Business training in the Garden of Eden
by Celia Emmelhainz on
Of all the scientists I've met, Alexandra Sutton stands out as the coolest. She was exceptionally engaged and insightful in our graduate anthropology class, and has since worked on projects from ocean conservation to reducing lion poaching in Africa. This year, Alexandra has founded a social enterprise which teaches business fundamentals alongside conservation literacy in East Africa. Her goal is helping local human and animal communities to thrive together in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya. This interview discusses her pilot project and how it impacts economic and ecological relations in Africa.
Celia: Can you tell us a little bit about Kedge?
Alexandra: Kedge is a small social enterprise that works at the intersection of microbusiness and conservation. I founded and launched it just this year to provide this combination of business education and conservation literacy, to get at the underlying causes and problems of poaching and wildlife exploitation.
What does Kedge mean?
A kedge is a small anchor that you use in a fishing boat. We see that as representative of what our program provides–something to hold the boat in place so people can fish for more opportunities.
And how did you get the vision for this?
I was talking to a lot of people about the challenges facing the Maasai community. There are all these programs that help with health and with childhood education, but what about adults? Many Maasai don't own their own businesses, so it's no wonder the economy is stagnant in these rural communities. I was really frustrated that the solution was so apparent, and yet no one was doing anything about it.
Then I woke up, and was like, you know Alex, why don't you do something about this? So whether you call it a mobile classroom, a micro-business incubator, or an adult education program—what Kedge does is tries to plant the seed and get people up to speed to run their own businesses.
Why the specific focus on business and conservation?
Fundamentally because, in order for us to worry about wildlife conservation, we have to worry about human life and alternative economic opportunities.
Who do you work with in these communities?
Our target is rural communities that we call "high potential/low resource." We started with groups adjacent to a protected area with an established economy of tourism, helping to broaden access to the benefits of tourism. Now the idea of a "high potential area" has evolved, and we're thinking generally about rural development.
Right now we work with ten Maasai entrepreneurs that live near Kawai in the Mara North region.
You say you give "capacity, not charity." What does that mean?
[This is] one of our founding ethics and one of our guiding principles. We don't wanna be just another charity organization. There are plenty of NGOs, but what people need is support to help themselves. And giving capacity—whether education or training or the skill building activities we do—is something that can't be lost, traded, or taken away from them. The idea is to help people be free, to do what they want with their lives, in the way that they want to do it.
What businesses are your entrepreneurs planning?
The people who came to us were pretty conservative at first: "I want to sell milk, I want to sell corn, I want to have a little store." We encourage them to think outside the box and explore other things, missing in the community. So there are a million milk sellers, and you could sell better milk, be a superior milk seller, contract it out to local hotels—but what about if you reach out to other needs, sell household water tanks or other things?
But why is business education itself so critical?
The business education will make a difference right now. For entrepreneurs with a business [now], they run them kind of ad hoc. In East Africa it's called jua kali culture: you run it under the hot sun, maybe a hand-painted sign… for example, someone drives up and you fix their car. Done.
We want to move from this jua kali economy to a place where they are writing business plans, and "next year I'll do this, this is my 5 year plan and this is how I'm gonna grow." This is going to anchor their communities.
Can you talk about your pilot project in Kenya last month?
We did a three-week training, and we're really proud of it. It got a whole lot of support, from sponsors, from the community, and from the local chiefs. We got really positive comments, we saw a lot of engagement. Our curriculum is activity-based and you can see when students really get it, when they can start to apply it in different situations and come up with creative ideas.
How will this pilot help you improve Kedge for the future?
We were testing how the curriculum works, but also the logistics. So what we've really hammered down is to hold class in the afternoon on market days. People come to town for market day once a week, and there is a logistical difficulty with rural people getting to places, especially for women students. Market day is a time everyone can get into town, and 500 yards from the town center is the chief's office, where we hold classes.
Next time, we'd like to take advantage of that system and work in multiple villages during one trip… What if we did three market days in three towns every week? We could impact, not just 12 people but 36 people, giving the same curriculum.
Sounds like it's harder for women to get to town. What's your balance of women and men?
