Born in far-flung Korr village Marsabit County, Kura Omar grew up in a pastoral community where regular food aid was critical for survival.
Mothers and children left behind by men who searched for pasture land and watering points for their livestock succumbed to pangs of famine.
In 2005, Mr Omar joined hands with Kathleen Colson, a US citizen, to found Boma Project, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) shepherding the community from the well-trodden path of food aid and grants to entrepreneurship.
“Whenever there is a drought, pastoralist communities are the most affected through loss of livestock,” Mr Omar, who is also the Boma operations director, told the Business Daily.
“Most women relied on their husbands and relief agencies for food. This made it hard for women and children to cope after men left in search of water and pasture.”
So far, the group has enrolled more than 9,000 vulnerable women who have opened about 3,000 businesses and established over 500 savings groups.
The beneficiaries of Boma Project run village kiosks, sell groceries, operate butcheries, bakeries, have tailoring shops and thrive in fish mongering.
Last October, more than 900 pastoralist women from remote villages of Marsabit and Samburu counties “graduated from poverty” after two years of intensive business training and mentorship.
This was through a programme dubbed Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP) run by Boma. REAP gives residents of these pastoralist communities the tools and knowledge to start and manage small businesses.
The project is a two-year programme where a group of three women receives business and savings training and a seed capital grant of about $150 (Sh15,300).
Individuals who show resilience receive a further $50 (Sh5,100) progress grant and are allowed to access credit.
To ensure the most vulnerable benefit from the programme, Mr Omar says that Boma kicks off with a community led ‘Participatory Wealth Ranking’ (PWR) where local residents identify the poorest.
“Residents meet and rank each other based on their poverty standards. The neediest people get first priority for enrolment in the programme,” he said.
Each group of three women is required to draw a business plan for an enterprise they think can do well.
It is recommended that the women act as equal partners, including when they make decisions, share profits as well as marketing the business.
Each group is monitored, mentored and guided by a resident. For about two years, this mentor’s task is ensuring that the new businesses started grow.
Mr Omar said that the women have been using a three-lock box to make their savings but added that they are about to introduce mobile banking which is safer and more convenient.
“Every member makes a specified contribution monthly and the money is kept in the box. The box has three padlocks which means it can only be opened when all group members are present,” he explained.
All members form additional savings groups comprising three to eight business groups and each of them is required to contribute a certain amount every month which can in turn be accessed as loans.
Ms Mekona Arbare, a member of Woldagene Business Group in North Horr, is one of the beneficiaries of this programme, from which she started a kiosk, selling foodstuff.
The 29-year-old, who graduated from the programme in October, told Business Daily that before joining the project, her children could go hungry for as many as three days.
“When I started a business through Boma grants, my life changed. Before this, my children would go hungry for up to three days. Today, I know how to do business and how to save. I cannot go to bed hungry again.”
Another beneficiary, 28-year old Gumato Umuro form Kalacha, said she has saved Sh7,600 with the group. They operate kiosk and also sell mineral licks for livestock.
“I used to buy food on credit from the shops and sometimes traders would decline, forcing us to sleep hungry. We lived at the mercy of traders and relief organisations but today I pay school fees for my children,” Ms Umuro said.
UK’s DFID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are among Boma Project’s main donors.
The initiative which aims to lift 100,000 women and children in Northern Kenya out of extreme poverty by 2018.
Mr Omar added that they intend to increase the grant from Sh15, 000 to Sh25, 000 as well as digitise its operations to ease the monitoring.