The Beginning of the End of Poverty
To read the news on a regular basis, it is easy to think that Africa is hopeless--civil wars, AIDS, genocide, drought, famine. It becomes easy to blame the lack of progress in eradicating poverty (or more accurately, the increasing problem) on natural or man-made disasters.
But statistics and grim headlines mask the real problem. The reason efforts have failed is because they are the wrong efforts. Yet these same failed efforts are used over and over again.
KickStart was created to break this cycle and to create a new, successful, scalable, replicable, and sustainable solution to poverty. (There are a lot of buzz-words in that sentence, but for KickStart, each has a specific meaning and measurement, see "When we say..." for more information)
KickStart founders, Nick Moon and Martin Fisher, have more than 40 years of combined experience fighting poverty in Africa. KickStart's radically different model grew from their personal experience and the lessons they learned on the front lines of this effort. Martin Fisher earned his Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University. After finishing his degree, he realized that his training gave him three career options--the oil industry, the defense industry, or academia. None of these appealed to him.
Martin went trekking in the Peruvian Andes to ponder the direction of his life. It was in Peru that he first encountered Third-World poverty. As an engineer, he knew that the right technology could change the lives of millions of people. Martin realized that poverty presented perhaps the greatest engineering challenge facing mankind. And there he found his calling.
He returned to the States, won a Fulbright Scholarship, and went off to Kenya to study the "Appropriate Technology Movement." He planned to be in Kenya for ten months. He stayed for seventeen years.
Nick Moon spent his early childhood in the far reaches of the British Empire--first in India, later in Singapore. He went to England for his education. He was a talented scholar, but also a strong-willed idealist. He left school at age 17 to train as woodworker and craftsman. Nick's skills as a carpenter took him to projects around Europe and Asia. A small want ad for a French-speaking carpenter got him a job building a recording studio in Togo and his first experience of Africa.
He returned to the UK to start his own business restoring Georgian homes around London. The business was successful, but to Nick, unfulfilling. Wishing to use his skills in the service of others, he joined Voluntary Service Overseas (the British Peace Corps). In 1982, Nick came to Kenya to teach carpentry skills and small business management to poor youth in a rural village.
In 1985, after his stint with VSO, Nick joined ActionAid, to work on construction training and job development programs where he met Martin.
Academic Rigor Meets Common Sense
At ActionAid, Nick and Martin worked on many projects. They built schoolhouses. They designed and built complex water systems of dams, canals and wells. They ran programs to train craftsmen and set up enterprises to make tools. On the surface, these projects seemed successful, but when they went back to visit these projects, they found the schools unused, the water systems crumbling, the craftsmen unemployed and the enterprises out of business.
How could such well-intentioned and well implemented projects fail?
As scholars they realized they could learn as much from failures as successes, so they took a very rigorous look at the shortcomings of their own projects. What they found was that development projects fall into four categories, each with serious shortcomings.
- Donation of Capital Equipment to a Local Community
Africa is littered with broken down windmills, water pumps, generators, and tractors given to communities. These gifts are expensive, but the recipient communities lack the organizational skills, tools, spare parts and the cash needed to maintain or fuel this equipment. When these machines break down, they are rarely repaired or replaced, leaving the community no better off for the investment.
- Donation of Tools and Equipment and Training to Start a Community Business
Nick and Martin spent years providing tools, equipment, and training to local groups. Typically these businesses did not produce sufficient profits to provide operating capital, let alone to share among the many members. The survival of the businesses is dependent on the presence and subsidy of a development agency. So when Martin and Nick moved on, the business would fail because there was no strong entrepreneurial leader with a vested interest in making the business a success.
- Donation of General Goods or Services
Together they worked on programs that donated goods and or services to people in poor villages. But by its very nature, a giveaway program cannot be sustainable. No matter how large the charity, the distribution will end at some point and the organization will move on. Martin and Nick noticed that there were often private sector businesses in the community offering these goods or services for a fee. The giveaway programs were not only unsustainable, they often put private enterprises out of business--killing the entrepreneurial spirit. The result? The village is left without access to these goods and services, again leaving them worse for the investment.
- Products That Save Time, Labor
Nick and Martin were probably as guilty as any aid worker who assume that time and labor saving devices improve the quality of life. But what they came to see was that poor have an abundance of two valuable resources--their time and their labor. To minimize the value of these two non-cash assets, just pushes a person deeper into poverty.
The pair took their findings to their supervisors and other leaders of the major aid programs in the region. What they found were big bureaucracies closed to new ideas. Critical self-examination was not only discouraged, it was considered dangerous.
Nick and Martin remained convinced that there was a better way to address poverty--a model that would bring together the power of technology with the proven sustainability of the marketplace and private sector.
So in 1991 they founded ApproTEC, now KickStart and to date, Martin and Nick's innovation has helped over 718,000 people get out of poverty forever.