Eddy Gicheru Oketch: Yale alum empowers economic development in Africa

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How do the parts of our complex global society fit together? In May, Eddy Gicheru Oketch graduated from Yale with an MA in Global Affairs and returned to Kenya to continue work on the NGO he founded. We interviewed him for his thoughts on development in Africa, and on the role a rapidly developing Africa may play in the world.

In 2008, while still in high school, you founded Peace for African and Economic Development (PAD), getting together 11,000 youth ambassadors to encourage peace. Now known as Ongoza, the organization has 14 full-time staff members and is supported by a variety of donors, corporations and family foundations. Tell us a little about the organization’s journey. where it is right now, and what is yet to come.

We founded Ongoza in early 2008 in the wake of Kenya’s post-election violence. We started out by rallying young people to champion for peace, non-violence demonstrations and de-tribalizing the chaos of that time. But very quickly, I observed that majority of young people involved in destruction of property, looting and killing were predominantly from low-income and poor neighborhoods.

Arguably, the disputed elections was a pretext to their economic frustrations. There was a direct correlation and causation between economic problems they faced and participation in violence. Hence we launched Ongoza to assist organized youth groups to develop businesses, escape economic emptiness and become peace ambassadors during times of conflict.

Your thesis is that economic deprivation breeds conflict, and that, conversely, economic empowerment brings peace. Talk to us about Ongoza’s approach to microfinance and mentorship of nascent businesses.

This has become truer even in post-2008 violence Kenya. We observe the participation of youth in crime in shanty parts of major cities in Kenya, as well as the radicalization of youth into extremist groups, predicated mostly on their economic weaknesses. Ongoza’s approach is a high-touch business coaching and capital sourcing model.

We start by identifying organized youth groups in grassroots communities with a business idea or a struggling business. We take them into our program for two years. We hire sector-specific experts who live with them in their local counties. Our experts are therefore called County Business Advisors (CBA). During this two years exposure time to Ongoza, our CBAs offer on-site and need-based business training, mentorship, linkages and coaching to the groups. We then work with them to source capital and other investment opportunities to inject into jumpstarting, stabilizing and scaling their businesses.

Amb. Godec addresses Delegates at Ongoza 2016 Youth Summit

How does Ongoza’s approach to economic empowerment differ from other less successful approaches to poverty elimination that you have witnessed?

We essentially identify groups with social missions. Thus, their businesses become an integral part of solving issues in their communities that they deeply care about. For instance, a group would wish to use part of its profits to address cases of reproductive health or drug abuse in its local community. This is a major shift from the dependency syndrome approaches that the NGO sector has cultivated among destitute youth groups in rural Africa.

Additionally, we offer a more need-based onsite training that ensures that our mentorship focuses on addressing the nuances a particular business faces. In the end we ensure that youth groups can move from a community-based organization that seeks survival to a more corporate culture.

As a critic of traditional aid strategies, would you then respectfully disagree with Mandela when he famously asserted that Africa needed aid, of high quality and much more of it, to defeat poverty?

I think Mandela’s comments should be contextualized to the needs of the time. The structure of economies across the continent were skewed to benefit a small group of the society, usually outwards on the spinal code of colonial systems. Mobilizing capacity in an immediate post-colonial Africa in order to reorganize economic production, and services for citizens, then meant a lot of different support mechanisms including aid. Thus, aid was not entirely negative.

Now, however, Africa should not be stuck in the narratives of which other forms of aid it should receive. Instead, I would confidently assert that Africa replace aid with trade.

Particularly, there should be a radical departure from small-scale businesses to industrial production. Most African nations now have eminent capacity towards the same, evident even from the value-addition attempts that Ongoza youth businesses demonstrate in Kenya. On average, there are more stable governments with better economic policies across the continent than during Mandela’s time.

Thus, an industrialization and value-addition approach will bring the ultimate scale to addressing poverty gaps and youth unemployment in Africa, not aid.

What would you say has been your greatest failure to date? Your greatest success?

I would not say failure, but greatest challenge. I think for Ongoza, changing attitudes of our partners from the typical Non-Governmental Organization approach of handouts and free money to a more corporate and investment-oriented one has been the hardest. Thus, managing expectations of both our youth groups and investors remain a great challenge. That said, we still have been able to expand to four counties in Kenya working with 10 youth businesses in each county for a total of forty businesses under mentorship.

Do you see Ongoza’s model of economic empowerment, with a focus on boosting entrepreneurship and employment, as having elements whose application could benefit other communities around the world? New Haven, Connecticut, for example?

Certainly. Over decades, the common narrative around small and medium businesses has been inclined towards supporting the sole proprietor. However, studies show that over 85% of such businesses die between one and two years. Our approach of building businesses among groups prevents that while also ensuring employment of more other young people at a go.

Additionally, we do not provide capital in liquid form. Instead, we provide asset financing that directly relates to the businesses as deduced by our CBAs together with the youth. Hence, our financing model contributes to rethinking microcredit and microfinance, which in most traditional cases focus on offering cash directly and measuring success by repayment back rates rather than the success of the business. Our approach ensures all capital investments are channeled into the business.

USA Ambassador to Kenya Amb Robert Godec and Eddy at 2016 Ongoza Summit

Let’s talk about climate change. The 2015 Paris climate summit represented, in some sense, both a victory and a failure for African development. Africa’s vulnerability to climate change has historically pushed many Africans to criticize the global goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C as insufficient and imperialistic; instead, many African nations famously called for “1.5 to stay alive” at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Although the Paris summit recognized 1.5 degrees as a target to achieve “if possible,” it does not set a clear pathway to achieving it. In this context, do you ever feel let down by the developed world? Do you feel like African communities aren’t being treated with respect? And where do you go from there?