Almost fifty-fifty. So out of ten students, we had four women and six men. There were two men who dropped in, but we tried to stick to around 50/50. And… because we want to stick to that, we try not to restrict our classes by previous education or business experience.
Something that went well this time was to take one person with more education or business experience, and pair them with someone who hasn't had as much. We're doing a system of peer mentoring, and it plants the seeds of continuing education for other people in the community in the future.
How does all this entrepreneurship tie in with animal conservation?
The Maasai Mara is basically the Garden of Eden, there are thousands and thousands of species! Any animal in Africa—you imagine it, you can find it in the Mara. So lions, cheetah, wild dogs, elephants, roan, impala, gazelles… It's an area incredibly rich in biodiversity, a stronghold of African tourism.
I started working in Kenya because I'm doing my dissertation on lion conservation. I study with Dr. Stuart Pimm and Anne Kent Taylor, who has a grant from National Geographic and works to stop lion poaching.
There's human-wildlife conflict in several ways in the Mara, [including] direct killing and poaching to sell pieces of animals… for export to other parts of the globe. Also, the expanding urban population in Kenya is increasing demands on the land, on the habitat that they share with these incredible animals.
And within our rural communities we see "retaliatory killing." Cattle are a big, big deal in Maasai culture. So say I'm a man who had 150 cattle. I'm depending on them, they're all I have, and a lion kills a cow. So I may kill as many lions as I can find, or the first lion I see.
Organizations like the Anne K. Taylor Fund do things like build predator fences for cattle owners, or in some places, there are compensation and insurance schemes in place. With Kedge, we work to provide economic opportunities and economic security beyond cattle. That cuts down on the conflict, and helps protect these incredible natural spaces.
We've learned about your work, but who else works with Kedge?
Joe Lemeris is my awesome chief operating officer. So I founded Kedge and was immediately like, I cannot do this alone! So I reached out to Joe, who is a friend of mine from Duke. He got his master's in environmental management a year ago, and since then he's been working as a research coordinator for the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. So I reached out to him, talked about Kedge. He got on board and agreed to go to Kenya with me. He's incredibly helpful because he has a great technical mind and vast field experience! Joe has worked with people all over the African continent. He's a huge asset in terms of operations, paperwork, etc.
Your work together sounds amazing so far. What are the next steps with Kedge?
We've just announced on Facebook that our Spring 2015 community is Malawi. We were invited to look at it by Responsible Safari Company, who said, "We love the thing you're doing and we think it would be great for our community's interests." And we said, absolutely!
So we'll face new challenges. Malawi is very different from Kenya in governance, culture, economy, and history. It's the poorest country in East or South Africa that's never had a war, and so it has a different infrastructure and educational challenges. We're excited to work with that.
You were funded with a successful indiegogo campaign, now closed. How can we support you now?
[The indiegogo campaign] went really well, with really generous donors (and as we're moving forward, we're always taking donations). But more importantly now, we're looking for clients—people who know of a community that would like to have us come and teach, who can bring us out and host us and handle logistics on the ground. We're thinking large economic driving entities–manufacturers, lodges, local processing plants—anyone like that; we'd love to talk to them!
As we move forward with this revenue model of corporate social responsibility consulting, we'd love to have groups invite us in to work in places, to bring in our well-developed curriculum and education program. Our plan for the next 24 months is to get Kedge to where it's sustainable enough to do it full time. That means building that client base and enough revenue to sustain ourselves. We've had seed grants and crowdfunding, but we need to do work in way that's sustainable and… and happy! [laughs]
How can we keep learning about Kedge?
We've just added a dispatches section to the Kedge website. If you go to Dispatches you can read all the logs from the field in Kenya, and upcoming blogs about next steps—we'll put in an announcement about Malawi soon!
Joe Lemeris, the Kedge COO and Elias Kamande (left, in t-shirt, of the Anne K Taylor Fund) posing with the Kedge group on the first day of class. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Sutton.
A kedge is a small anchor that you use in a fishing boat. We see that as representative of what our program provides – something to hold the boat in place so people can fish for more opportunities.