro and her team began to plan what would become Kaputiei Town. Jamii Bora would buy a 400-acre plot of land in the fastest developing portion of Kenya: the semi-arid Maasai land between Nairobi and the Tanzanian border. The new town would be designed to bridge the environmental movement and the microfinance movement – still a “very new synthesis” of two “largely separate sectors” according to Betsy Teutsch of the organization Green Microfinance. Materials would be sourced locally and manufactured on site; water pumped from boreholes would be cleaned and recycled in a retention-pond constructed wetland system; homes and businesses would be powered by renewable energy sources.
In January 2009, the first 200 families – all of whom were proven borrowers through Jamii Bora – moved into Kaputiei. And in the next couple of years, Kaputiei will provide affordable, green homes for an additional 2,500 Jamii Bora families. Taking out loans, families will gradually pay off 350,000 KShs (about $4,500) for two-bedroom homes and 495,000 KShs for four-bedroom homes. The first thing new residents do upon arrival, Munro says, is run into the bathroom, test the shower spigot, and give the toilet an inaugural, ceremonial flush.
Kaputiei’s water source is a borehole just outside the residential part of town, drilled to tap into relatively reliable aquifer below. Most of the water pumped from the well flows to the town’s sinks and showers. After it’s used, that water will flow out to Kaputiei’s ecologically sound water recycling system, one of the first in Africa. Already under construction, the system will eventually collect and clean all blackwater (sewage) and greywater (sinks and showers) flowing out of homes, feeding it into a series of six retention ponds on the edge of the property before pumping it back into the community to flush toilets and irrigate gardens. “Sludge” (human waste) from the bottom of the first and deepest pond, will be drudged up periodically, dried out, and used as fertilizer.
Drying human manure to fertilize gardens may not sound like much of an improvement over Mathare Valley’s “flying toilets.” But Elijah Biamah, chair of the University of Nairobi’s department of Environmental and Biosystems, says the water the system produces will actually surpass government standards. The hot Kenyan sun and nothing more will do the cleaning, as the water moves from pond to pond. Around the sixth pond, Biamah hopes to install a recirculating aquaculture tilapia fish farm, to create jobs and a local source of protein.
Plans for building a more comfortable life on Kaputiei’s arid land extend beyond the recapture of every drop of precious water drawn up from the earth. As Jamii Bora families move into their new homes, they are encouraged to grow their own produce in plot gardens, and are required to plant four trees on their plot. Last May, the trees planted so far were little more than twiggy sprouts, three feet tall at most.
But Biamah has a grand vision. “What I envision,” he told me in his office at the University of Nairobi, “is a change in microclimate around Kaputiei, because the more the trees, the cooler the place will be, and the very high temperatures and strong winds that our country experiences will be a thing of the past.” He paused thoughtfully. “It will be a totally renewed ecosystem that will impress the people in the neighborhood to emulate that concept and replicate it in their neighborhoods.”
Kaputiei draws experts who share Munro’s selflessness. Joseph Ndeke, the project’s chief water engineer, met Munro at the AHF, where he worked from 1994 to 1999. He greeted me at Kaputiei in a red baseball cap that read “Lives Before Profit.” As he showed me about, it emerged that he had served in Kenya’s ministry of water and irrigation for eight years. When Munro summoned him to come work with her, Ndeke was making three times what she could pay him. “When I came back,” Ndeke said, “I told Ingrid, I’ve not come back to work for money, but because I respect you so much and love you as a mother. I count this work more important than that money.”
“There is nobody I have come across in all my 24 years in Africa who wants to stay in the slums, nobody.”
Solomon, a Maasai leader and Kaputiei site manager, admires Munro for the respect she has shown his tribe. Years before construction began at Kaputiei, Munro knew that if she wanted the project to have a shot at true sustainability, she would have to win over each of Kenya’s 42 clashing tribes. In a gesture of deference toward the Maasai who had lived on and near the land for generations, Munro called together a group of Maasai leaders to discuss names for the town. Together, they settled on Kaputiei, spelled the traditional Maasai way, rather than “Kaputei,” the misspelling introduced by British colonists.
“Can you spell it?” Solomon asked me toward the end of a conversation outside the brick and tile factory. “Yes,” I assured him, “I believe so. Isn’t it K-A-P-” But Solomon politely cut me off. “Please write it,” he asked. As I wrote the letters down for him to see, Solomon mouthed them with me. “Yes,” he said, smiling proudly. Only then did he allow me to close my notebook.
Munro’s success is due, in large part, to her commitment to creating real, human connections with her clients. She arrived at microfinance from the inside, from her previous AHF work and through the adoption of two Kenyan sons. She was friends with those first 50 Jamii Bora members long before she became their business partner, and Daley-Harris says that sets her apart. “The typical way [to get into microfinance] today is you go to the Wharton School and you major in finance and blah blah blah,” he said. By contrast, Munro has “the genius of the relationship.”
