The Social Network

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By Nikhil Srivastava, Kenya Ambassador Volunteer

Today I met with Grace Dawo, a single mother and entrepreneur who makes and sells homemade peanut butter. Grace has maintained a 100% repayment rate through two Zidisha loans even as she has struggled through health problems, and now – fully recovered – she is seeking a third loan to expand her business and promote her peanut butter in local supermarkets.

Grace graciously invited me to her house in Buru-Buru Phase 2, a quiet and secluded suburb due east of Nairobi’s downtown. Grace has lived here for four years, and she appreciates the tight-knit community in which her two daughters, Cynthia and Rosemarie, can walk home unaccompanied from work or school.

Cynthia is a student at Kenyatta University who works part-time as a saleswoman for the Athi River Mining company. She is also a Zidisha borrower who has a side business in handbags: she travels by overnight bus to Uganda to purchase her inventory and sells the bags to university students and employees.

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Rosemarie is six years old and has recently placed into Harambee Primary School, a high-quality government school just a few blocks from the house.

IMG_2410Grace’s largest financial expense is school fees, which she pays not only for her own three children (her son lives in the Umoja neighborhood of Nairobi) but for David and Mary, the two children of her husband’s second wife. Grace’s husband Martin passed away in 2011.  Since then, peanut butter sales are what have made it possible for Grace to support the children’s education.

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Grace roasts and grinds peanuts to produce natural peanut butter, which she jars and distributes to a small but loyal network of customers. Unlike the peanut butter available in Nairobi stores, which is difficult to spread and contains preservatives and flavorings, Grace’s product is smooth and spreadable, and its only ingredients are peanuts and sea salt. Her customers love its natural flavor and versatility, and they use it on bread, with vegetables, and with rice.

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On any given day, Grace can usually be found zipping between buildings in downtown Nairobi, delivering jars of peanut butter and picking up supplies for her business. After having lunch with Grace, I joined in her afternoon circuit – through three different downtown buildings, multiple clients and offices, and many conversations and deliveries. Grace is unstoppably social, always laughing on the phone or striking up conversations with friends and customers alike. She takes voice orders and relies on word-of-mouth advertising, and her network is dense – we ran into two separate groups of colleagues and customers on the streets of downtown Nairobi (not the easiest place to find someone you’re trying to meet).

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Grace’s social network runs deep within the Zidisha community as well. She has invited friends and family to join the community, and both her daughter and cousin have used Zidisha to fund successful businesses. Grace finds the Zidisha process encouraging: unlike local banks, Zidisha allows borrowers to choose their own weekly repayment plans and even adjust repayment amounts up or down, as long as at least one repayment is made each week.

This flexibility was crucial in the early days of Grace’s second loan, when a pinched nerve in her neck brought on debilitating headaches and prevented her from carrying even light deliveries, bringing her business to a halt. The treatment of physical therapy, painkillers, and bedrest required Grace to reduce her weekly loan repayments, but she made a point of always paying just a small amount on time.

Through her difficult times, Grace’s children were sources of financial and emotional support. Grace’s husband passed away four years ago, leaving her alone to raise not only her own three children, but also the two children of her husband’s other wife who is also deceased. (As a member of the Luo tribe from Kisumu, Grace had a traditional polygamous family.) Even though Grace’s children are all in school or university, they work part-time to reduce the cost of their education. Still, when she was confined to a neck brace and unable to deliver her goods, Grace worried about upcoming expenses of school fees, textbooks, and clothing for her family.

Luckily, Grace has made a full recovery in the last few months. She seems to be at full strength; she refused to let me to carry her delivery bag and even insisted we skip the elevator and walk up three flights of stairs. In fact, business has been so strong recently that Grace has already compensated for the diminished repayments and is looking to close out her current loan next week.

Grace buys peanuts at Gikomba market, where 1 kilogram of nuts costs roughly 150 Kenyan Shillings (about US $1.50). This amount of nuts can produce 1.2 jars of peanut butter, each of which sells for between 300 and 400 KSH (US $3 – $4). Because Grace used her previous Zidisha loans to buy her own roasting and grinding machines, her other variable costs are small: empty jars, labels, and salt. And she works directly out of her home to save on rent. When Grace has the capital for ingredients she makes good money, and consistently; what she needs is more capital to grow her volume and distribution.

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Grace is planning to apply for a third Zidisha loan to expand her business. With the money she raises, she will obtain a certification from the Kenya Bureau of Standards, a barcode that will allow her peanut butter jars to be sold in supermarkets, and an expanded stock of ingredients. Grace plans to gradually grow her distribution channels, starting with local markets before approaching larger chains.

When I asked Grace what the most important factor was in building a successful business, she responded: consistency. Too many entrepreneurs, especially those who sell a variety of items in shops or delivered to customers, take up temporary ventures or ill-conceived side projects that prevent them from building a consistent brand. Grace wants to be known for her peanut butter, and to earn the recognition and trust of their customers for a superior product.

Grace also hosted me for lunch and together we shared a delicious meal of ugali (cornmeal mash, a staple food in East Africa), beef stew, and cabbage.
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Grace, thank you for letting me join your sales route this afternoon! I wish you the best of luck with your business.

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