DORSET >> Ten years ago, Dorset resident Kathleen Colson traveled to Northern Kenya. It wasn't her first trip to Africa: She'd spent a college semester in Nairobi, led safari tours through a dozen countries, and worked on projects to dig wells and build schools.
But Colson had "never seen such suffering," she says. "I was there at the end of a terrible drought. I saw babies with severe malnutrition, elderly people who could barely stand, mothers nursing older children because there was no other food. In the midst of this devastation was humanitarian food aid, which is only a short-term solution. I thought, there's got to be a better answer."
Later that year, she founded The BOMA Project, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering the poorest women in remote, rural villages by giving them the skills and resources they need to start a small business. With a sustainable income and savings, they can feed their children, pay for school fees and medical care, and survive drought in the African drylands, where climate change has devastated the livestock herds and traditional pastoral culture. "This region truly represents the 'last mile' of isolation and poverty," says Colson.
Since 2005, BOMA has grown exponentially and gained acclaim from key players in the global movement to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. Late last year, BOMA was one of four nonprofits worldwide to pass a rigorous "impact audit" conducted by ImpactMatters, a new organization led by Yale economist Dean Karlan that helps donors identify nonprofits that offer the best return on charitable dollars. BOMA was also one of eight organizations to win a highly competitive "Force for Change" challenge grant from Salesforce.org, given to organizations that successfully use technology to accelerate impact. Last week, BOMA announced that it was among 19 organizations worldwide to win a prestigious "Global Grand Challenge" grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With the funding, BOMA will enroll 750 women in its innovative poverty graduation program while studying the link between their economic empowerment and positive gender-influenced outcomes in their households, like increased financial authority for women and increased spending on food and education.
"It's an exciting opportunity to document how women in developing countries use income and savings to improve the lives of their families—and to invest in the future of their children," says Colson. "We're humbled to win the support of the Gates Foundation, which affirms the impact of our program on women's lives."
BOMA's rigorous impact evaluations show that upon exiting the two-year program, participants report increased household spending on food (90 percent increase), education (132% increase) and medical care (195 percent). Meanwhile, 94% of women have "graduated" from extreme poverty according to BOMA's strict criteria; 98% of businesses are still in operation; and 98% of women have savings, compared to only 34 percent at enrollment.
Beyond the numbers, BOMA's success is illustrated in the stories of women like Gumato Umuro, who lives in a remote village in Northern Kenya. Before she enrolled in BOMA's program, Gumato begged for credit from shopkeepers or waited for her husband to send money when she needed to buy food. Her children often went to sleep hungry, with nowhere to turn for help. Two years later, Gumato is the family breadwinner and determined to build better lives for her children. "I will educate my children," says Gumato. "I especially have big plans for my daughter."
Gumato is one of more than 9,400 women reached by BOMA's program since 2009. These women support 47,000 children through income and savings generated by 2,968 businesses and 534 savings associations across Northern Kenya.
"Our goal is to lift 100,000 women and children out of extreme poverty by 2018, and one million women and children by 2021," says Colson. "This may sound extraordinary. But if we remind ourselves of the times that humans have achieved the impossible, the aspiration to end extreme poverty in our lifetime is simple. Our work is about turning a good idea into transformational change."
For more information on BOMA, go to www.bomaproject.org. For information on the global effort to eradicate extreme poverty by 2013, go to: sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld.
Kathleen James is a part-time BOMA communications assistant and editor of Skiing History magazine.