UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability Blog

Powerful Firsthand Experiences in Mombasa

May 29, 2012 By Jessica Thomas

Rawlins Parker, MBA 2012

The fourth in a series of  reflections on UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Sustainability Immersion, our capstone experiential learning course where graduating MBAs work to solve real-world business challenges in Eastern North Carolina and East Africa.

Over the last two weeks, I had the opportunity to visit Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Mombasa, Kenya with one of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s capstone programs, the Sustainability Immersion. The purpose of the trip was not only to learn about and experience business in different cultures, but also to help local, socially-minded organizations fulfill their missions by putting our business school skill set to work.

One of the organizations near Mombasa, Kenya that we had the privilege of working with was Yehu Microfinance Trust, a microfinance organization in the rural, coastal region of Kenya that provides financial and support services to primarily low-income women entrepreneurs. Although we were there to help Yehu expand its trainings and I was excited about the potential impact I could help co-create, I soon realized the significant impact that the women entrepreneurs were going to have on me. The Yehu women showed me a side of resilience, strength, and entrepreneurship that I had not yet seen.

In order to learn about Yehu’s work, we visited some villages and met some of the women entrepreneurs personally. One of the most impactful moments for me was when we observed a bi-monthly Centre Meeting.

The bi-monthly Yehu Centre Meeting

The bi-monthly Yehu Centre Meeting

Each Centre is a group of approximately 30 women who have taken out loans from Yehu. The meeting took place on straw mats under a mango tree, in the middle of a village and was led by a member who was elected Centre Chief. At this meeting, all of the women recorded their savings and loans from the past two weeks in their passbooks and reported the numbers to a loan officer in attendance. For those that had trouble reading or recording their amounts, the group support was evident. As I looked through some passbooks and experienced the meeting through our guide/translator, I saw the women’s commitment to not only the loan process, but also to the importance of savings. With so little already, it took strength and vision to put aside savings.

From that meeting, we had the opportunity to meet with three of the Yehu women at their businesses. One woman, the Centre Chief, sold homemade juice out of her house; she used her Yehu loan to buy a refrigerator and added fresh fruit so she could charge a bit more.

Homemade juice refrigerated in one entrepreneur's home

Homemade juice refrigerated in one entrepreneur’s home

Another woman ran a kiosk where she sold many things, but made most of her money on high-margin second-hand bed sheets. A third woman we met ran a restaurant, called a “hotel,” in a semi-permanent structure with a couple of benches and a portable stove. She hand-rolled the best chapati I’ve ever tasted, and charged more for it.

As we asked the entrepreneurs questions and began to formulate recommendations on the spot, it became evident that they had tried or were already implementing many of the concepts we were learning in school. While they did not have all the fancy frameworks and structures that we have come to know and love, they were still moving forward. They were already differentiating their businesses and focusing on items that drew the highest margins. Even if a business failed, they started a new one with keener insight. Without formal education, they understood these concepts and had begun acting on them, while in the toughest of conditions. While we were able to make a few recommendations for financial and business training, the Yehu women taught me more about resilience and endurance than I could ever teach them about business. This experience was more eye opening and authentic than any microfinance case, book, lecture or guest speaker that I have read or heard. There is nothing more powerful than experiencing something first hand.