Jess recently visited Kenya and wrote an opinion piece about her visit which was published in The Journal. In case you missed it, here's what was it said!
I’ve been working at COCO for over five years now, initially as a volunteer, then as a part time Communications and Development Officer before completing my Masters in September and becoming a full-time member of staff. I am now responsible for managing our overseas projects and in line with this I’ve recently returned from Kenya to meet our partners out there. This was my second overseas trip on behalf of the charity having visited Tanzania a few months ago and getting to see COCO’s work underway on the ground in these East African countries has been truly enlightening.
Ours is a small charity that has been involved in over 50 projects many thousands of miles away from the North East since its inception. In that context, transparency about how we invest our funds and operate on the ground is crucial in securing the support of the many individuals and organisations who have helped us to raise over £4 million since COCO was founded. We recently published our 2017 Impact Report which highlighted how we supported 14,408 people in East Africa during 2017, and these field trips, which enable us to secure first-hand testimony to support the statistics, are a vital way of demonstrating to our stakeholders exactly how their contributions are used.
I’m honoured to play a role in communicating the transformational impact of what we do, through our website, social media platforms and other communications channels, as well as through detailed reports that we produce. While I have never had any doubt that what our team does is helping many young people in East Africa access vital education, I can now give personal testimony that the work COCO is doing is making an enormous difference to thousands of young people and their families. And I think that my direct insight adds a lot depth and authority to my communications, which I hope will encourage even more people to support COCO.
My trip to Kenya involved visiting two of COCO’s Schools for Life projects and it was amazing to see the fantastic progress being made at both schools, as well as getting an insight into what further work needs to be done to support these communities.
At Mercy Primary School a new fishpond had been built so that women in the community can buy fish there instead of being forced to have sex with local fishermen to buy fish to feed their families. The fishpond is also providing a source of income for the school. And at FOCUSSA Primary School, which is located in a community with a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS, government funding has been secured to build another children’s home for orphans under the age of three. The school is helping children living in this community to receive high quality education, including orphans who would otherwise be homeless and not in school.During both overseas trips I have had the chance to meet so many inspirational people who are working extremely hard to improve not only their own situation, but also that of others around them. All of the projects were initially set up by the communities themselves, and COCO and our overseas partners are simply supporting what they are already doing, using past experience and knowledge to support the organisations and make them as successful as possible.
In the Bwayi community, close to Kitale I met many women who have received sustainable agriculture training and now use organic methods of farming to increase crop yields. These women used to do contract work in large farms for less than 40p per day, but are now able to feed the children in their care and sell excess produce to send the children in their care to school. The majority of the women I spoke to were looking after their own grandchildren, as well as other orphans, with some caring for up to 13 children. It was truly inspiring to see meet these women who work together on community farms in groups, helping each other and sharing the profits and produce. The training has helped 40 women so far, but there are another 200 hoping to receive training in the future.
My visits to Tanzania, and now Kenya, have also given me an insight into how the small loans scheme operates on the ground. Community members or groups come to the cooperative to take out a loan to set up a small business, and they then repay their loan in instalments with a small percentage of interest to cover the costs of the staff employed there. Last year 1,173 loans were awarded, bringing the overall total to 6,000 loans since the scheme was established. Recipients have reported being able to increase household income by an average of 18 times, with some increasing their income by as much as 100 times its original level.
My personal experiences in Africa have given me a much deeper understanding of how vital access to a quality education is increasing life chances, and how COCO is helping to make that possible in some of the poorest areas of East Africa. Hearing first-hand stories from the Bwayi community and those running the Schools for Life projects give COCO absolutely invaluable – and robust - evidence to present to stakeholders on all sides. For me in my specific role, they provide brilliant human stories that I will now use in all of our communications activity to persuade businesses and individuals to continue supporting COCO and make sure that the £4 million milestone is followed by another very soon.