Kathleen Colson is using a poverty graduation process to end extreme poverty in the face of climate change.
Over 40% of the African continent is arid land. The people who live in these regions are particularly susceptible to changes in the climate. They depend solely on livestock for their nutrition and livelihood. With climate change, sustained, severe droughts are becoming more common.
Kathleen Colson attended St. Lawrence University as a scholarship student. Her scholarship allowed her to participate in the Kenya Semester Program at the University of Nairobi. That experience deeply impacted Kathleen. After graduating, she tried working in the corporate world, but Africa kept calling to her. She returned to Africa where she started a safari company, primarily touring in East Africa. She also worked with African refugee groups in London.
She told me, “The catalyst for what I’m doing now happened in 2005 when I was invited by a friend to visit Northern Kenya, in the midst of a terrible drought. Being witness to that suffering, and seeing the impacts of a drought where 95% of the livestock are dead, the only solution is food aid, tremendous suffering and the disease that comes with it, was the catalyst that said, we’ve got to come up with better solutions.”
Before she started offering solutions, Kathleen spent two years driving around the region in long, extended visits. She listened to the women and the elders of the region to hear about their problems and the potential solutions. She tried several solutions, some of which she described as “spectacular failures.” For example, she started a livestock program and, after another severe drought, all of the livestock died.
After several failed attempts that did not have the kind of long-term impact she was hoping to have, she had an insightful conversation with an elder. He told her, “We’re spending all of this money…to send children to school, but then they’re back in the village, because there’s no jobs.”
Kathleen described her journey this way “The first part, when I was all about moral outrage, I was witness to a problem and couldn’t believe there weren’t better solutions.” Next, she “went into a place where I had to find the moral courage to tackle that problem when everyone else said it cannot be solved.” She invites others to share with her the “moral imagination to believe that we can end extreme poverty in my lifetime.” And finally, because the world is filled with hard problems that need to be solved, she believes that entrepreneurs need find “a strong moral compass” to constantly remind them of the one big problem that they are out to solve.
The BOMA Project helps women set up small businesses. This lifts them and their families out of extreme poverty. The BOMA Projects’ flagship program is called Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP). REAP helps women to graduate from extreme poverty through for-profit entrepreneurship. Instead of giving women aid, they give them opportunity. They begin by targeting the most vulnerable women. They give these women a cash grant that they use to start a business with two other women. BOMA provides training and a local business mentor to help them to develop their business ideas. BOMA also introduces a savings program. BOMA provides ongoing training and support around topics such as family planning. At the two-year mark, BOMA measures the progress of these women to see if they have graduated from extreme poverty. So far, they are averaging a 94% success rate.
Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Kathleen Colson
“Women and children are the ones who suffer the most when there are droughts”
“We have seven criteria in four different areas and right now we’re graduating 94% of the women out of extreme poverty.”
“For many of these very rural, semi-nomadic villages, there’s never been any businesses before.”
“I got to fly on a plane for the first time, and that flight was to Africa.”
“I was fortunate to have original, founding board members that let me try a lot of things.”
“Digging wells and building schools are really good things, but they don’t end poverty.”
“We’re working with seven different ethnic groups, five different languages.”
“The translation of ‘what is a good idea’ to ‘what is effective’ happens on the ground.”