LivelyHoods Founders Push Jobs, Not Aid, to Youth in Urban Slums

Maria Springer explains LivelyHoods’ mission and work.

At age 9, when most kids are relishing the sweet pursuits of childhood, Maria Springer was trying to tackle social justice issues in her hometown of Los Angeles.

“I wrote to then President Bill Clinton about crime in my neighborhood,” said Springer. “He wrote back that California’s ‘three strikes law’ had been passed. I wasn’t impressed. I thought he was going to incarcerate my neighbors instead of solving the problem.”

Years later, after she graduated from UCLA, her passion for social justice led Springer to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Her encounters with unemployed youth living in the densely populated, extremely poor areas of the city had a profound impact on Springer.

“I didn’t expect the young people to be as ambitious and talented as they are,” she explained. “I saw that the only difference between them, and me and my peers, was an opportunity to make something of themselves. When I asked them what would make their life better, they said they just wanted a job.”

The seemingly simple request for a job ignited a fire in Springer. In 2011, she recruited her childhood friend, Tania Laden, a Stanford University graduate and Morgan Stanley financial analyst, to help Springer found LivelyHoods, a nonprofit with a mission to create jobs for youth in urban slums.

Laden said she jumped at the opportunity to trade a comfortable job in finance for a decidedly less comfortable job running a startup in Africa. As a child growing up in Los Angeles, she traveled frequently to the Philippines, where her mother’s family lives. “From an early age, I was very familiar with extreme poverty,” said Laden.

Springer and Laden, now both 26, decided to base LivelyHoods in Kawangware, an impoverished Nairobi neighborhood, which has an estimated population of 250,000. With financial support from several foundations, as well as private individuals, they rented a small space in a shopping center and stocked it with consumer goods geared toward improving the quality of life for residents, such as clean burning cook stoves, solar powered lamps, and reusable sanitary products for women. They then fanned out into the community looking for potential sales agents: motivated young people with “a willingness to learn and a great attitude,” according to Springer.

There were plenty of them. The LivelyHoods team put the first group of recruits through an intensive two-week training course, where they learned customer service and other professional development skills. They also were taught about finances and saving money. Those who successfully completed the course were offered a job. Over the last two years, 65 young people in Kawangware have become LivelyHoods sales agents.

“Our sales agents report to our customer service center at 8 a.m. in uniform,” explained Springer. “They have a daily sales coaching meeting where they report on what they’ve sold the previous day, and they can figure out what they want to try to sell that day.” The young reps can take up to $75 worth of goods, on consignment, when they head out on their daily door-to-door sales calls.

Their best-selling product, according to Laden, is the fuel efficient charcoal stove. “It’s something that people can show off in their homes,” said Laden. “Indoor cooking kills more children in Nairobi than malaria because of the smoke produced,” so the fuel efficient versions were even more attractive to buyers.

The stove costs $35 — a seemingly exorbitant price for those living in absolute poverty — but Laden pointed out that there is an emerging “middle class” in the slums who are able to afford an increasing number of low-end consumer goods. And the stove, which saves owners half of their monthly fuel costs, pays for itself in about three years.

LivelyHoods agents earn between 15 percent and 20 percent commission on the retail sale’s price of the products they successfully sell. It’s modest but steady income that is rare in the slums of Nairobi.

The co-founders point to a former sales agent named Paul as one of their success stories. “He sold so many stoves in a few months that he helped his wife start a business,” said Springer. “They went from being financially insecure to having two incomes. Paul’s smile got bigger and he started buying himself things.”

Most of the LivelyHoods agents are between the ages of 18 and 25, although the group does accept applicants up to age 35. And there is no education requirement. “One of our best-selling agents never finished primary school,” said Springer.

Lisa Parrot is the director of program development and quality in Kenya for the international NGO Save the Children. She sits on the LivelyHoods board of directors and said the organization offers the youth something constructive to do. “It gives an affiliation to these young people who often don’t know what to do with their time,” said Parrot. “They just need to get a foot in the door. It will also provide them something to put on their resumes.”

Laden now lives full-time in Nairobi, while Springer travels back and forth to Los Angeles so she can focus on fundraising. They recently raised more than $25,000 dollars on the crowdfunding website Indigogo so they could open a second retail center. Springer appears in this fundraising video:

[youtube] LivelyHoods seeks donations for its projects.

They expect to hire about 50 sales agents in the coming months. And, perhaps most importantly, the operating costs for the customer center in Kawangware are now fully covered by profits from the young agents’ sales. The co-founders believe they’ve developed a sustainable model for helping youths living in slums, not just in Kenya, but throughout the developing world.

“In five years, our vision is to be on every street corner in the Nairobi slums,” said Laden. “And in that process, create a lot of jobs and change a lot of lives.”

Slide show by David Pelcyger. The NewsHour’s Agents for Change series highlights individuals helping communities solve problems, build businesses and create jobs.