Building livelihoods: An identity perspective (Part 1)

July 31st, 2018

FSD Kenya’s Building Livelihoods programme is a market-based adaptation of the Graduation approach popularised by BRAC in Bangladesh. Over a period of two years, participants shared stories about their lives and early experiences with the programme giving insight into who they are and how they think and change throughout the programme.

I first visited Marsabit County in Northern Kenya in May 2016 as a background visit for my PhD study. The area mesmerized me with its contrast of immense beauty and deep poverty, where people primarily live in stick huts with limited food and water, underneath a sky that seems to go on forever. During my visit I spoke with a number of participants of FSD Kenya’s Building Livelihoods programme. The programme is a market-based adaptation of the Graduation approach popularised by BRAC in Bangladesh. It includes a cash stipend provided by the government’s Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP), savings groups, training and mentoring by community-based facilitators, formal loans through Equity Bank, and market information and linkages. At the time of my first visit, participants were already receiving the HSNP and had started forming savings groups as a vehicle for saving, loaning, and learning.

The stories participants shared about their lives and early experiences with the programme both touched and intrigued me. So I spent the following two years learning more about who they are and how they think and change throughout the programme. In essence, I have been examining their journeys through an identity lens. Identity is a concept that fundamentally defines who we are. We have multiple identities that can change over time and vary in importance, such as an identity as a mother, a business person, an elder in the community, or a rich or poor person. These different identities are associated with meanings and expectations that shape who we are and how we think, feel and behave.

Over the past two years I have visited Marsabit County four times, interviewing the same fifty participants each time to understand their different identities and monitor changes over time. I still have a final visit at the end of the year and mountains of data to analyse, but some early insights are emerging about how identities are being shaped by the programme and how these identities influence participant behaviour. This is the first in a series of five blogs that share some of these emerging insights, starting with how the HSNP builds valued identities in the community.

During my first visit and over subsequent interviews, the impact of the HSNP was strikingly clear. Not only does it serve its intended purpose of smoothing consumption, it also enables people to develop more valued identities in the community, which broadens their safety net, builds self-esteem, and forms the foundation for subsequent programme components. For example, many participants explained that having an identity as an HSNP beneficiary translates into being seen as someone who is credit-worthy, which helps broaden their safety net in times of need. As one woman explained:

 “The community supports me now. Like before no one even dare to talk to you about credit. Why? Because am very poor and have no money, am jobless, that nobody can dare to give me credit. Despite telling them that I will try hard to work tomorrow so that I can pay them, they still don’t trust me. But as per now am happy, I can take credit from everywhere I want and pay it back when my money comes…. even paying school fees from the school we can tell them to be patient and they trust us.”

For others, the HSNP allows them to not only fulfill what it means to be a parent, but also to develop a new identity as a business person, making them more self-sufficient and better able to support their families. Before the programme, Lmiano struggled to feed his children and pay school fees. When he started receiving the HSNP he used the money to support his family, as well as start doing business. He is now involved with multiple group and individual businesses including livestock trade, a butchery, and petty trade of items such as sugar, maize flour and washing detergent, which he does with his wife. Lmiano described the value of the HSNP and the business it has enabled:

“The money enables me to give good education to my children, something I had dreamt about, giving them all basic needs like clothing and shelter, enabling capital to start business. It has really helped us. Business has really changed our life since before we were not having these funds we were struggling to make it in life; putting a meal on a table was very difficult. We were looking for a nearby job, but all was in vain. And for now you have your personal business doing at home. Everything is simplified. My kids are eating well and they get all the basic needs including the education.”

Lmiano still does some labour jobs, but he told me that business is his first priority and he does not let anything interfere with it. He further explained “since I ventured into business I got a lot of money; as per now I am not even dreaming to do without it. I really do love doing business.” He wants to learn more about business and sees himself as a leader for others in the community. He encourages them to start businesses and join groups, and he teaches them what he has learned so far.

These are just a few examples of how the HSNP enables more valued identities in the community. Many programme participants also talked about how they are now able to become livestock owners and wear nicer clothes, which makes them feel they fit in more within the community. It also provides participants with resources to effectively participate in subsequent programme components, such as savings groups, which will be explored in more detail in Part 2 of this blog series.



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