When Valparaiso resident Amy Ahiga visited the Kenyan slum of Keriba in 2008, she had no idea that it would lead her down the path of creating her own nonprofit to help create a more sustainable living for the residents there.
That nonprofit is now called the Grain of Rice Project, which Amy Ahiga started in 2013 with her sister, Ashley Swanson, and now runs together with her husband, Edwin Ahiga.
It all started when Amy Ahiga went nine years ago and volunteered with a family in the local community for eight months. While she was there, Ahiga helped in a variety of ways while working with the people of Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa, and indeed one of the largest in the world, with around a quarter of a million people living there.
Ahiga would meet on a weekly basis with a group of women from Kibera who were HIV positive and assembled together for encouragement and fellowship about their struggles. When Ahiga discovered that they had no steady income to speak of, couldn’t feed their children or send them to school, Ahiga wanted to find a way to change that.
“There was one lady named Emily, and she would weave baskets as we were waiting for tea and talking. So, we started with Emily and another lady named Pamela who did beading and our friend who was also going to the meeting with us. So, we started with these three people who were making crafts. We put stuff in our suitcase and came back and had a really positive response, so it really grew out of that,” said Ahiga of the beginnings of Grain of Rice.
She would return to Kenya the next year and set up a workshop in her husband Edwin’s small living room for the locals involved to travel to and work on their crafts. However, the space was far away from many of the people who were involved in Grain of Rice. The year after, they relocated to an old barbershop which gave them more room to set up their enterprise.
“One person would cut hair in the front of the barbershop, and the ladies would sew and do beading in the back. At that point, it grew to eight people. The barbershop was not a very good long-term solution though,” Ahiga said of the temporary, tin-made building.
Things would soon look up though as Grain of Rice became the recipient of the Valparaiso University SALT Grant, which chooses one group a year for their World Relief Campaign. This allowed the Ahigas to rent a more permanent building, which they are still located at, on the edge of the slums for their artisans to work out of, complete with furniture and sewing machines.
Things have only gone up from there. Currently, Grain of Rice has 25 artisans working with them and has even started a kid’s program.
“We sponsor the kids to go to school, and it’s like a children’s ministry program. They come after school and on the weekends, and we have a soccer team for teens and boys and a girls’ empowerment program as well,” said Ahiga of the nonprofit’s expansion of services.
Grain of Rice is trying to put their focus on educational and employment opportunities, including training, even partnering with international group, Yobel International, which helps entrepreneurs in developing countries with small business training and skills that can help the locals grow sustainably.
“We want people to be self-sufficient, and then they can take these ideas and use them to empower themselves,” said Ahiga.
Being self-sufficient is certainly an asset in Kibera, where most live on less than one dollar a day. Previously, some of Grain of Rice’s artisans were doing small jobs that were not consistent or sustainable like doing laundry or selling firewood from the local forest, which is illegal.
“They’re not doing it to break the law, they’re doing it because they often don’t have any other options,” said Ahiga of the issue. “We’re giving people a dignified opportunity to get work that they can do consistently.”
The work is important to Ahiga who, up until recently, had been teaching full-time, but who has now made Grain of Rice her primary priority. She stressed that their work was still reliant on community support, which they receive from the community and local churches, as their organization is volunteer based.
“We’re always looking for volunteers,” Ahiga said with a laugh.
However, on the Kenyan side of the organization, all the programs are led by locals.
“It’s really important to us, we want to empower people on the ground. Each different individual program has a Kenyan leader,” said Ahiga enthusiastically.
For example, one woman, Naomi, serves as Administrative Director and runs the Artisan Programs, the Girls’ Empowerment Program, Quality Control, Shipping, Purchasing and Managing the location. Another man named Colin directs the kids’ program, and another serves as coach and mentor to local youths.
“I love doing this. It’s really hard, but I’m learning a lot. I’m really just grateful to be a part of it. If you had asked me like five years ago if this is what I thought I would be doing, I wouldn’t believe you, but it’s really good. I’m getting to meet a lot of really great people, and I love being in Kenya,” said Ahiga of the experience of starting the nonprofit.
If you are looking to support Grain of Rice, they will also be at Popcorn Fest this year selling their Kenyan artisans’ goods.
You can also learn more about how to support Grain of Rice and volunteer or shop at: https://grainofriceproject.org/