Monday, November 4, 2013

Shoes and Laces, by Jeff Bloem

Sammy and his wife in their shop
Jeff Bloem (Research Assistant intern with me in Kitale) wrote this story on one of our business clients in Kitale.  The story is well-written and I'm sure you will enjoy it.

Samuel Ondieki’s day starts early and ends late. At 6:00am, while it is still dark he opens his business, Ambassador General Shop, which provides household essentials and cooking products. The shop stays open until 10:00pm, serving customers in Kitale; a bustling agricultural town in Western Kenya well after the sun has set.

Sammy considers his business successful: the sales are profitable and he is usually able to sell whatever he stocks. Most importantly, he is able to provide for his wife and three children from the profits of the store.

The business is not perfect however. Admittedly, Sammy struggles with bookkeeping, specifically recording daily sales figures and purchasing records. It is this lack of recordkeeping that primarily hinders Sammy’s ability to strategically plan and invest for the future of his store.

The boundaries between Sammy’s business and Sammy’s personal life are blurred and also create a hurdle for the growth of his business. It is difficult to decipher the difference between Sammy’s home life and business life. Physically, he and his family live in a house adjoined to the back of the shop. Even when at home, Sammy is never far from his business. Economically, Sammy struggles to differentiate between which goods, profits, and materials are for the use of the business and which are for the use of his family.

In the eleven years Sammy has owned and operated Ambassador General Shop he has taken five loans, each for about $3,000. All were used to expand and grow the assets of his business, which is now staffed by three employees.

The history and reality of Sammy’s business point to the importance of viable access to capital and business training when it comes to business development as a means for poverty reduction.

The evidence is generally pessimistic when it comes to job or business training as a means of developing countries and communities, however. In terms of education and training the return is simply much higher when focusing on primary and secondary school aged children than training full-grown adults. Nonetheless the training of business men and women is almost ubiquitous in the operations of microfinance and other loan institutions throughout many developing countries.  

Ambassador General Shop
More and more experts are thinking the main constraint to growth is plain old capital. Many now believe that once most people have proper access to capital other necessities such as health, education, infrastructure, and government institutions become not so necessary. This idea is reinforced by recent reports in The EconomistThe New York Times MagazineNPR, and the radio shows Planet Money and This American Life that one-time cash grants are providing surprisingly positive results in the lives and businesses of the poor the world over. Surely Sammy would not be where he is today without access and support of capital infusions into his business.

But what then, is the significance of his struggles to keep complete records of his business and properly separate his family’s needs and his business’s stock? How does business training help Sammy, if at all?

Those who Run Together… 
Columbia University professor and blogger on aid and development, Chris Blattman explains the relationship between acquired skills and capital this way: “I used to think skills and capital were like right and left shoes: one’s not so useful without the other. Now I think of capital like the shoes and skills like the laces: if I have capital, I can jog a good pace, but I can’t really run unless I have the skills.” 

Sammy has been jogging with his business for the last eleven years. He provides for his family and is even able to slowly expand his business, but he doesn’t do it as fast or as well as he could. He needs business training to be able to really run.

Last spring Sammy received the training he needed. This, however, wasn’t the typical training seen by most business owners in developing countries. The training took place within his church. He didn’t just learn how to keep better records and separate his business initiatives from his family life; he learned that his work with his business was deeply spiritual and could be a way to worship and to serve God.

Furthermore, after the twelve-week training ended, his pastor was there to continually equip and encourage Sammy. Discipleship is the key to expanding and growing Sammy’s business so that he can better care for the poor and vulnerable, support the church, and influence the businesses and businesspeople around him.

The problem with having good shoes with good laces is that sometimes Sammy doesn’t feel like running. Surely anyone who has began a new year by purchasing new shoes or a gym membership understands that exercising more requires something additional outside of just having access to the equipment. To wake up everyday and operate a business efficiently and successfully takes inner-drive, self-sacrifice, and passion. The pain and agony that inevitably comes with hard work must be overcome by a sense of purpose, a calling, and encouragement from others.

