We have fields of tea and coffee on both sides of the road, the hilly landscape is a dream, it’s lush and green, but it’s called the ”white highland”. The term derives from the British and other Europeans who settled here in large numbers establishing tea and coffee plantations during the colonial period. We are on our way to Limuru, we being MYC4 CEO and co-founder Mads Kjær, his wife Hanne, Kevin from the office in Nairobi and me.
We are going to visit a couple of borrowers and to have a chat with branch manager Solomon from Micro Africa’s office in Limuru, a town 30 miles from Nairobi and with all the micro finance institutions present. This branch has 880 active clients and half a million Euro in the loan book. Solomon tells us about a relatively new type of loan, solar loans. Solar energy has a huge potential not only in Kenya but in most parts of Africa, but you need money to invest in products such as solar lamps and solar panels. In many areas kerosene is still the main source of energy, but it’s expensive and potentially dangerous. God knows how many children have been burnt on that account. To get a solar loan with Micro Africa you have to have another loan to begin with. The loans are still mainly meant to motivate existing good borrowers.
Solomon is an optimistic branch manager, business is running smoothly, the biggest challenge being borrowers who use a loan to cover for another loan – and they also have to say no to 1-2 hopeful people every day if they are not transparent enough or can’t provide any security. There are still a lot of people out there who cannot get a loan.
We wish Solomon good luck, and together with two loan officers we head for the first client, Wilfred Kimichi Thungu, who has a big house and a nice garden outside Limuru. Wilfred is into yoghurt. He has his own brand, Wincy Yoghurt. He keeps it simple with two flavors, vanilla and strawberry. The milk comes from a dairy farm not far away, and Wilfred hires people with the skills to make the yoghurt. They produce when the demand is there, typically twice a week. He gets 1,5 Euro per liter out of which one third is profit for him. It is still a very small business, vulnerable too, but Wilfred is determined to take it higher. We’re standing in his kitchen, he’s not used to the fuss and the interest we take in him with all our questions. Right now his biggest wish is to be able to pasteurize his products, but he hasn’t got the money for that. He has a loan for 465 Euro but wanted more.
– Money is the problem, and all the bureaucracy to get started. Transportation can also be a challenge. It costs to have the milk brought here and to distribute the yoghurt. I do that by matatu (minibus), but up until recently I put it on my bike and pedaled my way around to the 12 customers in Limuru. We make 8-900 liter every month, but we could sell much more, Wilfred says.
Which reminds me of a visit I made earlier to a dairy farm in Karen outside Nairobi. The place and its products are called Eldoville. Both Wincy Yoghurt and Eldoville are good examples of how taste has changed in Kenya and of how more people can afford relatively expensive milk products such as cheese. Lucy Karuga who runs Eldoville told me that a few years back most Kenyans found cheese to taste like soap but that soon it will be a widespread household product (which is fine with me as long as ugali doesn’t becomes a regular guest in my fridge).
We leave Wilfred, impressed by his little business and his determination, but Mads Kjær stresses his vulnerability. – It would help a lot if he had a steady demand, he’s too dependent on random demand, he says. Let’s hope he makes it.
Our last stop today is at Leah Njeri Kimani’s place, a small farm. Leah borrowed 650 Euro to buy 300 chicks plus feed. It’s her first loan with Micro Africa and MYC4, she had a loan with Equity Bank before, but the interest was too high. For the money she bought three different kinds of chicks to see which is best and produces most eggs, which she sells on the market. She has a total of 900 chicks, three cows and a clothes shop not far away. – I’m a business woman, she says. I think she likes saying that, it sounds of more than being a farmer. Suddenly a man shows up, he doesn’t look like a farmer at all. It’s Leah’s husband. I’m a pastor, he says shaking our hands. They show us around the modest homestead, every inch is being used for a purpose. Land is hard and expensive to come by, and when it’s passed down from generation to generation the plots get smaller and smaller for each member of the family. But that’s another story, and certainly the business woman and the pastor seem pleased with what they have.
We say goodbye and leave the couple and the peaceful countryside having once again met great people who make it all worthwhile.