Social enterprise and technology are changing the poverty landscape in Kenya

What you need to know:

  • Stunted growth has long-run implications as the child grows up; learning becomes a problem and may lead to greater economic impact if a significant number of our citizenry cannot cope with life challenges.
  • Overall, we have a better understanding of our poverty situation but the problem is always what we do in response. 

There are new ways of fighting poverty in town.  Young and highly educated techies are rummaging through shanties with new models of social engineering (influencing attitudes, social behaviors, and resource management), and impacting the economic status of the poor.

Whilst some are employing technical solutions, others are searching for sustainable methods of income generation for the poor through social enterprise.

‘Social enterprise’ or ‘sustainability model’ are new buzzwords around the donor community, not-for-profit organisations and non-governmental organisations aiming at creating value by bringing together a unique package of resources to exploit an opportunity, in pursuit of high social returns. 

In other words it is an organisation that applies commercial strategies to maximise improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximising profits for external shareholders. I shall explain how social enterprises are changing the poverty landscape in Kenya.

In my article last Thursday, while acknowledging the work of new application (apps) developers at Pivot East, I stated that never before in independent Kenya have we seen an onslaught against poverty as we see it today. 

Non-governmental organisations have tried before, and ran out of either steam or resources. One of the apps was Toto Health (, a social enterprise aiming to use technology to reduce maternal and new-born mortality rate and to reduce new-borns’ developmental disability.

Index Mundi 2012 shows our national maternal mortality at 360 per 100,000 mothers. We ranked 146th out of 181 countries surveyed.  This is only an average, as some counties could rank as low as the bottom country in the index.  Mandera, for example, has the highest mortality rate in Kenya and in the world.

Developmental disability – or stunted growth – on the other hand, stands at 5 per cent of children. Stunted growth is a reduced growth rate in human development. It is a primary manifestation of malnutrition in early childhood, including malnutrition during foetal development brought on by the malnourished mother.  It has long-run implications as the child grows up; learning becomes a problem and may lead to greater economic impact if a significant number of our citizenry cannot cope with life challenges.

Toto Health’s goal is to advise mothers and fathers to take appropriate action during pregnancy and after childbirth.  But this is only half the story towards a healthy population.  If you have watched television lately, northern Kenya is facing hunger once more. Majority of the people there are completely dependent on food aid from government and other organisations, mostly through reactive measures. 


This is where I feel we must adopt the many financial apps that are in the market to deal with the hunger problem once and for all.  Here is how it should work.

There are approximately 1.2 million people in the worst hit Turkana, Samburu and the Borana areas.  Additionally, the Somali population is anywhere between 1.5 and 2.3 million people.  The Somali population figure is believed to be inaccurate due to inconsistencies in gathering the 2009 data, the more reason we must deal with the issue once and for all.

There are about 400,000 households in all of northern Kenya, of which two-thirds are in extreme poverty.  If the data is cleaned up, it would, by far, be cheaper to use mobile money on families in extreme poverty and encourage the private sector to open up the area with new commercial activities selling fortified foods and supplementing their traditional foods – meat and blood – and provide enterprise opportunities, such as building abattoirs for the cattle-keeping nomadic tribes.  This is how we can eventually create a self-sustaining society.   Ironically, the region has the largest proven deposits of oil and water.

These apps will lead to a system that has better traceability and improve on accountability, in the process reducing cost and response time.  It will also save the image of the country if we turn the misery into an opportunity by staging the largest set of open data for moving millions out of poverty. 

Some businessmen in this dry region are using an app to trade their cattle where pictures of cattle on sale are uploaded, allowing buyers to pick what they want without necessarily traveling to the marketplace.  Some of the people in the North may be poor, but they are not as technologically challenged as we think.

Another social enterprise in Kariobangi manufactures fortified porridge flour to ensure better nutrition for women and new born babies.  To sustain poor mothers, they have created a micro-franchising model where they negotiate discounts with manufacturers to allow enough margins for the poor to eke a living.  There are more than 200 franchisees that are making enough to feed their families and pay rent. 

They also distribute micro-enterprise (Jua Kali) manufactured stoves further creating employment in the Jua Kali sector.  This model is scalable to other poor neighbourhoods.

Top universities in the United States of America have their students too working on new models of social enterprise too.  At Mukuru slums, they collect human waste and turn it into fertilizer.  The project has managed to provide decent toilet facilities, replacing what became known as flying toilets.  The project has restored confidence among the poor in slums creating more than 400 jobs. 

In Kibra, they are using human waste to generate electricity and light up the homes of many poor people.  Lessons from these social enterprise projects are invaluable and directly combating poverty.  Besides, they will lead to new inventions.

Perhaps a simple toilet history may help you understand why this newest approach to controlling human waste is important.  King Minos of Crete had the first flushing water closet recorded in history, and that was over 2800 years ago.  During the Middle Ages, chamber pots were used (a special metal or ceramic bowl that you used and then tossed the contents (often out of the window). 

In the 1800s, people realized that poor sanitary conditions caused diseases. Having toilets and sewer systems that could control human waste became a priority to lawmakers, medical experts, inventors, and the general public.  Within our context, there will emerge a new invention not just by leapfrogging but using the same waste to create new opportunities.

It is not just social enterprises that are helping to deal with the blight of poverty, there are new startups like mSurvey started by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD that has made it possible to gather critical data from some of the most difficult shanty areas like Kibra.  The system helps collect data analyze and create visualizations.  Researchers for example can monitor polio vaccination exercise and know compliance levels of poor mothers in shanty areas.  It has made it possible for policy makers to have more information to make better decisions.


Overall, we have a better understanding of our poverty situation but the problem is always what we do in response.  For example, should Uwezo Fund for example be given to these social entrepreneurs to create employment and greater social benefits?  I ask the question now because most of the readers here are watching the World Cup.  And if you have, the Coca Cola advert sums up what I want to say.  In football the advert says there are the clueless, the admirers and the diehards. 

In my view, the advert is analogous to entrepreneurship and life, where in most cases you can find the clueless who may not understand what to do with the resources, the admirers who may do nothing but cheers others on, and the diehard entrepreneurs who will do something to benefit humanity.

A leading social entrepreneur, Bill Drayton, once said “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

Dr Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter:@bantigito