How do you measure dignity?

By Shaila Agha

Tags: dignity, desertification, impact, trust

Although I spend most of my days in meetings with field teams, tech staff and lots of whiteboard strategizing, I love the opportunity to visit communities using their own Community Inclusion Currencies (CICs).

Last week I had the pleasure of accompanying a CIC veteran, Nadzua, to Kinango in Kwale County. We have registered over 30 community groups (Chamas) in the region who underwent training for Regenerative syntropic Agroforestry. Kinango, pictured below in the time we have been there, has gone from a semi-arid to fully arid. In 2021, they received less than 25mm of rainfall. With scattered drizzles here and there, the rivers ran dry and even the most drought resistant crops failed.


The frustrations experienced in the region by the community are clear. What do you do in a region with a severe deforestation problem? What alternatives can you provide them when even the continuous work in the region is met with unfavorable climatic conditions? How do you insist on Chama members constantly watering their remaining plants when they have to walk kilometers to the few reservoirs left? In Kinango, animals, people and plants all compete for the scarce resource that is water.


In this community in particular, we chose to focus on regenerative agriculture. We brought in Syntropic Agroforestry gurus like Roland Van Reenen and Marco Bonfanti to teach sustainable water management and forest farming. We taught them how to build resilience in their communities by sustainably paying each other for their goods and services using Community Inclusion Currencies.

In communities such as this one, the very idea of doing anything other than searching for food and water is seen as a luxury. Many hours are spent walking in search of twigs and branches that can be sold as fuel so a mother can buy some ugali flour to make porridge for her babies. Aid interventions have come and gone, and only dusty signs from failed boreholes remain as a reminder.

As my frustrations grew, I pulled Nadzua to the side and asked her how she does this work everyday, what is her motivation to keep going in a community with little to nothing to physically show for time Grassroots Economics has put into Community Currencies and Syntropic Agroforestry in the region.

She took me to visit her home where she lives with her entire extended family. The boma luckily has a water tank, an entrepreneurial endeavor she is very proud of. She also sells basic goods such as flour, sugar and tea leaves. She told me ....

“Running a shop in my home is sometimes difficult, your neighbor who is also your relative may want to buy some goods for their home and not have the required amount. As per our culture, we must always help out family. This can get complicated especially in times like the pandemic, when no one has any income. I am running a business, and I have my personal needs, how then am I meant to rebuy my stock when everyone around me is taking my goods on credit? Furthermore, they accumulate the credit, with no clear indication of when they will pay it back.

Since we started using Community Inclusion Currencies, I’m no longer in that position. When someone doesn’t have enough money to cover their goods, I simply tell them to top up with Sarafu. It keeps people accountable and allows them to take the things they need freely. When I need someone to braid my hair, I ask my sister-in-law to do it instead, and I pay her in Sarafu as well. This means the money I was going to spend on my hair at a salon, I can now spend on restocking goods.

People in the community for a long time have not had a lot of money, but Sarafu flows freely. One really smart youth in the neighborhood was able to trade his Sarafu so effectively for most of his needs, that he saved up enough money to open up a shop. He also accepts Sarafu there to a certain limit (the amount he knows he can spend in the community).

You see Shaila, this Sarafu isn’t going to make us rich. What it does do, is give us our confidence back, because now you have dignity in your community. You can walk into a shop and no longer have to cower and beg the shopkeeper to give you credit.”

Although the impact and outcomes outlined in our Monitoring & Evaluation framework may not show signs of staggering success, with many of our shambas taking over a year to yield vegetables again, the community has embraced a new medium of exchange, Sarafu, which has no transaction cost or interest on credit. The community has less conflict over debts, goods and services are circulating despite the lack of the Kenya Shillings.


Leaders and entrepreneurs like Nadzua (shown above) have used Sarafu since its inception to trade goods and services in their community to their benefit. Since we launched digitally (and were able to measure trade volumes) in 2020, her total trade using Sarafu is valued at Ksh. 1,429,513 (USD. 12,585.43). She is living proof that all it takes is the right mindset to make Economic Commons a success. With approx Ksh. 59,563 (USD 524) in total trade monthly, Nadzua has unlocked goods and services that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford and supported her whole community in the process.

How do we measure the impact we have had in Kinango when our key metrics of agroforestry show little change to the plant density, only 20% increased yields? It's clear the quality of life has improved for Nadzua and her neighbors. They no longer have bad-blood due to uncleared debts but most importantly, they have hope and trust more in each other. A seed was planted in this community. New agricultural practices facilitated by CICs help groups pay for and value their own labor and grow food in areas they had given up on. The lack of water can be curbed by water catchment, mulching and growing grasses in the system to ensure even the morning dew can be collected on the blades of grass. Most importantly, there is a cushion in times when the little money they do have, isn't enough because of the trust they are building in each other.