No doubt, climate change is real and the biggest losers are the developing nations, majority of whom are harbored in the African continent.

Nonetheless, climate change is a multifaceted problem that needs a multi-dimensional approach in addressing it among African nations. The larger part of it is predicated on more solid socio-economic policies and the structure of production as prescribed by African governments. A ‘constant complaints’ approach to countries that have made economic strides will remain fruitless to African nations. The better ideal is to explore holistic, radical surgery in socio-economic orientations of African nations that can allow them to both gain voice in the global dialogue on climate change, as well as being able to invest in prevention, while sufficiently dealing with its consequences.

Your fellow Kenyan, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, once said that “Here in Africa, we are paying a high price for a rapidly changing climate – more droughts, food crises and it is set only to get worse. We can see how climate change is already aggravating the competition for resources and the economic stability all over this continent.” Do you see and experience the effects of climate change in your work in Kenya, and what exactly does it look like?

Wangari’s views are true of her time and still manifest in our lives today.

Major industries that benefit across the continent are acutely foreign brands. In Kenya for instance, tobacco companies have led to significant encroachment of arid and semi-arid environmental conditions in South Nyanza and Western Kenya provinces that used to be water-catchment areas.

The massive cutting of trees in order to cure tobacco in Kenya and Malawi has been endemic. There has never been substantial and proportionate investments by the companies in dealing with the consequences to climatic degradation in the region. This, along with other mining companies, are just but examples. That’s is why I claim that there is need for the  African people to rethink economic permutations that work for the African continent, both in attempts to address poverty gaps and fixing such emerging complexities as climate change.

What is the role that you see African communities playing in this great multi-decadal global effort to fight climate change? Do you see African nations making a difference by setting a domestic example of sustainable development, or in persuading foreign countries to raise their climate ambition, or both?

Crucial to addressing this thorny issue is community engagement. There is a need for stakeholders to actually make climate change visible to local communities.

Climate change is in many ways an elusive topic to local communities. Thus, there needs to be a more deliberate investment in citizen’s engagement strategies on climate change that can enable them avoid unintended deleterious practices that contribute to it, especially in the agricultural sector.

It is essential to give the grassroots local control over their own climatic prosperity through proper engagement and adventurous resources support. For example, the use of biochar, an agricultural product made from discarded plant waste, can be produced in inexpensive, locally constructed kilns and used to enrich the soil in places of expensive, oil-based, foreign-produced fertilizers. Biochar is both a source of long-term soil enrichment, and thus an enhancer of crop yields, as well as a source of alternative clean fuel. Its use has been implemented in many local communities in Uganda and Kenya to great success.

In addition to reducing use of fossil fuels, this local solution addresses the problem of environmental degradation as well, representing a return to sound local environmental agricultural practices that contribute immensely to addressing climate change. The backdrop, however, is limited government and private sector investment in local communities with such promising solutions.

Sustainability for Africa also depends on fostering collaborative policy solutions between the public and private sectors. Individual African governments should strive to create economic incentives for businesses to locate and invest in local communities, ones where they are at risk of perpetuating environmental degradation.

The international community recently adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What does sustainable development mean to you, to Ongoza, and to the communities you work with?

The SDGs are a positive collective impact attempt by the global community towards addressing the top pressing challenges we still face today, especially among stakeholders in governments. But I would be reluctant to discuss their significance before each nation intentionally assesses and evaluates how best the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were achieved, and whether learning from them will realistically inform stakeholders’ efforts in implementing various strategies towards achieving the SDGs.

Ongoza 2016 Youth Summit Delegates

Ongoza’s entrepreneurs have pursued all kinds of ventures. How have the businesses built by Ongoza’s entrepreneurs made Kenyan communities more sustainable?

The fundamental principal of Ongoza is to build a resilient community of locally-engaged youth business leaders. Hence, beyond developing businesses, we build community leaders who engage on various issues that matter to their communities.

This May, you graduated with a masters in Global Affairs from Yale University. If you had to pick the single most valuable lesson you learned while at Yale, what would that be?

I learned through my global affairs education that progress in international political economy often is propelled by grassroots implementation of large global concepts – a function of many small successes that have a cumulative impact.

At Yale, I acquired the expertise necessary to analyze global development challenges, positively affecting many more lives today. I experienced the globe’s diversity both through an intense curriculum and talented peers who consistently challenged my thinking.

But most importantly, I saw commonalities underlying Africa’s underdevelopment also in evidence on other continents, and saw how seemingly local solutions may be applied more broadly across regions. Yale Global Affairs education has radically changed the course of my life. But I will need further practice of it in my community, embedded in the context of international political order, trade and governance, not only to help Kenya, but also to foster global collaboration.

If you could leave Yale’s African graduates with any one message, what would it be?

Africa is an increasingly important player in the international arena, and its enormous youth population continues to grow exponentially. This burgeoning population needs a voice and space in shaping its future to ensure that that future has promise and hope. Education and economic empowerment are two essential tools for management of the youthful bulge in the continent and for harnessing their socio-political potential to build a stronger continent. The fact that you have had an opportunity to get education in an Ivy-league setting should remind you just how important you are in enabling the continent move this discourse forward.

Given your exposure, your biggest duty is to ensure you shepherd that growth narrative to a more inclusive and integrated path for our generation and next ones. Never doubt that each one of you has a distinct role waiting. Come back home, play it and make a mark.

If you could leave behind any message about African development with members of the Yale and New Haven community, what would it be?

There will never be sustainable, shareable prosperity and excellent development in the African continent without Africans themselves. While we hope to borrow from the outside world of what has worked, let’s constantly work together to allow the African people to build their own capacity, and traditionally institute this desired development.

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Eddy profiled by Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs