This Kenyan social venture is taking people from slums to sales

May 15, 2017
Urban Adventures

When you’re walking through the dusty Nairobi slum of Kawangware, the general bustle of the place overwhelms you. But local woman Grace Njeri lives in the neighbourhood and she’s got work to do amid the chaos. She recently signed on as a sales rep for the social enterprise LivelyHoods and this is her third day on the job.

Yesterday, she had her first sale. She sold a clean cookstove and she’s carrying another one through the streets; she holds the stove in one hand and the empty box in the other. As she walks, she and her trainer, Simon Mwenya, spot a man in an informal hardware store looking at the stove. She decides to approach him.

With her winning smile — and the push from having three children at home and no father to help carry the load — she quickly makes the sale. She also learns that the buyer would like to become a distributor himself; he’s interested in buying 20 more stoves.

Grace was already doing well before the possibility of selling 20 more stoves popped up. After selling two units in her first three days she is well on her way to her first month’s target of six stoves.

She takes the cash from the sale and walks across the street to an M-Pesa kiosk. The ubiquitous kiosks are so common in Nairobi that there are sometimes multiple competing shops on the same block. They are never far away. She hands the clerk the 3,490 shillings (about $35) she collected for the stove and the money is instantly applied to the account on her phone. Using her smartphone, she then transfers the entire amount to LivelyHoods. She’ll collect her commissions and any bonuses she may earn at the end of the month.

LivelyHoods is a start-up social enterprise dedicated to creating livelihoods for youth in urban slums. In Nairobi, they employ youth as sales agents to help market and distribute life-changing products in informal settlements — products such as clean-burning cookstoves to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in poorly ventilated homes, solar lamps to enable students to study after dark, and even reusable sanitary products for girls who regularly have to miss school because they’re unable to afford monthly disposable sanitary products.

The communities gain access to much-needed products, and the salespeople — at-risk locals like Grace — receive training in sales, marketing, and customer service skills, which they can carry on to future jobs or their own businesses.

After completing the transaction, Grace cajoles a colleague into allowing her to take the electric kettle in hopes of finding a buyer. Around the corner, she spots the barber shop, a shop that isn’t 100 square feet in size and has just two barbers and two customers in it. She recognises that there are four prospective customers.

She enters and within five minutes she leaves having taken an order for a blender and another for an iron. Her day is getting better and it isn’t even noon.

Livelyhoods is intent on creating quality employment opportunities for some of Kenya’s least qualified. At 44, Grace is older than the average age of 24. The sales reps who attended the meeting this morning at 8am sharp — the trainer Lillian locks the door promptly at 8:00 — were typically younger. Split almost perfectly between men and women, the crew included eight women and six men.

Most of the reps will move on to better jobs, according to LivelyHoods. The position is intended to be preparatory. But still, training is pretty intense, with goal setting and the seven steps of a sale presented, reviewed, and practiced in the training sessions. Sales reps last an average of only four months. A few won’t survive their first week. Some people just aren’t cut out for sales.

LivelyHoods generated $440,000 in revenue in 2016, according to Claire Baker, the organisation’s director of development. With growth beginning to ramp up, in part due to a new layaway program for the $35 stoves, the company hopes to help more people in 2017.

By Devin Thorpe. A version of this article originally appeared on and has been reproduced with permission.