The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International | October / November 2001
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Kenya Molds Habitat Model to Fit Regional Needs

To have thousands of affiliates building thousands of houses and doing it solely with local involvement is the goal for today’s Habitat for Humanity Kenya.

But in the organization’s early days, things were different. In fact, when HFH Kenya began in 1982, Habitat’s international partners—good-hearted, skilled foreigners—essentially ran the affiliates. These volunteers spearheaded the local education process, oversaw family selection and construction standards, led committee meetings and often balanced the books. In effect, the approach was paternalistic, rather than empowering. In the beginning some affiliates did well, driven by enthusiastic local committee members who sometimes wanted houses for themselves. The fact that poorer homeowners often didn’t pay back their mortgages due to failed crops, expensive school fees and costly medicines was more than troubling, but such were the realities for HFH Kenya in the early '80s.

“We saw that the houses were too expensive for our homeowners,” says Tom MacWilliams, who began working as an IP in Kenya in 1987. “We were only building about 10 houses a year at a cost of about $900US per house because we were building with block. Most people were afraid to take out a loan for so much money.”

In the early ’90s, Habitat adopted more affordable housing designs, including a mud and wattle house (with cement floors and iron-sheet roofing) that cost around $650US. HFH Kenya was able to build 100 houses. But as soon as MacWilliams moved to a new affiliate, mortgage repayment rates dropped and houses deteriorated because mud and wattle requires constant repair.

In the mid-’90s, the newly established national office began training “national partners” to work in the affiliates. But often, the problems remained the same.

Today, HFH Kenya has adopted a proven Habitat model and is developing the concept of “staffless” affiliates.

“HFH Kenya is shaking communities awake so they understand they have the resources and the ability to overcome their own problems,” says Jerry McCann, Kenya’s national coordinator. “We are doing this by changing the mindset through capacity building, creating systems to manage their efforts, and continuous monitoring and evaluation. By this summer, all affiliates were running their own programs without national or international partners.”

There are several key factors to the success of this new approach.

One lies in working with communities that already have learned to do basic development through an established community-based organization. Further, all communities must demonstrate their willingness to partner with Habitat by funding and building their first house without outside assistance. HFH Kenya also requires each affiliate to locally fund at least every 20th Habitat house it builds.

Another key is training. National partners now are regionally based and educated in training, monitoring or administration programs. They then conduct workshops at the local level to train affiliate committee members to carry out all aspects of Habitat’s program from construction to bookkeeping.

Monitoring and evaluating the program is the third key to an affiliate’s success at the grassroots level. The area office team evaluates each country program on a regular basis, helping to identify strengths and weaknesses. Kenya’s national office in turn holds affiliates accountable.

Part of the monitoring system—and something McCann feels is critical to the success of the new format in Kenya—is Habitat’s establishment of a system for mortgage tracking. “The revolving fund and how the community embraces it is the key to sustainability,” he says. “It is difficult to emphasize maintaining a fund when no one knows what it is worth.” The goal of HFH Kenya is to have all the mortgages from affiliates tracked by the end of 2001.

By last May, such tracking for 12 of 18 affiliates had been completed.

Finally, financial sanctions have been established. “Affiliates that have 80 percent or better repayment rates will receive the most funding from the national office,” says McCann. “Affiliates with less than an 80 percent payback rate will not receive money from the national office for building. They also will not be able to host Global Village work teams, one of the most popular fund-raising events for affiliates. This policy is controversial for Habitat in Africa, but the Kenya national board feels it is a necessary restriction for affiliates in a country with such a long history of dependency.”

The process may have changed over the years, but the goal of HFH Kenya remains the same: to empower and equip local people to replace inadequate housing in their communities with decent housing, to run the program themselves, and to protect the integrity of the program through collecting mortgages.

“We make it clear that only those community groups that are legitimately interested in tackling the problems of poverty housing in their community will remain partners with HFH Kenya,” says McCann. “We want to be in thousands of communities building tens of thousands of houses per year. That is the level of impact necessary to honestly achieve our goal. There is only one way an organization like HFH Kenya can manage an effort of that enormity—get the grasses to root.”

Mauritius Leaders Strive to Launch Habitat
As the resort island of Mauritius positions itself to become a trade center between Africa and Asia, an increasing cost of living and land prices are compounding the rise of local housing costs. Land is a limited resource on this island off the east coast of Africa, and families who cannot afford to buy or rent a house often live in shelters made of iron sheets on “squatter” communities.

Recognizing a need for Habitat for Humanity in Mauritius, former U.S. ambassador Mark Erwin assembled a local steering committee to lay the groundwork. The committee, which includes prominent local business and government leaders, accepted the challenge of organizing one of Africa’s fully self-funded HFH programs. Seeking approval from Habitat’s international board of directors, the committee has hired a national coordinator and meets regularly to focus on local fund-raising strategy and operations. In addition to the challenges of raising funds and acquiring land, the national coordinator and steering committee must find a way to keep simple, decent houses affordable for the low-income families who need them. Frequent tropical cyclones require that houses be cyclone-resistant cement structures, boosting the cost of materials, which must be imported to the island nation. The steering committee is optimistic about donations to its self-funded program and has plans to build 32 houses using local funds during the next few years.

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