Add to that “genius” the fact that virtually all Jamii Bora staffers are members or graduated members. Many are former prostitutes and beggars themselves; all of them know what it is to suffer. Initially, members of the global microcredit community challenged Munro’s approach, asking why she would hire such unqualified people to run her organization; she retorted that every single one of her staff members has a graduate degree, thanks very much, from the “Mathare Valley University of Street Begging.” It’s not Harvard Business School, she quipped, but its life-or-death curriculum will sharpen a person’s business savvy faster than Wall Street could.
Case in point is Wilson Maina, who, until he joined Jamii Bora in 2000, was the most wanted thief in Mathare Valley slum. Today, he runs businesses in the secondhand clothes, jewelry, and grocery sectors, and has persuaded hundreds of young men to leave the life of crime. When she sent me off to tour Mathare Valley slum, Munro assigned Wilson as my security guard and guide; I felt, as Munro had assured me I would, as “safe as a baby in its mother’s arms” with Maina at my side. People still know his face, and fear him, though most know he’s a changed man. This is a man who after years of criminal activity was finally shot by police, and ran to the hospital with his intestines spilling out into his own hand.
When I asked Maina how it felt to have been one of the first people to move into Kaputiei, he couldn’t speak for a moment. We were standing outside a home in a dusty, crowded part of Mathare Valley slum. Wilson waited for his voice to clear, then put his hand to his heart and told me, “I wish you could see my heart.” His mouth widened into a brilliant smile. “It is better than best.”
The road from Nairobi to Kaputiei is winding, jostling, and breathtaking. Weaving out of Kenya’s traffic-jammed, crime-ridden capital (“Nairobbery”) and heading southwest toward the Tanzanian border, the visible signs of urban poverty fall away. The air seems to become clearer. Rolling by to the right are the majestic Ngong hills. A hopeful public service sign – Save Our Forest: Plant Trees – streaks past. Acacias line the roadside, holding their flat, green leaves up to the endless African sky.
My driver, Paul Mwangi, is another Jamii Bora member. “Ingrid was the one who made me to have my first car,” he told me on our drive out of the capital. He first took a loan for 20,000 Kshs, then another and another until he finally owned his own cab. Now, on a good day, he can make 12,000 Kshs – more than $150. “Even when business is bad, she’s always looking for more business for me, so I can educate my children to the highest level,” he said. “In fact, my oldest son is studying at the University of Nairobi.”
Finally, Kaputiei Town emerges at the end of a long dirt driveway – a carpet of several hundred small, neatly arranged homes, their red roofs bright under the hot sun. Nairobi’s culture of crime seems worlds away. Here, the village’s entrance gate – a thin wood pole – is a mere formality. The town guard is an elderly man with a graying beard.
What most distinguishes Kaputiei is the pace of the place. Mathare Valley and Kibera slums are frantic, fitful, watchful – a young man with a hood concealing his eyes darts suddenly out of nowhere and runs down the path between shanty homes, people yell over one another as they make deals on food items. In Kaputiei, sounds and movements are slower, relaxed, deliberate. People walk less fearfully. In the surrounding pastures, Maasai cattle lazily graze. In the center of town, the “industrial” area, a few food shops are set up. The strong metal grates built over each home’s windows suggest that no one expects Kaputiei to remain entirely crime-free forever, but for now this place is – compared to the slums – a utopia.
Yet it’s a utopia in standstill. The foundation has been laid, but Kaputiei is not yet the thriving town it should be. Since May 2009, several hundred more families have moved in, but the town needs much, much more electricity if it is to become the bustling economic hub it wants to be. The electric sewing machines with which Jane hopes to grow her business are still a dream. The town’s retention-pond water recycling system is not yet complete. The industrial center of the town is still more a gesture at self-sustaining commerce than the real thing. Kaputiei is bursting with promise, and waiting now for the jolt – of funding, of renewable electricity – that will bring it fully to life as Africa’s first green microfinance town.
In the meantime, the first residents are pilgrims in a new land. “The ones who are moving in first, the pioneers,” Munro said, “they are like the first settlers on the prairies; they will have to go through some little hardship when business is not doing as well as it will. But they were so eager to move out of the slums. It was not difficult to convince the ones to move out first.”
If Munro is daunted, she doesn’t show it. She keeps hours fit for a Manhattan investment-banker – coming in to work each morning at 8 a.m., working until 8 p.m., taking dinner with her family or over meetings, and then jumping onto Skype for calls with potential partners, funders, reporters. “She’s an extremely hardworking lady,” Biamah told me, a bit in awe. “She’s like a machine. What I have seen her do, people my age cannot do.”
Munro relishes the urgency, the quick pace, the challenges that come with starting ventures like Jamii Bora and Kaputiei. “Everything we are doing, by the way,” she likes to point out with a deviant smile, “we were told was impossible.”
Tobin Hack is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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