130, Kathleen Colson, The BOMA Project | Poverty Graduation through For-Profit Entrepreneurship

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”

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘We’re helping women start a small business and accumulate savings.’ Kathleen Colson, @BOMAProject”]

“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.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘We want this whole thing to be self-directed.’ Kathleen Colson, @BOMAProject“]

“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.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘Ending poverty is about when somebody can earn an income.’ Kathleen Colson, @BOMAProject“]

“Digging wells and building schools are really good things, but they don’t end poverty.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘You take it back to the local people and ask them what they think. Kathleen Colson, @BOMAProject“]

“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.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘I think it takes a tremendous amount of grit and determination.’ Kathleen Colson, @BOMAProject“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘You have to be optimistic in the face of a lot of obstacles.’ Kathleen Colson, @BOMAProject“]

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

014, Steele Lorenz, MyRain | Saving Water Resources through Business Innovation

Steele Lorenz, MyRain

Steele Lorenz, MyRain

MyRain distributes efficient irrigation equipment to smallholder farmers in India. It is not an innovation of technology; drip irrigation has existed and been a proven technology for many years. By using drip irrigation, you can increase crop yield by 50% to 100% and decrease water consumed between 20% and 50% when compared with flood irrigation. Increasing yields can drastically improve the quality of life for smallholder farmers.

Globally, 70% of freshwater is used for agricultural purposes. It has been estimated that by 2050 the world population will be around 9 billion. With the emerging global middle class, the demand for food will double. This places tremendous pressure on our freshwater resources.

In the arid region of southern India where MyRain is working, the water tables are falling rapidly. This could reach a crisis level within 15 to 20 years.

The problem is not the technology. Drip irrigation exists. The problem is distribution. This is where MyRain innovates. This year, the irrigation systems that they have distributed will save 5 billion liters of water. That’s about the amount of water that a good sized city will consume in a year…and they are just getting started.

Born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Steele Lorenz grew up enjoying sports. He says he liked games with clear, fixed rules. He participated in lots of extracurricular activities including tennis camp and piano lessons. It was a far cry from the conditions of rural Indian farmers.

Steele attended the University of Minnesota with the intention of obtaining a JD degree and practicing law. Steele says “By accident, I ended up in an entrepreneurship course.” He participated in the Ventures Enterprise. His experience with entrepreneurship lit a fire inside of him. That is when he found the Acara Institute. At the time they were focused on for-profit social enterprises solving water-related issues in India.

Steele participated in the Acara Challenge where his team came in second place. When the challenge ended, Steele and his partners graduated and they went on with their lives. But they were left with a business plan and an awakened sense that they could make an impact. Steele could not escape from the idea. He and his partner Sri Latha kept testing the concept until there was nothing left to do but to either execute or forget it.

Tried working with NGOs, but did not find them to move at the same pace as entrepreneurs. Next, moved to retailers already working with farmers, but there were three main problems to overcome. MyRain has taken on each in turn.

In this episode of the Social Entrepreneur podcast, we discuss:

  • How Steele caught the entrepreneurial bug.
  • The Acara Challenge.
  • The Story of MyRain.
  • The challenges of water resource management in the face of feeding 9 billion people.
  • The three challenges faced by MyRain and how they have addressed each one.
  • How they are scaling MyRain in India.
  • The challenges of measuring impact.


014, Steele Lorenz, MyRain | Saving Water Resources through Business Innovation