Friday, August 3, 2012

#KivaTrip: Behind the scenes at Kenya's Strathmore University

We rejoin the dynamic duo, Kivans Buckley White and Liz Nagle, at Strathmore University -- Kiva's very first Field Partner to offer student loans.

Anything we say about Strathmore is bound to sound like overstatement -- that's just how impressed we were with what we saw and heard on our tour of the campus and in our conversations with nine of Kiva's Strathmore student borrowers.

First off, the Strathmore campus is mind-bogglingly state-of-the-art and could hold its own against any American university. Kiva's Senior Field Support Specialist Mac Parish, who accompanied us for the visit, had told us ahead of time that Strathmore's facilities were stunning, but nothing could have prepared us for the incongruity of finding these majestic buildings and beautifully maintained grounds just off of a rutted dirt road in an obviously poor neighborhood. 

Atrium of Strathmore Business School. 

We were met for our tour by Lilian, the manager of Strathmore's Kiva program; Nephat, the school's finance director; Stephen, the head of the mentorship program; and Morgan, the university's IT specialist, who would help us set up our live-streaming online chat between Kiva lenders and Strathmore student borrowers later in the day.

The tour began in the five-storey, light-flooded student center, where we were treated to a delicious lunch of fish fillets, Kenyan ratatouille, pasta, and rosemary potatoes -- the regular student meal, to our surprise! When Nephat mentioned that some students still choose to go off campus for fast food, we could only shake our heads.

Strathmore's light-filled student center. 

Over lunch, Lilian filled us in on how Strathmore compares to other universities in Kenya and in the rest of East Africa. With about 4,000 students, Strathmore is small enough for every student to have an official mentor to guide them through the college experience. The university focuses on training future social and business leaders, and its graduates have historically gone on to great success. 

For students applying to the Kiva loan program, Lilian said she asks herself: "Could this person be hired by GE or Unilever after graduation?" The answer must be yes for the student to secure a spot in the program, because Lilian wants to feel confident that these students will be in a position to repay their loans when the time comes. 

Lilian explaining Strathmore's values to Liz over lunch.

After lunch, we toured the rest of the student center, as well as the library, law building, and business school, marveling at the clean, open design and coveting the beautiful office spaces on the upper floors. Everywhere we went, the students we saw were so professionally attired that we couldn't help remarking on it. As it turns out, Strathmore maintains a strict dress code that serves as an equalizer among the school's richer and poorer students.

Strathmore's dress code. 

Around 4 p.m., it was finally time for us to meet some Kiva student borrowers. We were pioneering the idea of a live chat between Kiva lenders and borrowers, using a Google hangout and a pair of laptops, and we weren't at all sure that the technology would work out. Fortunately for us, the nine students who showed up were incredibly patient and well-mannered. They were a little on the quiet side at first, but Buckley warmed them up with some ice-breaker questions. 

Strathmore students laughing with lenders

On our student panel were Justus, Linda, Lydia, Veronica, Olivia, Joan, Patrick, Jackline, and Peter. The majority of these students are pursuing degrees in commerce, but hospitality management, actuarial science, and law are also in the mix. Just a couple had received Kiva loans to buy laptops, and the rest had taken Kiva loans to cover their tuition.

Future actuary Patrick. 

Once we had all the students set up around two computers, we invited a few pre-selected Kiva lenders to join the hangout, and you can see the results here. For the first time ever, Kiva lenders and borrowers were able to connect in real time, asking and answering questions and bonding over shared experiences. Success!

This post is by Buckley White and Liz Nagle, two Kiva staff members traveling through Kenya for the first time. Their mission: To give our lenders an unfiltered view of life in the field and their Kiva loans at work. We hope you enjoy! Want more of Liz and Buckley? Follow the hashtag #KivaTrip on Twitter.

Have questions about the #KivaTrip? You can send them our way at