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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

This Social Venture Helps Marginalized People Get A Leg Up

Walking through the dusty Nairobi slum called Kawangware, the general bustle of the place overwhelms the visitor. Grace Njeri lives in the neighborhood and she’s got work to do. She recently signed on as a sales rep for the social enterprise Livelyhoods and this is her third day on the job.

Yesterday, she had her first sale. She sold a clean cookstove and she’s carrying another one through the streets; she holds the stove in one hand and the empty box in the other. As she walks, she and her trainer Simon Mwenya spot a man in an informal hardware store looking at the stove. She decides to approach him.

With her winning smile and the knowledge that she has three children at home and no father to help carry the load, she quickly makes the sale. As Thane Kreiner, the Executive Director for the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University completes the receipt for her as part of his field work today, Grace learns that the buyer would like to become a distributor himself. He’s interested in buying 20 more stoves.

Thane Kreiner of the Miller Centeer completes the receipt for the customer

Thane Kreiner of the Miller Centeer completes the receipt for the customer

Grace was doing well before the possibility of selling 20 more stoves popped up. After selling two units in her first three days she is well on her way to her first month’s target of six stoves.

She takes the cash from the sale and walks across the street to an M-Pesa kiosk. The ubiquitous kiosks are so common in Nairobi that there are sometimes multiple competing shops on the same block. They are never far away. She hands the clerk the 3,490 shillings (about $35) she collected for the stove and the money is instantly applied to the account on her phone. Using her smartphone, she then transfers the entire amount to Livelyhoods. She’ll collect her commissions and any bonuses she may earn at the end of the month.

Grace Njeri, after making her first sale of the day

Grace Njeri, after making her first sale of the day

After completing the transaction, she cajoles a colleague into allowing her to take the electric kettle in hopes of finding a buyer. Around the corner, she spots the barber shop, a shop that isn’t 100 square feet in size, has two barbers and two customers in it. She recognizes that there are four prospects who can’t leave.

She enters and within five minutes she leaves having taken an order for a blender and another for an iron. Her day is getting better and it isn’t even noon.

Livelyhoods is intent on creating quality employment opportunities for some of Kenya’s least qualified. Sales reps last an average of only four months. A few won’t survive their first week. Some people aren’t cut out for sales.

At 44, Grace is old than the average of 24. The sales reps who attended the meeting this morning at 8:00 sharp–the trainer Lillian locks the door promptly at 8:00–were typically younger. Split almost perfectly between men and women, the crew included eight women and six men.

Most of the reps will move on to better jobs, the company says. The position is intended to be preparatory. Training is pretty intense.

The meeting began comfortably with introductions. Then Lillian offered an enthusiastic evangelical prayer. She then moved on to stretches with twenty people in a 200 square foot room. Despite the cramped quarters, the team seemed genuinely to enjoy the stretching as Lillian made it into a game of “Simon says.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the game was more or less amusing with two Simons in the room. No one seemed to notice.

With that complete, real sales training with goal setting and a review of the seven steps of a sale were presented, reviewed and practiced. Jeff Miller, the namesake for the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship who is visiting Nairobi, provided a group of reps with some personal sales training. Later, he would accompany some of the reps and help one close five sales in one hour.

Jeff Miller coaches a team of reps

Jeff Miller coaches a team of reps

Livelyhoods generated $440,000 in revenue in 2016, according to Claire Baker, the Director of Development. With growth beginning to ramp, in part due to a new layaway program for the $35 stoves, the company hopes to help more people in 2017.

The company’s founder, Tania Laden, participated in the Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit institute program in 2016. I reported on that here.

This week, I’m traveling in Africa as a guest of Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s Executive Director Thane Kreiner and namesakes Karen and Jeff Miller. Read all my reports.


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