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Life of a Salesman: The Youth Bringing Quality Products to Nairobi's Slums

With a winning smile, a spring in their step and some borrowed high-quality wares, young Nairobi slum-dwellers are helping themselves by helping others.
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Alex Govinda looks across the streets in Kawangware, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. Photograph by Mike Miesen.

Nairobi, Kenya:

Alex Govinda, a short, sprightly 24-year old Kenyan dressed smartly in jeans and a blue zip-up top, puts a glass plate face-down on the dirt road and, in his best imitation of the late sales icon Billy Mays, stands on top of it. I cringe, expecting the plate to shatter.

But the only thing that cracks is a wide smile on Alex’s face as he yells, “I’m 70 kilos!”

His potential customer, an older woman selling beans and catching up with neighbours, is visibly impressed. She agrees to buy a set of five when she has the money.

It is a grey, dreary Friday morning in Kawangware, one of Nairobi’s slums located a few miles southwest of the bustling city centre. I’m shadowing Alex through a sprawling, congested vegetable market as he proudly makes his rounds, a smile painted on his face as he greets people and sells his wares. Today, that includes glass plates, solar lamps, and fuel-efficient stoves.

A few years ago, Alex would slink through the same market in dirty rags, getting mistrustful glares and wary glances instead of convivial “sasas!” and “habari yakos!” (Swahili for “Hey” and “How are you?”).

“I was in the street. I was collecting scraps and selling them. We were snatching peoples’ phones for us to survive”, he recalls. “As we went to collect scraps, we collected peoples’ shoes... Sometimes you found that you were being beaten by mob justice, and many friends of mine died.”

Now, he rents a house and is an expert salesperson, recruiter, and trainer for LivelyHoods, a NGO founded in 2011 by two young American women, Maria Springer and Tania Laden. The organisation, which is better known in Kenya as iSmart, hires and trains youth sales agents, then loans them goods to sell to community members.

The young organisation is doing a remarkable job of simultaneously providing opportunities to the booming population of unskilled, uneducated youths in Nairobi, and solving the issue of distributing high-quality, affordable products to hard-to-reach populations.

“I was trying to run from that cocoon”

LivelyHoods was not the first organisation Springer tried to set up. She previously started a microcredit programme for young people, but it failed to take off.

“We realised that young people didn’t want to take microloans”, Springer explains at a bustling restaurant above the iSmart store in Kawangware. “So we started looking at other ways to create employment opportunities for young people that were low risk.”

That is how she met Alex. As he put it, he was “the street kid all of the other street kids listened to”, and when Springer got to know him, she recognised his potential and helped him find a stable home.

“I was trying to run from that cocoon we were living in in the street”, says Alex. “I was able to rent my house and buy my clothes, and I started living like other people. And from there I got the training for business.”

Next Springer, with Alex as her guide and assistant, did what many well-meaning people and organisations forget to do: she asked groups of young people what they needed help with.

“We didn’t start with an idea, we started with a conversation”, says Springer. “Alex, do you remember, you guys interviewed hundreds of youths in the slums, asking ‘what are you good at, what do you do?’ And what came out of that is everyone was selling something to survive.”

Springer also recalled her time at the entrepreneur school – the Unreasonable Institute – where she says she was “surrounded by a lot of social entrepreneurs that were developing these incredible technologies and goods”,

But having incredible technologies available and ensuring they get to the intended consumer are separate matters entirely. “It became clear that the real problem was in distribution”, she recounts. “And so I thought, you know, what if we could actually create employment by solving one of the biggest problems of our time, which is creating access to high quality products and services?”

LivelyHoods chose to use micro-consignment, a lesser-known younger cousin of microcredit. Under this scheme, sales agents each morning decide what to borrow from 15 base products – things like solar lamps, fuel-efficient stoves, and reusable sanitary pads – then stream out of the iSmart store and into their communities to sell the products, keeping 15-20% of whatever they sell as commission. Furthermore, to become a LivelyHoods agent, individuals just need to go through the organisations’ sales and business skills training before they are ready to go. As Springer puts it, “we're teaching people how to fish and we're selling fishing rods at the same time”.

MicroConsignment is a recent addition to the microfinance space, having been developed in the early 2000s by Greg Van Kirk, a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Guatemala.

Brett Smith, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Director of the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Miami University, has studied the model extensively.

“I would look at micro-consignment as the first rung on the ladder, of sorts, for micro-entrepreneurs”, he explains. “You’re not really risking anything in many of the micro-consignment arrangements besides time – and that is often something that people are able to risk.”

Indeed, if Alex has a poor sales day, he just returns the unsold goods to the storage room at the end of the day. In contrast, the risk taken on in microcredit schemes is acute for many borrowers: fail to succeed, and you may have to borrow more to pay off the initial loan.

“Micro-consignment says ‘just try it, just come out and in time we'll help you train, we'll help you figure out how to sort of do this’”, adds Smith.

The model seems to be working for LivelyHoods’ sales agents. More than two years after the organisation’s official launch, 197 youths have been trained, selling a total of about $100,000 worth of goods.