In his book, The Social Animal, David Brooks writes about the importance of meaningful human interaction in the lives of humans. Without meaningful interaction between each other our accomplishments, no matter how extraordinary, will fail to bring fulfillment and purpose to our lives. Researchers call networks of meaningful interaction social capital. The lesson here is social capital is important and must not be overlooked when evaluating projects of development and business growth.

A runner doesn’t achieve his highest goals without constant coaching and teammates to run with. Likewise, Sammy’s business will not achieve it’s goals of serving God, caring for the poor, preserving the environment, and making a steady and healthy profit without consistent discipleship from his pastor and his fellow church members.

Sammy certificated and commissioned as a Marketplace Minister.

Discipleship for business growth and the Gospel message is now deeply routed in Sammy who has joined a “Training of Trainers” class and is becoming certified to teach other businesspeople the principles he has learned. He forms a key part of the Marketplace Ministry team at his church, the Friends Quaker Church in Kitale. In addition, Sammy is mentoring a business owner of a smaller business from his church while simultaneously being mentored by a businessperson of a larger business from his church.  

… Will Be Transformed
 Nicholas Wolterstorff observes the heartbeat of the Christian existence, which has been in place since the creation of the world. We gather on Sunday to engage in liturgy as a community of believers and then disperse from Monday through Saturday to go about our duties and responsibilities which we call work. This constant one-plus-six heartbeat has defined the Christian way of being in the world from age to age.

Wolterstorff goes on to define the meaning of this constant expanding and contracting as follows: “The church is to gather for the celebration of the liturgy, and when it is dispersed it is to practice and struggle for justice and to spread the word about its Lord”. The most central point Wolterstorff is making is that liturgy in the church is not authentic unless those same members of the church go and “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

Put in terms of the analogy already in use; liturgy and justice are not right and left shoes, rather liturgy is like the shoes and justice is like the laces. To engage only in liturgy, one could jog slowly and go to church every week. But to really run in the way God intended; those shoes need the laces of justice to become truly effective.

Sammy now has both shoes strapped on tight and he is ready to run. On his left foot he wears a shoe, this is the capital he is able to access in order to invest and grow his business. His left shoe is laced up tight with the laces of business training, which taught him to keep better records and construct secure boundaries between his business and his family. On his right foot he wears another shoe, this is liturgy—the actions of worship, confession, thanksgiving, praise, scripture reading, and preaching he receives every Sunday. This shoe is laced tight with his acts of justice from Monday through Saturday—caring for the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the poor while operating his business efficiently.

Put together Sammy is now able to run in the way God intended. Furthermore, he has a community of brothers and sisters running with him—there were forty other business people just like Sammy who also attended the business training class. They are able to support and ride the ups and downs of business and life together. They are able to discuss and debate the inevitable ethical dilemmas each will experience in the marketplace.

This transformation is what Bryant Myers writes about in his book, Walking with the Poor. The poor have a marred identity. Their understanding of who they are, their relationship with those around them, with the ground below them, and with God above them must be restored. (For matters of discussion, Myers also writes about the marred identity of the non-poor.) A rigorous and statistical evaluation of this program is currently in progress and will not have results until late next year, it seems however, at least anecdotally, that real transformation is happening in Western Kenya.  

With capital and training, liturgy and justice, Sammy and his fellow church members are able to grow their businesses and escape poverty all the while confident that they are fulfilling God’s call through their work and actions not just on Sunday but also Monday through Saturday.

-          Chris Blattman’s blog;; Dear Governments: Want to Help the Poor and Transform your Economy? Give People Cash; May, 2013
-          David Brooks; The Social Animal; Random House, New York; 2011
-          Bryant Myers; Walking with the Poor;
-          Nicholas Wolterstorff; Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church World; Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI; 2011

[Jeff is the seventh intern that I have had and the first to quote sources in his story!!  I think research is a good role for him!]

Sammy joins me on Monday for the second session of the Training of Trainers, along with 29 other pastors and business persons who will be certificated as trainers by November 12.  It will be an intense class with a good size group that will give some challenges to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the material and able to teach it.  Please pray for us!