The BOMA Project: Building Resiliency in the Arid Lands

01 October 2013
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The BOMA Project is a U.S. nonprofit and Kenyan NGO that implements a two-year poverty graduation program in Northern Kenya. BOMA’s Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP) builds the resiliency of arid-land residents, so they can survive drought and adapt to a changing climate. Through a sequence of interventions, REAP helps groups of three women—the poorest and most vulnerable—to start a small business. With a sustainable income that’s not tied to the drought-threatened livestock industry, women can feed their families, pay for school fees and medical care, and build up savings for long-term stability. By the end of September 2013, BOMA will have established 1,681 micro-enterprises and 208 savings associations, impacting the lives of 5,571 women and more than 27,800 children.

In late 2008, as severe drought hit Northern Kenya, a young woman named Malawan said goodbye to her husband, who was leaving their village with hundreds of goats. He would be gone for months on a dangerous trek to find new grazing lands. The journey would be long and risky, so instead of traveling together, as pastoralist families have done for centuries, Malawan and her seven children would stay behind. With no livestock, no income and no savings, she would turn to food aid and menial labor to survive.

Malawan’s story illustrates the life-threatening impact of climate change on pastoral families across Northern Kenya and the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) of Africa. In recent decades, severe drought has devastated the livestock herds that families rely on for food and income. While the men travel farther and longer with the herds—searching for water and pasture while risking conflict with other ethnic groups—the women and children remain in the villages, where they have no viable way to make a living. To keep their children alive, they beg for credit from shopkeepers, haul water and collect firewood for an erratic income, and pray for humanitarian food aid to arrive.

While food aid saves lives, it’s a short-term solution that creates a cycle of dependency across the ASALs. In 2009, BOMA launched a pilot program aimed at finding a long-term solution. Our goal: To give women the resources they need to earn a diversified income and survive drought. We started with 40 micro-enterprises near Korr, a pastoral community that has been particularly hard-hit. One year later, our first impact evaluation found that 96% of BOMA businesses were still in operation, generating income and savings, with participants reporting a marked increase in expenditures on food, school fees and medical care.

Initiated as a micro-enterprise program through a partnership with Village Enterprise, BOMA adapted the model to reflect the minimal infrastructure and high poverty rates of Northern Kenya, where 92 percent of residents live below the national poverty line. “For the first two years, we struggled to identify our exit strategy,” says BOMA founder Kathleen Colson. “The overwhelming levels of extreme poverty made it difficult to define success; we couldn’t hope to ‘eliminate’ poverty. By focusing on resiliency, we were able to develop a graduation model with sequenced interventions that made sense for ultra-poor women in the arid lands.” Interventions over the course of two years include two cash transfers (seed capital to launch and grow the business), training in basic financial literacy, regular coaching by a local BOMA Village Mentor, and the introduction of mentored savings associations at six months that meet monthly for deposits, withdrawals, loan requests and training.

REAP helps women to build a pathway out of extreme poverty by addressing three related elements that contribute to the cycle of aid dependency in the ASALs: low incomes, inconsistent cash flows and inadequate financial services for the rural poor. Profits from each REAP business provide a new and diversified income, while BOMA savings associations help women to manage cash flow (for daily needs), plan for future expenses (such as school fees and medical care), and respond to shocks (such as drought or family emergencies). Meanwhile, interest-bearing loans offered by BOMA savings associations are often the first—and only—source of cash and credit in the community, serving as an informal village bank.


BOMA participants trek across the Kaisut Desert in Northern Kenya. Photo credit: BOMA / David duChemin

What exactly does it mean to “graduate” from extreme poverty as an ultra-poor woman in Northern Kenya? Based on extensive research and our own impact data, we’ve developed ten criteria across five categories: Food Security (not hungry, diverse diet, increased expenditures); Household Assets; Sustainable Livelihoods (business value, productive assets); Resiliency (diversified income, savings); and Behavioral Changes (children in school, increased education and medical expenditures). Women have graduated at the two-year mark if they’ve achieved the appropriate threshold for five of the criteria. We recently surveyed 231 women who had completed the two-year REAP program. The statistics tell the story: 216 have graduated from extreme poverty, or 93.5 percent.

BOMA is committed to understanding the impact we’re having on REAP participants and the communities in which we work. Our rigorous monitoring and evaluation program includes participant targeting through BOMA Locational Committees (BLCs) and the Grameen Progress Out of Poverty Index (PPI), collection of baseline data through the BOMA Standard of Living Index (SOLI), and impact evaluations at one and three years. In January 2013, we added an exit evaluation at the two-year graduation mark. In addition to the quantitative data we already track—nutrition, income, household assets, savings and access to cash, consumption and business value—the exit survey poses open-ended questions to gauge the level of economic empowerment in participants’ lives.  (To download PDF copies of BOMA’s 2012 one- and three-year impact evaluations, as well as other BOMA studies, click here.)

We’re also conducting a Randomized Controlled Trial in 2013 and 2014, using a phase-in design. After targeting 1,755 REAP participants in March 2013, we randomly determined which of the individuals would receive funding in April 2013, and which will not receive funding until October 2013 and April 2014. The latter groups will serve as a counter-factual in 2013, providing BOMA with information about the extent to which standard of living improvements are due to our intervention.

As a poverty graduation model, REAP is distinct in several ways:

  • We work with business groups, rather than individuals—a reflection of the cultural norms in the communities where we work.
  • We work in the arid lands, a remote region with low population densities and little to no infrastructure. Though the ASALs dominate world headlines during times of crisis, these logistical barriers mean that few NGOs are willing to invest long-term resources here.

Let’s return to Malawan, whose husband was forced to leave her alone with seven children, no food and no income in late 2008. Several months later, Malawan was selected as a REAP participant. She and her business partners established a small shop in their semi-nomadic village of Ndikir, 30 kilometers from the closest settled community. By selling tea, sugar, clothing and washing powder, they earned enough income to feed their families—and accumulated enough savings to send 17 local children to secondary school. When Malawan’s husband returned from his disastrous six-month herding trip, all of his goats were gone. He expected that some of his children, and maybe even his wife, would be dead. Instead, his children were thriving and his wife was “plump.”

“Tell me that this program will work,” Malawan told us at her first REAP training session. “I have seven children to keep alive, and I’m having a hard time seeing how this program will do that.” Today, she’s no longer a skeptic. She’s a successful business owner who, like thousands of women across Northern Kenya, is graduating from extreme poverty, adapting to climate change, and laying the foundation for a generation of change.

To see a video that explains BOMA’s work, and hear REAP participants in their own words, click here.

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