It is estimated that,

  • 200 million work hours a day are wasted collecting water
  • 11% more girls attend school when sanitation is available
  • 1 child dies every 20 seconds from water-related disease – 2 years ago, a child died every 15 seconds
  • 443 million school days are lost each year due to water-related illness[1]

Women bear the responsibility of water collection in the vast majority (>75%) of households worldwide and here in Kenya that number is even greater.  Water is a basic right in the developed world and a danger and struggle in much of the rest of the world.

It was owing to this knowledge that I was excited to be invited by my Field Partner, SMEP Deposit Taking Microfinance (SMEP), to participate in the training of its Mombasa and Coast area field officers in preparation for SMEP’s roll-out of its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Credit Products.

By the time I boarded my flight to Mombasa, I had been in Nairobi for under 72 hours and had spent all of two hours at SMEP’s head office, barely enough time to get over my jet lag, meet my new colleagues and book my flight.  On the other hand 3 days was plenty of time to hear about US intelligence reports that warned of an imminent terrorist attack in my destination, Mombasa …

A day earlier, the US had pulled its foreign staff out of Mombasa after 2 foreigners had been arrested in Nairobi with over 30 kg of explosives.  US security had warned that multiple terror attacks were planned on public targets around Mombasa.   Despite all this negativity, I was excited about getting my feet on the ground in Kenya and spending some time learning about SMEP’s new WASH Credit products.  I was also excited to spend some time with SMEP’s Kiva Coordinator, Fridah Njeru, and the many credit officers that make up the back-bone of SMEP’s lending network.

Left to right Rose Mwaniki (Trainer), Me (Kiva), Fridah Njeru (SMEP) & Bryan Meme (SMEP)

Monday morning training started with a rousing devotional (SMEP was founded by the National Council of Churches of Kenya and faith and Christianity are deeply rooted in its vision, mission and daily life).  From there, the credit officers were launched into a comprehensive overview of SMEP’s WASH Products that will be rolled out into the market place.  The training was led by an experienced local  consultant Rose Mwaniki who guided her enthusiastic audience through the importance of SMEP’s WASH program – “It’s more than just water tanks…I tell you, by the end of this training, you will understand this to be true!”.

Slowly, as training progressed and the group delved further into the specifics of SMEP’s WASH Credit program, I began to hear whispers in Swahili, far beyond my comprehension which is currently limited to hello (habari), goodbye (kwaheri), thank you (ahsante) and white person (Mizungu!).  It turns out, the security concerns reported the days prior were well-founded.  The night before training, a grenade attack had occurred during the England vs. Italy game at a night club in Mshomoroni, a suburb not far from our hotel – news outlets were reporting three people were killed and six or more injured [article].

Despite knowledge of the attack and like all of Mombasa, there was calm in the room and training continued without interuption.

Rose, recording training team names

Rose and Fridah went on to describe the specifics of the WASH Credit Products that will be offered by SMEP.  Based on research carried out by SMEP management and with the assistance of water.org the SMEP WASH Credit will be offered in 3 distinct products:

  • Maji Uhai – loans for the construction or procurement of water delivery and storage products such as water tanks, water harvesting systems (gutters and drain pipes), piping, fittings, filtration and dispensing equipment.
  • Boma Safi – loans for toilets, latrines and plumbing work.  Construction of septic tanks, soak pits, latrine slabs and incinerators.
  • Kisima – credit extended for the construction of boreholes, protected wells and springs and the establishment of water treatment plants.

These names, rooted in Kiswahili, were settled on by SMEP management to convey the product lines that they are to be used for.  As Mombasa is the birthplace of the Swahili culture, where Africans, Arab traders and Persians have mixed for centuries, the training team utilized the local linguistic expertise in the room to give Kiswahili names to the groups that will be targeted for these loans (yours truly was not consulted).

Cosmos & Linconus, leading Kiswahili discussion

Homeowners, landlords, institutions, tenants, borehole owners, well owners and water treatment plants all have straightforward meanings in English.  Apparently, in Kiswahili, there is much more minutia and innuendo – for example, an impassioned debate erupted over which Kiswahili could be understood by clients to convey both a small plot of land and a large tract of land.  Eventually, Kiswahili words that best described the target of the WASH Credit products were decided upon.

Joseph(Patch), debating Kiswahili target groups

Whatever the Kiswahili terms, these products are exactly the type of catalytic loans that Kiva hopes its lendors, and their unique blend of risk tolerant, low cost capital will fund in the future.  For Kiva, it is not only the immediate and basic needs that WASH credits address, but their outreach and the ability to push the boundaries of traditional microfinance – these are important strategic initiatives that Kiva is pursuing at its Field Partners.

It must be noted, these loans are risky.  They often come with grace periods, are disbursed in tranches and will usually be repaid with income from other sources.  In addition, the loans will be used to deliver products to remote areas of the country through SMEP’s strategic partnerships with suppliers and contractors.  But they are necessary.   SMEP believes that by knowing their customers, properly assessing and mitigating their risks (and with Kiva’s help!) they can bring these loans to market and help their clients better their lives for themselves and their families.   Indeed, these loans are about much, much more than water tanks – they are about health, development and dignity.

As for the unrest in Mombasa, with the coastal region’s long history of conquests and insurrections, the residents are confident that the group of what they call “small people” will not disrupt life here.   While part of me is very thankful to Medex and the Kiva support team for arranging a flight back to the relative safety of Nairobi for me,  I am sorry to leave Mombasa so soon and I have confidence that the locals are right.

I think proof of this can be found in SMEP’s Coast region loan officers, they ended each day with a hopeful Kiswahili song and a prayer.  I’ll let them end my first blog post the same way:

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