The BOMA Story
BOMA was founded on two guiding principles. One: Sustainable income is the most promising development strategy for people who live in the world’s poorest and hardest places. Two: Any long-term solution must be embraced and led by locals in order to succeed. Since 2005, we have worked hard to transform these principles into an effective poverty alleviation program that helps women to survive drought and famine in the rural drylands of Africa.
At BOMA, we spend a lot of time thinking about the big picture: We understand where we work, what we do and why we do it. We also look to the future: So far, we’ve impacted the lives of more than 32,000 women and children, and we plan to reach 100,000 over the next five years. Our business-success rate is 99 percent at one year and 97 percent at three years. That’s a remarkable rate for the microfinance industry…yet our goal is 100 percent success. What follows is the story of how BOMA has evolved from an idea to an innovative microfinance organization with 1,145 small enterprises across a region the size of New England.
In 2005, BOMA founder Kathleen Colson was invited to travel to Northern Kenya by a local elected official and friend who had a shared alma mater, Saint Lawrence University. As president of African Safari Planners, Kathleen has been leading trips to Kenya for more than 25 years; she has also worked and raised funds for numerous conservation and humanitarian organizations in Africa. The local official, Member of Parliament Joseph Lekuton, wanted Kathleen to see firsthand what was happening in northern Kenya, far from modern Nairobi or popular tourist destinations. In the pastoral homelands of Northern Kenya, climate change—severe and recurring drought—is devastating the communities that for centuries have tended livestock on this arid and semi-arid land.
When drought descends on these districts, the livestock herds die, leaving families with no food, no cash, and no practical means of earning an income. While the men travel farther and longer in search of grazing terrain, the women and children are left in the villages, often for as long as six months. With little hope of employment beyond menial labor, like hauling water or gathering firewood, they are forced to beg for credit and rely on humanitarian food aid to survive. Meanwhile, the region has become increasingly dangerous, as ethnic groups clash in armed conflicts over limited natural resources. Lekuton saw impending catastrophe. Kathleen agreed—and she wanted to help. That same year, she founded The BOMA Fund (d.b.a. The BOMA Project since January 2011) and registered it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Over the next two years, Kathleen returned to Northern Kenya for several extended trips, traveling widely through Laisamis District with Kura Omar, a Lekuton aide who grew up and attended secondary school there. With Kura as guide and translator, she spent most of her time listening—to village elders, faith leaders, community development workers and local residents. Most importantly, she spent time listening to the women. In villages across the district, Kathleen and Kura spent hours under the thorn trees, learning about women’s challenges, suggested solutions, and previous aid programs that had failed. She experimented with several ideas, distributing livestock and providing scholarships for secondary school students. Over time, she and Kura realized that none of these programs offered a long-term solution to climate change in Northern Kenya; cows and scholarships, though useful, did not help mothers to earn a sustainable income, gain new skills or adapt to a shifting culture. They wanted a solution that would help families break away from the downward spiral of poverty and aid dependency…and to foster a new climate of economic adaptation, resiliency and prosperity with dignity.
After conducting extensive research, Kathleen and Kura decided that microfinance offered the most promising path for BOMA to achieve its founding goals:
- Sustainable income: Help residents to generate a diversified income and accumulate savings for short-term survival and long-term family stability.
- Local leadership: Design a program that would be entirely led by locals; respect and listen to the communities in which we work.
- Measurable outcomes: Ability to quantify results and demonstrate the impact of the program on participants’ lives over time.
- Economic adaptation: Teach skills that will foster resiliency and help residents to adapt to climate change, creating a new grassroots economy in Northern Kenya.
- Prosperity with dignity: Protect the rights of marginalized people, especially women, by giving them education, training, recognition, acceptance and equality.
- Education: Inspire a new generation of young leaders to pursue educations that will encourage integrity, critical thinking and creative problem-solving.
- Security: Reduce ethnic conflict and foster peace in the region by diversifying income sources
- Integrity: Promote integrity through a zero-tolerance policy on corruption and a commitment to professional governance.
At first, Kathleen focused her efforts on attracting an established micro-lending partner, but the response was unanimous and negative: Northern Kenya was too poor, too remote, too undeveloped and too dangerous for a program to work there. Kathleen then researched successful grants-based models, such as Trickle Up, Village Enterprise and Mercy Corps. She soon formed a partnership with Village Enterprise to adapt its economic-empowerment model—centered in Uganda, Tanzania and Western Kenya—for the arid, rural lands of Northern Kenya.
In late 2008, BOMA launched its cornerstone program, the Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP). Kura Omar joined BOMA at that time as founding partner and director of operations in Kenya, a position he still holds. BOMA soon dropped its livestock program to focus on REAP and, to a much lesser extent, on a continuing scholarship program called Agents of Change.