Adventures of a BwB Volunteer in Kenya

In April 2017, Bankers Without Borders® reached out to me with a volunteer opportunity to work with Livelyhoods, a Nairobi-based organization delivering life-changing products and opportunities to communities across Kenya. Having recently opened their sixteenth branch office and on the lookout for ways to expand and scale operations, Livelyhoods was seeking support in their efforts to better understand drivers of branch performance and to define a branch level operating strategy that would ensure sustainability across the organization.


… At first blush, all seemingly straightforward goals, I signed on and started my research….


From concept, to the 2011 opening of its first branch in Nairobi’s Kawangware district, Livelyhoods has been led by its bold, whip-smart Founder, Tania Laden. Six-plus years of boundless commitment has produced remarkable social and environmental impact including: hundreds of trained sales agents, tens of thousands of families benefitted and the reduction of hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 emissions. Results made even more impressive given the complexity and breadth of the issues Livelyhoods is tackling.  And their work is not abstract in any way: this is on-the-ground, door-to-door, last-mile distribution stuff.


… What seemed straightforward was starting to feel daunting and, having never set foot in Kenya and confidence in my ability to add value, and do my job, was low. I was feeling every one of the 9,000 miles that separated my Seattle start-up reality from this Kenyan organization…


Despite my limited knowledge, Tania rolled up her sleeves and began to bring me up to speed. We kicked off a series of weekly conference calls.  Documents and data poured in and many spreadsheets later, a project roadmap was taking shape. However, it was soon clear that visiting Kenya and being with the Livelyhoods team on the ground would be essential (Fortunately, I work for a wonderful company, Remitly, and my time away from the office was fully supported). So bags were packed and 20 hours of flight time after, I arrived in Nairobi very late at night, perfectly unprepared and unrested. A few hours of sleep later, I was up, showered (sort of -- It took me a day to figure out how to turn on the hot water in my apartment) and off to the Kawangware office. 


Lingering travel and project anxiety quickly vanished during the drive from my hotel to the home office.  Nairobi is a stunning place, even from an Uber ride. It was clear that each day in Kenya was going to be a special gift to me from Bankers without Borders and the Livelyhoods team.


My first days were spent in Nairobi, meeting the team and diving into the history and operations of Livelyhoods, and exploring the city in the evenings. The afternoon of Day 1: I walked through the Kawangware market, at the invitation of a confident, young sales agent as she headed out for sales calls. The hours we spent together were the perfect introduction to Livelyhoods, its mission, and the people it benefits. I’m forever thankful for that invitation. Two days were spent outside Nairobi, visiting the Limuru and Kisii branches with one of the regional managers (who kindly assisted me with the not-so-simple system of traveling by matatu, private mini-buses). Kenya is a welcoming and generous place, values that became clear to me through time spent on the road with my new teammates. The regional travel was followed by a few days back in Nairobi, and an opportunity to dig deeper with the management team before hitting the road.


In mid-July, the details of our analysis and findings were delivered.  We succeeded in identifying many key drivers of branch performance and the insight gained will certainly add value to Livelyhood’s efforts. But work like this is never truly complete. Each discovery unearths a new set of questions, an evolutionary process that requires you to just keep digging. I’ve started to refer to this as “Phase 1” of my work.


On a personal note, the project presented new opportunities to grow personally and professionally. I overcame my initial doubts and fear of the unknown, studied complicated social issues half a world from my home and created new friendships along the way. It was a challenging experience, exactly the way life should be led. In fact, if you’re lucky, life’s complexity accelerates over time. But luck isn’t the right word. A challenging life is the product of conscious choices and deliberate action. Signing onto a Bankers without Borders project was a great choice and I’m grateful for the complexity it has added to my life.


Jack Bryan, BwB Volunteer