HFH Kenya: A view from the field of families served -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

HFH Kenya: A view from the field of families served

By Mark Wooding

This article gives an overview of the direction that Habitat for Humanity Kenya (HFHK) has taken over the past year as a response to the “families served” definition of June 2005.


The HFH Kenya program was started in 1982, and to date over 2,600 houses have been constructed with families in need (1,600 during the last 7 years), and 33 out of 45 affiliates are active. Between 2000 and 2004, HFHK underwent a radical overhaul in terms of systems, policies and organizational structure. In April 2005, we asked two key questions:

  • “How can HFH Kenya get to a current (not 90-day) repayment rate of 95 percent?”
  • “How can HFHK build or renovate 5,000 houses per year?”

These questions prompted:

  • the initiation of a strategy to systematically improve repayment rates in each region, including the introduction of a bonus scheme to reward Field Officer performance; and
  • an examination of ways to reduce house costs by introducing a smaller house design, house renovations and appropriate technology.

However, despite significant improvements in the repayment rates of many affiliates and a reduction in the average loan cost, it became clear during an exercise with the field officers at a quarterly communication meeting later in 2005, that the maximum output of the program with its current methodology and existing staff but unlimited funds was about 500 houses per year. This revelation was transformative.

The breakthrough came during 2006 with three key inputs.

  • In April, HFHK sent a representative to the ‘‘Reaching significant scale and impact” conference in Manila, the Philippines. HFHK was advised to consider using Habitat Resource Centres to transform its housing delivery methodology and to find partners like a Christian microfinance institution to take over the loan appraisal, disbursement and tracking functions. Then, in May, instead of the traditional program evaluation, a “reflection exercise” using POET (Participatory Organizational Evaluation Tool) with six National Office staff and six field officers, showed that HFHK was strong in teamwork and support, and ready to face new challenges, including a scaling-up initiative.
  • Following an exploration of the “families served” policy, field officers became aware of the many other ways in which the program could serve Kenyans. A new strategic plan was developed during FY06 Q1, which set out a framework and timescale in which to implement the scaling-up initiatives.
  • Stephen Wanjala was appointed as the AME Housing Microfinance Consultant. His many years of experience with a successful microfinance institution enabled him to help the field officers better understand their role in disbursing loans after thorough appraisals and maintaining high repayment rates.

A new approach
As a result, HFHK has undertaken a new approach—enabling those with low incomes, both in rural and urban areas, to build houses. Rather than establishing affiliates along the lines of the traditional Habitat model, we are now identifying existing community-based organizations (CBOs) with whom to partner for shorter-term projects.

A Habitat committee is set up to represent 30 group members who are interested in improving their shelter. The group is trained by our field officer, and the first loans are then disbursed. These first loans, for up to US$350, are to be paid back within two years, and can be for a repair, a renovation or the first stage of an incremental house. Once the loan is paid back, a second, larger HFHK loan can be accessed for further repairs or renovations, or the next stage of a house. Up to four loans are allowed per family.

Applicants are encouraged to save before taking an HFHK loan—a family that has saved US$350 dollars can add this to the US$350 dollars from Habitat and thus complete a “shell” house, i.e., foundations, walls and roof with the first loan. This already habitable structure can be completed and/or extended with a future loan. Once all thirty members of the group have improved their shelter and paid their loans, their project is considered completed. If other CBO members come forward later to apply for loans, and there are 30 interested families, then another project is started under a different name and fund code.

The same principles will apply to our urban projects, except that loan sizes will be higher due to the increased construction cost in urban areas.

This methodology for achieving greater impact and scale may appear straightforward. However, the key to delivering this type of fast-track service to our clients is not only having field officers who are trained in sound housing microfinance principles, but who are also able to give the right advice in a timely manner as part of a “technical services” package. It is this service, even though challenging to establish, which adds value to the loan. In fact, it is what many Kenyan mortgage lenders would like to offer but currently do not.

All HFHK house types are now being split into various loan packages so that the houses can be completed incrementally in several ways. We are in the process of training/ recruiting field officers with specific construction skills and knowledge who can advise clients on appropriate construction materials, priorities for repairs and renovations, housing rights and access to land, and facilitate construction workshops.

At the same time, instead of our 33 active affiliates having revolving funds, we now have a central revolving fund managed by the National Office and monitored by our 14 field officers at six regional offices. We no longer rely as much on local volunteers on affiliate committees to handle finances, and have revised our affiliate finance manual to close loopholes as part of an internal control review. Finally, we are reviewing our policy of using the cement index as the method of inflation adjustment; cement prices in Kenya have been rising steadily with the country experiencing a sustained construction boom and tying payments to bags of cement is discouraging those on low income from taking our loans.

Where does this leave us with “families served?” All the changes outlined above are designed to help us reach our target group of the poorest of the poor. We are confident that these new approaches will allow us to achieve this goal, but it will be hard work, involving rapid and detailed appraisals of groups and individuals, timely technical advice, efficient tracking systems and loan collection, and a proactive approach to strategic planning as we strive to eliminate poverty housing for 4 million families in Kenya.

We intend to move from serving an average of 300 families annually for the last three years to more than 700 in FY08, and are anticipating a number of repeat loans from those same families during FY09, which will be easier to disburse as assessments have been undertaken previously. One-off[1] repairs to a house at 15 percent or less of the normal house cost are easy to count, as are one-off loans for renovated or “vernacular” houses (local materials for the walls and a loan for the floor, roof and fittings).


The challenge comes when deciding whether a family building an incremental house has been served at the start of the process or at the end; how to define the intermediate steps; and whether we can count families who receive training from us and then build their own house, or perhaps buy one of our house plans but get their funding elsewhere.

Other questions arise, such as “Will Global Village teams want to assist several families in a community repair and renovate their houses, rather than assist just one family build their house?” Team members sometimes comment that the house they are building seems to be for a family at the upper end of our target group of the “productive poor,” a disadvantage of the full-house loan. Thus focusing on the shelter needs of a family rather than the delivery of particular housing products to those that can afford them is resulting in greater diversification of available housing solutions and this is of benefit to those on low income. However, in the future this will necessitate more sophisticated ‘counting’ of how those families are served.

Mark Wooding is the national director of HFH Kenya.


[1] “One-off repairs” mean that once the repair is complete, the family will not return for another loan in the near future (i.e., it is not a program of repairs to be undertaken to rehabilitate a home).