Ingrid Munro’s Mission to Help Kenyans out of Poverty

By Juan Carlos

When Ingrid Munro retired as an advocate for the poor in Kenya she founded Jamii Bora, a micro-finance institution, with 50 female street beggars. Her organization is now the largest of its kind in Kenya, serving more than 300,000 members since its inception in 1999.

It is a widely held misconception that hunger and extreme poverty will always be with us. The cost of these misperceptions is one life every three seconds—meaning 30,000 die needlessly every day. Ingrid’s leadership is profiled in the documentary Every Three Seconds, which looks at seemingly ordinary people who take extraordinary action in their communities. 

What in your early life brought you to be interested in making a difference in the lives of others?

I was brought up in a strong Christian home, and my dad, a medical doctor, decided at age 44 to become a medical missionary in what is now Zimbabwe. He really inspired me, and I followed closely what he did in Africa.

Why did you eventually concentrate your efforts in Kenya?

I came to Kenya in 1985 to head the U.N. program the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. It was a two-and-a-half-year assignment. My new friends asked me to stay and set up a Pan-African housing organization called the African Housing Fund. I promised to stay for two years to help get it started, but I am still here 26 years later. I headed that organization for 11 years and retired from it in 1999.

Courtesy Every 3 Seconds

What drove you to build an organization after retiring? Why then?

We had started working with the mothers of Waithaka’s friends in the streets. When I retired the women came to me and said, “Mom, you can’t abandon us.” We started what I thought would be a small club of street beggars in March 1999, but it grew like a bushfire. I asked the 50 women to save 50 shillings (about 75 cents) per week. We wanted to start with a savings culture because they were all beggars and might have run away with their first loan. I promised a loan for double the amount they had saved.

After six months it was clear we had to register it officially. We decided to register as a charitable trust, and we already had 5,000 members. We wanted to call it Tumaini Trust—“new hope”—but someone else had that name, so we talked with the women and came up with Jamii Bora, which means “good families.”

What do poor people need to do to get out of poverty?

First they need to believe in themselves and believe that they can get out of poverty. All of the staff in our beggars program are former street beggars themselves. They say, “If I can make it, I don’t see why you can’t make it.” Then they can move into micro-finance, and they climb up the ladder.

Courtesy Every 3 Seconds

Why do women primarily seek out loans?

The difference between women and men is that the women have to toil every day because they have to make sure their kids have something to eat every day, while the men are dreaming about a big business they are not ready for. We welcome men and women. If both husband and wife can be involved, it is better.

How did it grow into the organization it became?

We never formed Jamii Bora to make money but to inform poor people that they can make it. All of the staff in the old Jamii Bora are former members. This is why we can reach and inspire the very poor.

Why is Jamii Bora more like a movement than a business?

We grew to 350,000 families. The Central Bank of Kenya decided that all micro-finance organizations had to be registered. We were able to buy the smallest bank in Kenya and converted it into Jamii Bora Bank in March 2010. The bank was not able to support the poor members across the country. We then decided we needed to have a savings and credit cooperative to serve the poor members. The cooperative was formed by the members who were not supported by the bank. We recently changed the name of the cooperative to Yawezekama, which means “Everything is possible.”

What can’t micro-finance do?

We have come to understand that what it cannot do is form programs to address life insurance, health insurance, business school, beggars program, a clean-and-sober program. We have 7,000 families; they are coming in big numbers, and they need more services.

Who is the most successful person to come out of Jamii Bora? Do you still keep in contact with them

I keep in touch with all of them. Most have decided to stay in the cooperative to inspire the others. Clarice Adiambo is just one. She was a beggar for 15 years with her little boys. She came out of poverty fast. She has several businesses and a big shop and a new house in Kaputei town. She says, “I want to be rich so I can help the poor.” None of our better off have abandoned the others.

What legacy do you want to leave behind? What do you hope to have accomplished?

I hope to have done as much as possible to help poor people and inspire the young people to keep this movement growing.