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From the US with crucial lessons for local startups

by biasharadigest

From the US with crucial lessons for local startups

Amelia Philips
Amelia Philips (second left) with Kenyan entrepreneurs. PHOTO | COURTESY 

When Amelia Philips came to Kenya seven years ago to work as a volunteer for a not-for-profit education organisation, little did she know she would eventually be a key driver of the fortunes of small enterprises in Kenya.

Having grown up in Washington’s largest city Seattle, Ms Philip’s aim has always been to help the less fortunate in the society.

“I chose to live this life because it is the one that I felt and still feel challenges and teaches me the most every day. I want to be a catalyst for change,” she says.

Soon after she was done with her assignment in the country, Ms Philips moved back to the US to finalise her bachelor’s degree in international studies and global poverty at the University of California, USA.

In the meantime, she promised herself to return back to the country as soon as she was done with her studies.


So in 2016, she honoured her promise when she moved back into the country where she founded Somo , a non-governmental organisation.

She adds that she always wanted to create a programme that invest in sustainable change for low income communities in the global South.

“Our name was inspired by wanting to create a community around this type of learning. Somo is the root of the Swahili word masomo meaning lessons and we believe that we are all constantly learning,” she adds.

When she came to Kenya, she was astounded by how NGOs in the country were being ran.

“What amazed me was the fact that majority of NGOs in the country relied on foreign donations instead of local communities,” Ms Philips says.

During the piloting phase of her NGO’s programme, she learned the logistics of starting a business in an informal area with many entrepreneurs, communities and family dynamics.

The organisation runs different programmes — entrepreneurship boot camps, ‘Grow your Markets’, business coaching and investment.

Under entrepreneurship boot camps, the organisation teaches business skills, storytelling and financial literacy.

“The training includes problem solving and ideation, market research, business planning, financial modeling and digital literacy. Each graduate completes the course with a plan for capitalising her or his business,” she says.

She says they determine beneficiaries through a rigorous outreaches done across low-income areas in Nairobi and Kisumu.

“Applicants write a one-page application about their idea. We then accept about 20 percent of these applicants to attend workshops on how to write a business plan,” she adds.

two of the beneficiaries of the training are Dianna and Hilda who now run a diaper business that employs four women.

Their business has now expanded to Mombasa and Kisumu. To date they have sold over 8,000 diapers.

So far, the Somo has invested Sh50.8 million in various enterprises, but Ms Philips says the organisation stills need more money to support more vulnerable people in the informal settlements.

The organisation’s biggest financiers include Argidius, Google, UC Berkeley, Jochnick Foundation and Polish Aid.

The Grow your Markets accelerator programme allows entrepreneurs to sell their products through Somo’s physical store, online retail, and pop-up markets.

The organisation charges a 12 percent commission on all sales to meet operating costs, Ms Philips says. “The shop features wares of entrepreneurs which give them access to a larger customer base and an opportunity to expand their businesses,” she says.

Some of the beneficiaries of the programme include Bounty Nut and Puryseth, which have achieved an increase in sales by 35 percent and 44 percent respectively.

Somo also provides non-repayable grants to entrepreneurs for capital expenditure needed to launch their ventures.

“Later stage financing is available as debt capital. Continued funding is contingent on achieving success metrics developed by the entrepreneurs and the Somo team,” she says.

In the business coaching accelerator programme, Somo’s advisors provide mentorship and help grow the businesses.

“Entrepreneurs have access to monthly events and office hours where Somo advisors share their expertise,” she says.

The company has now trained 552 beneficiaries in business plan creation, 172 in Somo’s 12-week entrepreneurship boot camp and 58 in two-year acceleration programme.

The organisation has a team of 24 employees and an extra 258 who are directly employed.

Ms Philips says they have seen the impact of the initiative. For example, Veronica and Eric, who grew up in Nairobi’s slums, witnessed the challenge people faced in getting fresh and affordable vegetables. With the help of Somo, the duo set up Verics, a business that uses hydroponics to grow vegetables. hydroponics is a farming method that uses degraded lands and reduces the amount of water that farmers need.

“Verics now has 13 small-scale hydroponic farms across three informal settlements in Nairobi. They have set up systems free of charge for local farmers, and they buy back the produce to sell to upscale greengrocers,” he adds. “I have since established design thinking and entrepreneurship programmes in Bujumbura, Mexico City, and New Delhi. I am now focused on Somo’s expansion around Kenya’s urban centres,” she says.

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