More Than Income: How Selling Household Items Can Transform Slum Communities

“LivelyHoods” forges economic opportunities for youth and women in Kenyan slums – while at the same time promoting clean energy. What are the project’s success factors and what challenges does it face?

When Tania Laden and Maria Springer first came to Kenya, they met Alex Beru and quickly became friends with him. It’s difficult not to: he’s charming, intrinsically engaging, curious, and can talk about any subject he puts his mind to. And yet, because he grew up as an orphan on the streets of a Nairobi slum, he had very little chance of ever getting a secure, stable job, certainly not in the formal sector.

The friendship between these three people inspired and eventually led to the creation of LivelyHoods: an organisation which creates jobs for unemployed youth and women in Kenyan slums, through training and product distribution. Alex, who is now a star trainer with the organisation, tells his story to anyone who visits LivelyHoods to show them that with hard work and determination you truly can transform your life.

Addressing Employment, Health, and Environment – All at Once

The LivelyHoods model is a holistic solution, which addresses several issues at once. Youth and women are often excluded from the formal sector because of lack of experience and qualifications, and often due to discrimination too. The training and jobs provided by LivelyHoods let them access economic opportunities.

Through a nationwide door-to-door sales network, products such as energy efficient, clean-burning charcoal and wood cookstoves, solar lamps, large solar home systems, water filters and other household, health, and energy products are distributed. They provide immense impact to low-income households in their communities: they are energy efficient solutions that save time and money – and they avoid potentially fatal health hazards.

Traditional cookstoves’ smoke emissions causes health issues; kerosene or candles used for light are toxic and polluting, and extremely costly. Mary, a customer form Nairobi, explains the difference: “My children used to complain about the smoke from the jiko (cookstove), but now they don’t even realise I’m cooking, and then I tell them that dinner’s ready and they come running!”

Focussing on Women

All of the items sold bring social, environmental, or economic benefits to the end-user, whilst contributing to climate change mitigation. In this regard, LivelyHoods focusses on women a lot: with clean energy access, and sparking the clean energy revolution, they believe it is young women who are best placed to communicate with the primary energy decision maker in the household: other women.

Proud Changemakers

Through its model, LivelyHoods creates positive impact on two levels: youth and women who are proud of bringing change to their communities, and consumers who are proud to be creating jobs for men and women in need of income.

The sales agents deliver more than products: they bring information and behaviour change communications to individuals and households, which is necessary for clean energy uptake. The youth and women trainees are thus empowered to become community changemakers and are proud to be bringing improved quality of life to their peers.

Maureen, a young lady from Kawangware, Nairobi, explains how the training and job opportunity transformed her trajectory: “The change it brought about in me was tremendous. I gained life skills and business skills, I was able to earn my own money and support myself. I now run my own business, not too far from where I first learned how to sell with LivelyHoods. I gained the confidence and the communications skills to convince customers and to market products to the public. I’m now earning the money I need to take care of myself. I have my independence.”

Since 2011 LivelyHoods has trained over 3,700 youth and women in sales and marketing, business and personal skills, and provided them with an opportunity to earn a safe and stable income through the sale of clean energy products.

A Spirit of Entrepreneurship

The model was created in the search for a solution to youth unemployment. Its specifics are based on the widespread desire to be an ‘entrepreneur’, which in Kenya carries a huge amount of cache. However, entrepreneurship usually entails financial risk, business plans, investment, and the general need of financial support. This is not available to everyone.

What LivelyHoods offers is a form of no-risk entrepreneurship, with training, products on consignment, and constant, ongoing support and refresher training from a supportive and experienced local team of staff. Joseph, a sales agent from Eldoret, in the Rift Valley explains how the working model provided a new opportunity to him: “I had tried selling before, with products that I had to buy on credit, but often I wouldn’t have the necessary capital. With LivelyHoods, I know I can come every day and I will find products to sell without worrying about capital; this gives me peace of mind, a better work-life balance, and a sense of optimism! Now at the end of every month I know I can pay my bills, and also save for my future plans”.

LivelyHoods’ success lies in the continued, personalised support of, and contact with, individual agents. From day 1 onwards, trainees come in every day to their local branch, and will continue to do so for as long as they are with LivelyHoods (which is open-ended).

We ensure daily contact time in each of our 10 branches, with a morning meeting to review sales, deliver ongoing training, and sign out products to each agent. This also allows them to address individual issues that agents might be facing, or to review the plans and targets that they each set individually.

The Challenge of Funding

This high-touch, personalised model is very resource-intensive. We invest in individuals through providing free training and products, and guide them to reach their full potential. This means that LivelyHoods faces a heavy fundraising burden each year. While this fundraising has led to some prestigious partnerships, for example with Segal Family Foundation, Energy and Environment Partnership of Southern and East Africa, and Rockefeller Foundation, it is a constant struggle to raise long-term, unrestricted funding.

If we continue to overlook individuals due to a supposed lack of skills or education, we do ourselves and society a disservice, as we are missing out on a huge force for good. We are convinced that we need to invest in giving women and youth the skills and resources they need to meet their full potential as only thus can they lastingly transform their communities.

Claire Baker

Director of Development at LivelyHoods
Claire Baker is Director of Development for LivelyHoods. She was part of an award-winning French NGO, leading projects and communications in the accessibility rights movement and also has experience in solar energy distribution in East Africa. She now applies her knowledge to the development of fundraising, growth, and partnerships strategy for LivelyHoods. as well as overseeing monitoring and evaluation and communications.
Claire Baker
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