Ingrid often expresses her gratitude that Jamii Bora was created in her later years rather than when she was a young woman. If it had, she asserts, she would have made the mistake that so many organizations with a mission to help end up making. The gist of which is, that they rush in with experts from the outside that do not have the intimate understanding, context, or commitment that lay people on the inside have. And often, they address a large and complex issue for a period of time and then pack up and go.

Photographed by Malcolm King-Fontana
“Rose, a long time JB member, sewing one of her beautiful creations.”

If there is anything I’ve learned about how an organization can succeed taking on an issue as challenging as addressing poverty from the fierce belief that it is no human being’s birthright and it actually can be alleviated by first changing people’s minds, it is that patience is an indispensable virtue. Things take time, sometimes many people’s lifetimes. The second is that when problems are looked at as surmountable opportunities to grow through the process of finding creative solutions, and married to a “never give up” attitude, miracles small and large become part of the fabric of life.

Jamii Bora started out as an informal group of women learning how to help themselves and each other climb the ladder out of poverty. It grew into a trust as a natural progression. With each major problem, a period of research and reflection has led to a new appendage of this holistic web of micro-finance arteries. The introductory descriptions that follow are by no means comprehensive but they provide a snapshot of what can be accomplished when the experts are from the rank and file and the integrated solutions arise from genuine inquiry and listening.

Photographed by Malcolm King-Fontana
“Maize flour”

Health Insurance

 Jamii Bora conducted a study of the people who were either defaulting on their loans. Three reasons were prevalent: family member/s in hospital, family member/s died, and family member/s with an alcohol or drug problem. In response, Jamii Bora added health insurance, life insurance, and the Levuka Center to address those issues.

Health insurance is mandatory for anyone who takes out a loan. It can be paid for by taking out a loan or paid slowly over time. For a member and four children it costs 2100 shillings (just under $25) a year. It is 400 shillings (just under $5) a year for any additional children. The insurance covers in-patient services and procedures. Jamii Bora contracts with various hospitals all over Kenya and at times receives services at reduced rates since it is an organization serving the poor.

 Life Insurance

Life insurance is also mandatory for members. One percent of the loan amount taken is deducted and goes into a pool. It helps pay expenses when there is a death in the family and helps to keep the family afloat temporarily if the person who died was a main bread winner.

 Levuka Rehabilitation Center

A kind of Kenyan AA, the Levuka program is based on the 12-Step program of recovery.

The program launched in 2003 and the center itself opened in Nimuru (outside of Nairobi) two years ago. The in-patient program lasts six months for drug users and three months for alcoholics. There is an after-care program that includes coming back to the center weekly for two months, open access to the counselors, and attendance of 12-step meetings is highly encouraged. Patients pay a very reasonable fee but if someone can’t pay they always seem to work something out.

The co-founder of the Levuka Center along with Tom Thiong’o is Brenda, Ingrid’s daughter-in-law (married to Waithaka). There are fifteen people on staff (plus a visiting psychiatrist because they can’t afford to have one full-time yet). All counselors at Levuka are people who previously struggled with addiction and now are sober.

We visited the center and found it to be a welcoming and friendly place. It is set up like a family house and all meals and classes are shared with the lodging for men and women separated. There is a small vegetable garden and some animals are kept for residents to care for.

In addition to Tom, we were accompanied by a young man called Kevin, who is schizophrenic. This scenario seems typical in Kenya: Kevin is the son of a former Jamii Bora staff member currently on long-term leave somewhere far away. Kevin can’t manage on his own so he was left with Tom at the Levuka Center (he also has addiction issues) who just took him in and treats him like he is his own son.

During our visit the residents gathered in the big meeting room and we all introduced ourselves and some of them told us their stories. There is both very cheap alcohol and cheap drugs made in Kenya that can have horrific side effects like blindness and brain damage. Using is a method of dulling hunger as well as dulling the daily trauma of life in the slums or on the streets. But there were plenty of residents there from well-to-do backgrounds too. As they say, alcoholism and addiction are equal opportunity diseases.

Photographed by Malcolm King-Fontana
“Mary sells grains and beans. When she needed a C-Section JB insurance paid for it.”

Business School

The Business School developed out of the need to teach members how to access the services of the trust and learn basic business practices and it is expanding all of the time. Some of the main focuses are creating awareness about good business practices, training people how to manage basic record-keeping (expenses, profits & losses, inventory), how to create a simple business plan, and how to grow a business. An entrepreneurship (ujasilia malia in Swahili) training curriculum is one of the recent additions.

Every attempt is made to keep course costs as low as possible to encourage students to attend these vital trainings. A full course costs only 500 shillings (under $6) and includes General Business Management, Leadership & Management, Home Economics and Adult Literacy. English is being taught because so many members requested it and new courses are being created as needs are identified and demand dictates.

One of the big challenges for the Business School currently is educating members about the difference between how Jamii Bora Trust (now Jamii Bora Bank) worked and the way Jamii Bora SACCO functions.

Photographed by Malcolm King-Fontana
“After Lucy was widowed and lost her home JB helped her start a vegetable stand and start over.”

Jamii Bora SACCO

SACCOs (Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizations) are very difficult to form in Kenya and there is a sea of regulations to navigate. In addition, SACCOs are associated with professions, like teachers and medical professionals. Once again, Ingrid’s never give up attitude was called forth and became triumphant.

The vision was to create a countrywide SACCO but the approval was denied and so the application was changed for Nairobi only. But Ingrid was not satisfied with this huge compromise and got a difficult to come by interview with the Co-operative Minister. She walked in with the intention not to leave until a countrywide SACCO was approved and that is, miraculously, just what happened.

Jamii Bora SACCO is the only SACCO for the poor in all of Kenya and one need not be employed or have a salary to join. This is revolutionary.

The SACCO gathers capital from savings and shares and is run by committees made up of the members themselves.  The capital must be built up and maintained or there will be no money to borrow. The basics are as follows:  every member must buy 30 shares (100 shillings per share or a total of 3000 shillings, about $35) minimum for full membership. You can borrow twice the amount that you have in savings and you need to be saving for a minimum of six weeks before you borrow. In order to get a loan you must receive a “guarantee” by two or more other SACCO members (with enough savings to guarantee your loan if you should default). That is why the SACCO is such a community based institution. People need to know one another and work together.

The interest rate is 14%. There is a fifty week maximum for pay back. Right now the maximum loan is 70,000 shillings. That will change when the SACCO becomes stronger. Members can amend the bylaws at the general annual meeting or at any other time it is prudent and necessary to do so.

At only eleven months old, Jamii Bora SACCO already has nearly 5000 members. One of the largest SACCOs in the country has a membership of 10,000 so it looks as though it is going to be hugely successful. Imagine, the strongest SACCO in the country being a SACCO for the poor!


Photographed by Malcolm King-Fontana
“When little Wenye needed an operation JB health insurance saved his life.”