Yesterday I had the privilege of accompanying Read and Prosper adviser Jesper Hornberg on an excursion to Kibera, a famous slum of some several hundred thousand residents. The purpose of our trip was to escort two young executives from the corporate citizenship department of Johnson & Johnson as they investigated community needs, demand, and business potential for water purification products. The experience was both moving and enlightening.
Kibera is one of the most studied slums in the world, and is host to countless NGO projects. During our short visit we passed by water purification and sanitation projects, schools, community centers, churches, internet access points, and more, all housed within huts of sticks, mud, corrugated iron, plastic etc. The slum is a bustling city unto itself, but not one where you would want to live. Kibera is crisscrossed with open sewers. Walk down any given path and you will see ditches filled with every kind of human refuse. You might cross on a rickety bridge of sticks filled in with mud, or you might jump. I can only imagine that to fall into one of these ditches could mean death by disease. And it is no wonder that the UN Development Program estimates that Kibera has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world.
In most ways, I found Kibera to be exactly what I had expected of a vast urban slum: dense, squalid, heart-wrenching. It’s a powerful reminder of just how much luck there is in all our existences. We might be born in a developed country or to an affluent family, and we might have the blameless misfortune of being born into an existence where just surviving to age 5 is an accomplishment. In a few ways I was surprised. Many of the residents wore western business attire. It is hard for me to imagine how somebody could live in a small hut with 10 other people, struggle daily for clean water and food, yet also put on a clean suit and tie and commute to an office job. And yet I had the impression this must be common. Despite our unmistakable foreignness (and the wealth that represents), I never felt a threatening moment or the least bit of hostility. This could be the nature of Kibera, or the strength of Jesper’s connections in the community, or some combination of the two.
With all the earnest efforts of development NGOs in Kibera over the last few years, why are conditions so persistently bad? While the answer is complicated, Jesper offered one explanation: “The NGOs are killing Kibera.” Handouts make people dependent on charity, stifle the efforts of local entrepreneurs, and often offer solutions that look good on paper, but do not work well in the field. Jesper gave numerous examples from Kenya such as free mosquito nets being cut up and used for dresses, ceramic water filters that break quickly under rough handling, and other water treatment systems that are resold in local supermarkets, bringing a quick profit to enterprising slum dwellers, but doing nothing to improve health conditions for the poorest communities.
Both Jesper and the J&J team agreed on the key lesson to be taken from the failure of so many NGOs so substantially improve conditions in Kibera. Effective development must grow from within the community, and the vehicle that will work best is not charity, but business. People value what they pay for (or earn by some other means), and the products, services, and solutions which will bring real transformation are those that can sell in the marketplace. While these insights, which underpin the concept of social entrepreneurship, are not new, my experience in Kibera made them real.
How does this apply to Read and Prosper? When Jesper and I discussed the potential pitfall we face by giving e-readers, e-books, and renewable energy systems away for free, he offered encouragement. The challenges of rural development are different from those of urban slums. And, by giving through schools, we will help strengthen the communities where we work. I do not think providing books will make people dependent on aid, nor will it undermine local entrepreneurs. I have seen how much Kenyans value education, and how enthusiastic they are when I tell them about Read and Prosper, or show them an e-reader. We will apply all the lessons we can absorb, and we will make a positive impact.