Transforming lives and business practice in Kenya

This last week the BBC has run a series of programmes on Africa’s Lions – the growth opportunities that are opening up all over that vast continent. I was struck by the youth in abundance but the need for education and skills to make growth sustainable pulled me back to Debbie Bartlett, an inspiring woman who works in the logistics sector and is using her skills to help transform lives. A few years ago, Debbie went on holiday to Kenya with her family and a chance trip to a local school opened up fresh perspectives. This is her story.

Learning in Shansu, Mombassa Kenya

1.       Who are you and what are you up to? I am the Business Development Director at the Port of Tilbury – I specialise in international supply chains and making connections to assist companies to relocate to the Port – portcentric logistics. Tilbury is the closest international port to London – a diverse multimodal hub taking goods to the heart of the UK’s main population in the South East.  I work with a number of shipping lines, forwarders, 3PLs, retailers etc.

In my spare time, I am the Business Development Manager (unpaid) for Better Life: Africa – a small UK based charity which works with a school in the Shanzu district of Mombasa in Kenya.  This is a transformational project geared to provide schooling – a first step on a career path – for the very poorest children in an area where schooling is not easy to have. I see this school as part of a wider solution – a wonderful, inspirational place full of happy children who just want to learn and dream of being engineers and teachers as well as a project that challenges business to make things happen. 

Primary education is free in Kenya but the government does not invest in infrastructure so children are often taught in classes of 120 pupils.  It is tough to teach and literacy levels remain low. We have to break the cycle because the only chance of reaching high school and eventually getting a job is through education.

2.       How did you get involved? I was on holiday with my family back in 2007. I visited the school and as we left decided to sponsor a little girl, Maureen.  My husband was a teacher in Essex and cared passionately about education – he also loved Kenya.  Sadly he died of cancer at the end of 2010 and myself and my two children aim to rebuild the classrooms in his memory.  There is a memorial fund set up to raise money to help the school. This is a life changing project in more ways than one. I am determined to channel many wonderful memories into making a difference and my professional experience is helping me shape the way forward.

3.       What’s the challenge? Right now, the school is on a piece of land owned by a landlord who wants it back in October 2013.  Time is short to raise a minimum of £22k for the new classrooms by this time otherwise the school will close.  There is then circa £50k required to move the rest of the school to new land which has already been purchased by the charity.

One of the concerns is splitting the school so that whilst the new classrooms are built the rest of the school is delayed in relocating.  This would be difficult in terms of the teachers and even the limited resources – there is a small basic kitchen which feeds 20 of the poorest children who would otherwise not eat.

Our challenge is to find corporate sponsors to raise funds for the new facilities – alternatively or additionally to source donated building materials.  The challenge would then be to get the building materials to Kenya without incurring a lot of cost in transport and duties.  Kenyan Customs can be very difficult and expensive – it would also need careful project management in Mombasa.  We need funds or companies to assist us to pull this whole project together.

4.       What have you learned from this? For example, just how much redundant capacity could be released and used for these efforts. Can business use this project as a learning experience? Yes! Supply chains help so many companies reach markets better, cheaper and faster. BUT – a supply chain is a two way street – far too many containers return empty. What about using this redundant capacity to answer real needs in frontier markets?

That is one dimension. Unfortunately, there is a more pressing need for both this project AND the wider business community. Crossing borders costs a lot of time, money and wastes resources. Right now, I have 12 pallets of educational equipment in a warehouse in Tilbury but the Kenyan Customs want £1700 in duties which the charity simply can’t afford.

That’s just this project. Clarks shoes donated a pair of shoes to every child in the school and they sat in a warehouse in Manchester for 3 years.  The shoes are now shipped and every child has a pair – recycling them many times by returning them to the school when they are too small for their feet!  A great advert for Clarks!  Simple products mean so much – they have very limited paper, books, writing implements, crockery.

We have to change governmental views on charitable goods. This is not just about meeting a local need. Improving transit times can have a wider impact – making these markets more business friendly. So, a company helping us out can use the experience to help themselves.

5.       If you could ask for one thing to improve the effort to date – what would this be? I am enthusiastic about raising the money required – it is quite small in the scheme of things for companies.   But I also need influential partners to assist me to make a difference to this and other African schools.

This one school could be an example of what the business community can achieve by working together.  A practical solution to international aid.

October is not far away – we have to have the funds or an alternative in place by then. I am looking for business leaders to engage with this project as a means to contribute to local lives but more widely as a means to explore ways to improve logistics and supply chains in frontier markets – a real transformational agenda. You know, business schools are full of case studies about how to improve supply chains in the developed world. What about more effort on frontier markets? After all, this is where the growth is!

If anybody wants to help out please send your comments below.

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6 Responses to Transforming lives and business practice in Kenya

  1. Hugh Marcy (aka Karen Hughes!) says:

    This is a story often told about attempts to change the world. I truly believe as does Debbie Bartlett that the world will change through investing in education. Yet, education seems to be the last thing that governments think about.

  2. logistika says:

    I deeply respect Debbie for the dedication and hard-working for better liuves. She is inspiring me to do good things.

  3. Congratulations on your hard work and dedication to such a good cause.

  4. Congratulations, this is both a kind and caring gesture to the kids, and good marketing politics. Thanks for the article.

  5. Thank you for the messages of support – please help raise awareness of the fund and charity. It is a great piece of collaborative work where people with specialist skills are giving their expertise to transform lives.

  6. You are totally inspiring. There are only few people like you on the world! All the best to you!

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