Jamii Bora and Unitus in the Independent

May 28, 2009 Posted by Media Exposure

Jamii Bora and Unitus Featured in The Independent

From “Kenyan eco-town: From the slums to a shining town on the hill” by Daniel Howden. The Independent.

In Kenya a little bit of money and a can-do attitude go a long way. Daniel Howden sees how Kaputei has transformed the lives of the country’s poor

Clarice Adhiambo was looking for the usual things when she moved. Safe streets, more space, a guest room, maybe even a view of something green. More than anything she wanted a place to call her own. Her wish-list would be familiar to first-time buyers anywhere in the world. What would be less recognisable is the place from which she was moving.

Clarice left behind a 10ft by 10ft tin shack that she shared with eight others in the Nairobi slum of Soweto. Unlike the iconic South African shanty town of the same name, there is no electricity, running water or flushing toilets and no prospect of getting them. Kenya’s capital offers some of the most appalling urban poverty to be found anywhere in the world. It was in places like Kibera, Mathare and Soweto that the term “flying toilet” was invented. It describes the desperate people who cannot afford to use pit latrines and have to defecate into plastic bags and hurl them on to a nearby roof.

In her new home in Kaputei, an eco-town rising from the plains south of Nairobi, she has a flushing loo for the first time in her life and understandably she’s delighted. “This place has fresh air,” the 53-year-old says, almost unbelievingly.

Clarice is part of one of 50 families who have bought into a startling experiment that it is hoped will change the nature of microfinance and banking for the poor. The practice pioneered by the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, of offering tiny loans to the some of the world’s bottom billion living on less than $1 a day, is flourishing. From six million borrowers worldwide in 1987, microfinance groups now lend to 150 million people. And while the rest of the banking industry has been in meltdown, microfinance has been a rare pocket of stability and growth. The sector brings together an unlikely, eclectic mix of people from frustrated charity workers to entrepreneurs, to those who have already made their fortune and come to microfinance with the evangelical zeal of the reborn.

Ed Bland falls into this last category. In his past life as a Microsoft executive he was the man who launched the X-Box. Today he is the president of Unitus, an American non-profit group in a hurry to make a big difference to global poverty and intent on using microfinance to do it. Mr Bland explains his credo as “the ability to use common business principles to make people’s lives better in a way that development has shown it can’t do”. In the future, he believes there will be an “opportunity for enterprising banks to focus on the bottom and not just the top”. “Look what happened when we just focused on the top,” he muses.

Seattle-based Unitus uses its capital, connections and corporate credibility to persuade mainstream banks to loan to, or underwrite, microfinance institutions (MFIs). It then uses its know-how to identify and support innovative microfinance outfits it believes can make a dramatic impact on alleviating poverty.

Mr Bland rates Jamii Bora, Kenya’s oldest and biggest MFI, among the most innovative organisations in the world. When Jamii Bora – Swahili for “better families” – found that micro loans and repayments could take the poorest only so far, it decided to do something new.

Read the full story at The Independent

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