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On starting over: Maria Springer of Kito International

, , , ,    /   Jun 8th, 2011Africa, East Africa, International, Interviews

When a good idea is executed poorly, the smart social entrepreneur will often scrap the project and go back to the drawing board. In this series entrepreneurs talk about discarding what isn’t working and starting over in order to maximize social impact.

Maria Springer is the co-founder of Kito International an organization that employs Kenyan street youth in BoP (Base of the Pyramid) businesses.

Dowser: What’s something concrete and tangible you’ve learned in the last three months?
Springer: I learned to listen to others, but then follow my own instincts.

My partner at Kito International is Wiclif Otieno, a former street boy, who envisioned a new future for street youth everywhere. He wanted to create an organization to ensure that street youth were given the economic opportunity to get off the streets forever. After receiving funding through a corporate sponsor (Cold Open), I flew to Kenya to help Wiclif build his vision into a reality.

When I told advisors and practitioners that Wiclif was the Country Director of Kito International, many ‘experts’ warned me that he didn’t have the experience or education to pull it off. They warned me that Kito might fail if such an inexperienced man led our efforts in Kenya. For a time I second-guessed myself, but I always had a strong feeling that they were wrong. Although development organizations are almost always led by the privileged and educated, I felt that inspiration, conviction and first-hand experience could trump any MBA or formal job experience. Who better to lead and inspire youth to work their way off the streets than someone who has done it themselves?

Last month, Wiclif was invited to the Opportunity Collaboration in Ixtapa, Mexico as a Cordes Fellow. The youth in our program were thrilled. They pooled their money, threw him a surprise party and saw him off at the airport. It was the first time he had been on a plane, the first time he had visited a foreign country and the first time he’d spoken publicly at a formal event (in front of 400 people). Wiclif galvanized the crowd when he said, ‘I never imagined that I, a former street boy, would travel across continents to represent the power of opportunity to this room.’ He returned with advisors, contacts and funding. He inspires me every single day. And what is more important, he inspires our youth to believe that they are capable of making their dreams a reality.

What is a mistake or mishap you’ve learned from?
In June of 2010, Kito launched its pilot. Three weeks later, we threw our model out the window.

When Kito launched its pilot, we planned to train and employ street youth while we prepared them to start micro-enterprises. We were sure we knew what we were doing. We even developed the idea with groups of street youth. And then we launched the program. After about three weeks, the first seven people in our program told us the program could work better. They said:

(1)  We want to have much more experience before we start a business.

(2)   We don’t want to be alone. Kito is like our family, and when we start our own micro-enterprise (that we will run), we’ll be working alone.

(3)   We don’t want to take out a loan with interest, and then fail. That will leave us worse off than we were already. We may even end up on the streets again.

(4)   We want to work for a Kito business. Then, we can save up money in case we still want to start our own business.

Wiclif and I were thrown into a panic. However, after a week of letting their points sink in, Wiclif and I knew that our Kito youth were on to something. First, they were actively committed to developing Kito in partnership with us. Secondly, we got honest feedback before investing additional monies into a program that wasn’t going to work. After brainstorming and conducting market research, we decided to launch a direct sales business that employs Kito youth to market and sell products in BoP (Base of the Pyramid) communities.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Photos courtesy of Maria Springer

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