Maria Springer and Tania Laden are the co-founders of LivelyHoods, a not-for-profit social enterprise serving young people living in the slums of Nairobi by employing them to sell high-quality goods and technologies to consumers in their community. How did Springer and Laden–who are barely older than the men and women they serve–develop their idea? Get ready to take notes, massive NGOs, because the answer may shock you: They went to Nairobi, found some young people, and asked what they needed.
“Young people have incredible talent and potential, but in countries like Kenya, they don’t have an opportunity to actualize it,” Springer explains. “What we heard is that there’s a lot of youth-serving organizations that provide food, that provide clothing, that provide shelter. But they never really give young people–and this is a literal quote–a chance to ‘fish the fish.’” Laden continues, “We talked to about 300 young people in the community, trying to find out what skills they had, what experiences they had, what they were interested in doing. And every single one of them had sold something at some point–whether it was drugs, or fruit, or [cellular] airtime. We thought, ‘There’s a skill that we can build on.’”
The partnership between Laden and Springer started early, when they met as middle schoolers in their native Los Angeles. “Maria was always interested in politics, and I was always interested in solving social problems with the private sector, so we would have a debate about that,” says Laden. She credits her global awareness to her mother, who is from the Philippines. “We would go every year, and we sent money and clothes to our family down there, so knowing that poverty existed and doing something about it was something that I grew up with,” she says. “I also knew that no matter how much money my mom spent, it wasn’t really making anyone’s life better.”
Springer, meanwhile, grew up visiting her family in Guatemala, and started working on social issues at the age of 9, when she sent Bill Clinton a letter about crime in her neighborhood. She traveled to Kenya at age 22 to work with KITO International, a youth oriented nonprofit founded by former street kid Wiclif Otieno, who happened to be a Springer family friend. There, she spent two years engaged in the conversations that would eventually lead to the “fish the fish” mission of LivelyHoods.
Springer will admit that, at the beginning, she was kind of making it up as she went along. “I didn’t know what social entrepreneurship was. I didn’t know what revenue was. I didn’t understand financial sustainability,” she says of her first years in Nairobi. But she’d taken a college class in nonprofit organizations, and knew that it was important to create what she calls “local solutions to local problems.” And when she scored a 2010 Unreasonable Institute fellowship, she found herself alongside entrepreneurial peers who were struggling to get products like clean cookstoves and solar lamps to the developing world. “I kind of put two and two together and thought, ‘Hey, if there’s products that can literally change lives, and the problem is that we can’t get them to the people who need them, what if these talented young people [in Kenya] could actually do that?’” LivelyHoods now sells a range of household goods from about 10 different companies via a consumer-facing brand called iSmart, with the tagline “Solutions for a Smart Life.”
When Laden joined Springer at KITO in late 2010, she was coming off a brief (and unsatisfying) stint at Morgan Stanley, and says she mostly made the trip for moral support. “[Maria] was a little bit nervous, and I wasn’t really doing anything,” says Laden. “She told me that they were creating a sales program, and I was immediately interested in at least helping them set it up. So I decided, ‘Okay, I’ll come with you for three months, see how it goes, and then probably go and do something else.’ But once I got here, I realized that what we had on our hands was actually a lot more powerful than what we thought, and I’ve been in Nairobi ever since.” Today, Laden runs their daily operations in Kenya, while Springer travels back and forth from the U.S., focusing on development.
LivelyHoods currently operates in the slums of Kangemi and Kwangware, which house around 400,000 people. “Slums are defined I think in people’s minds as representing poverty, sanitation problems, violence, density,” Springer says. “But we really flipped that idea on its head, and instead looked at the strong community network, the growing purchasing power, the incredible human capital that exists within slums.”
LivelyHoods team members range in age from 18 to 25 (up to 35 for young mothers), and they go through a five week training session: one week in the classroom learning professional skills (like showing up to work on time); after passing an oral exam, they graduate to the field, where they’re paired with an alumni sales agent as their mentor. “We look for people who have a fabulous attitude, who have a willingness to learn, and who appear coachable,” says Springer. “We’ve hired shy and quiet young women who end up being the loudest and most aggressive sales agents we’ve ever come across, so, you know, you really have to take a bet in some cases.”
The sales force works on a daily consignment model, another facet of the organization inspired by Springer and Laden’s initial conversational research. “One of the things I learned is they did not want to take on any financial risk, for fear that if they failed, they would not only be in poverty, but also in debt,” Springer says. “We give them products to sell. If they sell them, then we go ahead and pay them a commission. And if they don’t sell them, they can return the product. There’s really no risk, and only a reward.”
Team members also participate in a sales meeting every morning, arriving around 7:30 am to do some energizers and stretching–most LivelyHoods sales agents are on foot all day–and talk about their success stories and challenges from the day before. “We spend a lot of time talking,” Laden says. “One way to keep people motivated is to give them an opportunity to come together. Otherwise it can be a pretty lonely work experience, if you’re just constantly hitting the pavement by yourself.” She laughs. “Obviously, if they have a customer say, ‘I’m ready to buy,’ they’ll go out there by themselves, and are very happy to do that.”
While they haven’t had any team members “age out” of the organization yet, Springer and Laden have seen plenty go on to start their own businesses or continue their education. “The youth that we work with are developing confidence, and the hope that they can do something,” Laden says. “When they make their first sale, that’s an experience that I think impacts them for the rest of their lives. The agents who actually stay with us long enough to become part of our staff, what they’re able to do now is impart the skills that they’ve learned onto others, and pay back the change that they’ve been able to make in their own lives, create an exchange in their community.”
A number of LivelyHoods team members have also gone on to get formal retail jobs with some of the biggest companies in Kenya, or work for regional distributors selling consumer goods to stores. Laden recounts this fact with pride. “They were poaching our agents, because they knew that they would be trained and have experience,” she says. “That’s a success story.”