In service of something more
by Greg Lewin
Once in a blue moon something extraordinary happens in your life and you feel a responsibility to share what had been learned. I recently had one of those very rare experiences.
I was invited to join a distinguished group of public policy and child adversity experts on a trip to rural Kenya. As a career hedge fund manager living in Westport, Connecticut, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I knew I would be in good hands with the experts leading the visit. What I never fathomed was the indelible mark this experience would leave on my life.
We were in an area 3 hours north of Nairobi not far from the Great Rift Valley where we lived in the guesthouse of a local Catholic missionary. Our accommodations were far different than anything I could have imagined. Think of a closet with a small bed, 1 bare light bulb, and a shower that left the bathroom flooded for the remainder of the night, all positioned in front of a chicken coop whose resident rooster began his morning program at the stroke of 4:00am. But now that I have returned home, I can only recall the warmth and quietude it provided.
This area is where tourists come to visit one of the last great wildlife experiences left on this planet. But that was not the reason for our trip. The communities we visited were not beneficiaries of wildlife tourism and did not wear colorful native dress. Most of the residents are seen wearing tee shirts with American brand names boldly displayed across their chests. They often live in dwellings of their own construction using wood and tin, and they sleep many to a single bed in communities far beyond the awareness of Google maps. They don’t have the luxury of debating the merits of climate change. All they know is that the rains they need to feed their families come far less frequently than in the past. The area is blessed with natural beauty but life is harsh and unforgiving. But that does not describe its people.
As one who grew up in a poor tough neighborhood in New York and then went on to a career on Wall Street betting on the character and quality of the management teams I invested in, I consider myself a pretty damn good judge of people. The people I met in these rural Kenyan villages exceeded all my expectations. They were generous, kind, warm and welcoming. It is not a flattering self-commentary to mention how surprised I was to have learned that almost everyone spoke 3 languages versus my loose command of 1. And every family I met saved every penny possible from their incredibly modest incomes to send their children to the best possible education alternative available. The great raw material of Kenya is a population that is decent, hard-working, and values education. I was truly humbled.
As a professional investor I have learned the singular importance of investing in great people. I soon learned that this axiom takes on greater truth in the complicated domain of third world public policy.
The original reason for my invitation was to provide advice and business perspective on a major new economic development project planned for the region. After I met the leader of this initiative, Father Felipe Romano, my confidence in the feasibility and ultimate potential of the project soared. The Father is a force of nature. He is 77 years old but his appearance and energy are those of a man half his age. He came from Italy 48 years ago to serve the church with little money, instructions or support. But he soon found his bearings and his imprint is evident everywhere you look.
Every morning he leads Mass at 6:45 and then he opens his office until noon to a steady stream of parishioners seeking his guidance. With his spirit nourished he then turns to his growing list of special projects. He has created a pipeline of support from his diocese in Italy that has helped him build clinics and schools for the abled, and as he prefers, ‘differently abled’. His work has changed the community. But as a person charged with evaluating the management of a complex new development project I needed to understand more. After I had the chance to learn about the Father’s water project, all doubt disappeared.
Fifteen years ago he began raising money and galvanizing technical assistance to help these communities secure clean reliable sources of water. Disease and drought were making life increasingly precarious. These communities lie at the base of the mountain ranges of the Aberdare and Mount Kenya National Parks. The climate difference from mountaintop to valley below is the difference between rainforest and arid savannah. Father Romano set out to strike a better balance between the bounty of nature and the needs of the people and to this end the Mutito Water Project was born.
In 2004 the assembled team began the work of laying over 200 miles of pipeline, digging 25 cisterns and installing over1500 distribution points to bring clean water to over 15,000 people in need. But this was not given as charity. Every family that wanted a secure connection to the water supplywas required to contribute 100 hours of physical labor. This ensured that costs would remain low and the work would be done well because people were investing in themselves. As a result of prudence and smart management, the project is economically self-sustaining.
To give you some context of the scale and difficulty of this project; we travelled hours by car and foot to reach the source of the water near the mountains top. The jungle was thick, we were accompanied by armed guards to provide protection from dangerous animals, and the vertical climb was so steep that most of us needed to rest every 5–10 minutes. Now imagine carrying heavy pipe up this mountain and then digging trenches by hand for miles in the pouring rains of a rainforest. You need to see something like this before you can understand what was required.
The Mutito Water project was transformative. And while that project continues to grow in scale and utility the Father has already begun his second great transformational project. The Italian patrons have already offered their support and the community is digging in to build an Olympic standard track and field facility. The project is already 25% complete. Visiting what has been accomplished on this beautiful plateau looking over the African savannah is breathtaking. On the surface this may sound a bit like a vanity project for a place struggling with basic necessities, but upon closer inspection the Father’s instincts are right on target.
After its great national parks, Kenya may be best known for its great history of long distance runners. For years Kenyans have been top performers at all the worlds great marathons, running championships and Olympic competitions. However, for years the great majority of these gifted athletes run for the flags of their adopted nations. Poor coaching, chronic under-investment and questionable governance have made training and earning aliving all but impossible. Building a world class, high altitude training facility in the geographical heart of Kenya’s running culture will provide enormous incentives for so many of the worlds great runners to follow their desire to return home. And with them will come the role models and sources of national identity and pride that this region and nation have been looking for.
Running in Kenya is culturally significant and the Father understands that. After all, he is in the business of inspiration. And he is not sitting on his hands, relying on this “Field of Dreams” to be built and then they will come. While we were in Kenya, the Father and our team met with the Arch Bishop of Nyeri, the President of a major Nairobi University, the owner of the Netflix of Kenya, and elite runners to recruit help for this project. All understand the importance of this effort and all have pledged their support. This is the product of 48 years of trust. When the Father calls, it is hard to say no. And so he is building a dream team of talented people and institutions from business, academics, politics and the Church to ensure that this reality realizes its greatest possible potential.
With few facilities like this in all of East Africa, the region is poised to benefit from a steady stream of competitions, tourism and related development. But this project should not only be viewed from 5000 feet above. In this region that is so distant from anything resembling an urban environment, trouble is already brewing for its young people. Once or twice a week a black sedan seems to find its way to these rural villages to give out drugs to those willing to try something new. The locals we met with believe that these drug dealers experiment on these children, trying to determine the limits of potency that can be used for their more profitable clients in the urban centers. And because jobs are scarce and life can be a bit boring in comparison to the images seen on television and the Internet, the kids are increasingly willing to experiment. This facility will give these kids an alternative. Not just the great athletes, but everyone, girls, boys, young and old.
This facility will be the big carrot getting the youth and community to participate in a broad spectrum of health, education and nutritional programs that will change lives. And with the values and leadership of Father Romano, the investment is sure to generate exceptional returns.
When I first met Father Romano I told him upfront I was not religious nor did I believe in God. He looked at me and said, “I disagree. You are here.” In every respect imaginable Kenya and its people have exceeded my expectations. And now it is my responsibility to help them continue to do so.