In June alone, 18 sales people sold over $3,720 worth of goods, and earned, on average, income of $82 –10% of which is automatically put in an individual savings account. Seven more sales agents were trained in July, and a second store is about to launch in Kangemi, just north of Kawangware.

Equipped with the skills and savings that LivelyHoods helped bring to Kawangware, ‘graduates’ of the programme have started up hotels and entertainment centres where kids can hang out and play videogames. Others hope to eventually use the skills they learnt at iSmart to join larger companies in Kenya, such Safaricom and Coca-Cola.

Alex M-PESA

[Alex deposits money from a sale at a M-PESA mobile money kiosk]

Employing the unemployable

The market is bustling, packed with vendors selling impeccably stacked piles of tomatoes, carrots, and peas. Customers mill about, taking time to purchase the day’s food and chat with friends and neighbours. Dirt roads take us past electronic stores, sewing shops, and chapatti vendors.

I’m playing assistant for Alex, holding up items for him, while attempting to keep up with his quick pace, walking from one potential customer to the next through tight alleys and pocked streets.

Alex is an intuitive, well-trained salesman. One group of elderly women looks confused as he discusses the Firefly solar lamp, so he hands me the solar panel as he demonstrates how it works.

In a pitch-perfect sales flourish, he asks one of the women for her mobile phone and connects it to the lamp. After waiting a few minutes – to build up suspense – he shows the women that the phone is charging. Their eyes light up as they imagine using the lamp in their daily lives.

In addition to possessing a unique ability to sell, Alex is also set apart from his peers by having a full-time job.

Unemployment is problem across Kenya, but young people are hit the hardest. Using the most recent data available (which is from unfortunately 2006), a United Nations Development Programme report released this year estimated that “80% of Kenya’s 2.3 million unemployed are young people between 15 and 34”. The highest unemployment rates were found among poor, uneducated, urban youths.

LivelyHoods targets youths living in slums for this very reason. “We don’t care if you’ve gone to university”, says Alex. “We need you the way you are, because we’re going to train you on that. Yeah, we are proud about that.”

This is one of the reasons that the organisation is supported by the Segal Family Foundation, an organisation that supports grassroots solutions affecting reproductive health, food security and youth in sub-Saharan Africa.

“LivelyHoods is an organisation that invests in the power of young people to bring forth positive change”, Ash Rogers, the foundation’s Director of Operations, said in an email interview. “[It is] creating a model which harnesses that potential to build profits for the youth sales agents.”

Reaching the demand

In Kawangware, it is easy to find a cheap, simple cooking stove: roadside kiosks and hawkers sell them at nearly every block. They are small clay stoves prone to cracking, but work well enough, and you will find one in almost every home.

Still, out of everything Alex was selling, customers were most interested in the Envirofit fuel-efficient stove he carried around. It is the Viking Range of stoves. The sleek black finish looks “smart”, as the Kenyans say – a vestige of their days as a British colony. The stove is something a family could show off in their homes, Alex tells me.

It is however also more expensive than the average stove: $27.50, compared with $3.65 for a roadside stove.

But, just like everywhere else, people in Kawangware are willing to pay more for nice things that will last, and when Alex explains that it will quickly pay for itself in reduced fuel costs and that it comes with a warranty to boot, they are sold.

Customers probably would not know about this high-quality stove without LivelyHoods’s sales agents. Quality products are tough to find in urban slums.

Go to any bus station, market, or traffic jam in east Africa, and you’ll see dozens of hawkers, carrying their body weights in a seemingly-random assortment of products: gum, portable lights, earrings, bags, shoes, whatever may sell that day.

But quality is not typically high among the wares they sell: the products are either second-hand or cheap, and buyers do not expect them to last long. Quality items are expensive, and few hawkers can afford to tie up their meagre income in inventory.

On the other hand, a store could keep quality items, but demand does not always make it all of the way to the store; transportation is time-consuming and expensive, making shopping excursions a luxury for many living in slums.

The unique thing about LivelyHoods then is that its sales agents bring the supply of high-quality goods to where they are demanded: at markets and in homes. And because a personal touch is critical when selling expensive goods, sales agents get to know the community members extremely well. At one home, Alex spent an hour helping a woman with a problem she was having with her malfunctioning solar panel batteries, which he had not sold to her. While he kept saying “time is money!” as he tinkered with the wires, he did not leave until he fixed her problem.

Alex stove

[ Alex shows off the Envirofit cookstove to a potential customer.]

“Let’s say no, no, and make change”

“iSmart is like a stepping stone”, says Alex. “There are others who are now earning more than me. And I’m very happy, because I gave them that knowledge. I recruited them. I trained them.”

The sales day is over, and we are having a late lunch at a small restaurant in Kawangware before I have to leave – as in many of Nairobi’s slums, foreigners almost always leave Kawangware before the sun sets.

Over ugali, chapatti, and beans, I ask Alex what he wants to do in the future. He says he is thinking about school, but, really, he wants to make music. “I love music. I rap. I write music. I wrote when living in the streets”, he says before jumping right into his personal take on living in the streets, a song that begins and ends with this repeating two-line chorus:

Let us see this kind of life we are living.

Let’s say no, no, and make change.

Photographs by Mike Miesen.

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