My Revolving Office

I was recently up in Northern Kenya with some of my co-workers. We have sent out surveys to be collected, and my team’s job was to check the accuracy of the data. Upon arrival, I would enter all the names of surveyed individuals into a computer, use a randomization program in Excel, and my co-worker Meshack would survey a selected set of individuals, to see if they gave the same responses to the questions. Our purpose of the testing was twofold: one to see if our staff are actually surveying the individuals, the second aim is to test the “stability” of the data. For instance, if we see massive differences between the two surveys in the number of goats someone owns, or the amount of money they spend on education in a month, we have reason to believe that the data is constantly changing, and that the timing of the survey has a huge impact on our perception of an individual’s “poverty.”

My Office in the Loglogo Guesthouse

My office “ceiling” in Songa

My Songa Office

After the re-surveying process began, I spent the rest of my time reviewing all of the forms we received. I would read through each form to make sure it was logical (for instance, if there are “2 total children” and “3 female children” I have reason to be concerned, and would send the form back to the staff to be resolved. Accordingly, it meant that while I spent nine days “in the field”, I was effectively spending all of my time doing an office job. It just so happened that the office was revolving—a guest house one day, on a bench another, in a Member of Parliament’s house another.

There were two main takeaways I had from the trip. One pertains to how irregular the income is of the individuals with whom we work. I’ve read many a time that income is irregular among poor individuals, but it was much more clear when I was reading through reported answers about income. For instance, someone might respond that they make money from selling charcoal. However, when we later ask how much money they made from the following sources (including charcoal) in the past month, they would put “0”. At first, I thought it was an error in the forms, and was complaining to my co-worker about our surveyors’ sloppiness. Meshack, who is from Northern Kenya, responded, “no, it just means they didn’t get any money at all in the past month,” which is a bit sobering.

I also spent a good bit of time thinking about the health care system in Northern Kenya. First, I was reviewing questions that asked “The last time you had to pay for medical expenses, how much money came from the following sources?” With a list of responses, including “borrowed from a neighbor,” “borrowed from a moneylender”, “used personal savings,” “sold an animal”, and so on. I was consistently surprised by how little was spent. Often the total amount spent by individuals only made it up to 50 or 100 shillings (the exchange rate is roughly 85 shillings to a dollar). Also, as I somewhat expected to find, for larger expenses, households were forced to piece together money from a variety of places—200 KSH from a family member, 800 KSH from a moneylender, 1,000 KSH from a Harambee (a sort of meeting where an individual asks most of their friends and family members for money, often for school or med expenses).

I was then forced to think about the health system in a more immediate way. I got a bacterial virus while up north, and spent about 48 hours with pretty horrible vomiting and diarrhea. After two days my co-workers took me to a doctor in Marsabit, the main town where we work. First, I was surprised in that after about 30 seconds of discussion, his prescription was to have me take a bunch of tests (malaria blood test, typhoid test, stool sample) rather than talk very much about my symptoms (which, fair enough, he got it right). I was also quite surprised by how cheap it is—the three tests cost me 250 KSH (so $3 USD) and then the antibiotics cost me another 600 KSH. It couldn’t have differed more from the States in how affordable it was, though simultaneously, I realized that my 850 KSH (so $10 USD) spent on my healthcare was substantially more than just about every survey respondent I had seen. For me, the cost wasn’t even a hassle, though for them, it probably would have required a great deal of thought, effort and stress. Which brings me nicely to tomorrow’s post.

TO BE CONTINUED (and you know, it forces me to post again tomorrow)

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3 Responses to My Revolving Office

  1. The Fumanchu says:

    One thing that’s often under-appreciated is how illiquid poor people’s “wealth” are, relative to the rich. Not only do poorer people tend to have less stable sources of income, but they’re also less able to enjoy economies of scale from purchases that richer people make to save money. A poor person might not spend $50 on 1000 rolls of toilet paper, even though per roll, that’s very cheap toilet paper that a “rich person” could get at Costco. Maybe you see this more apparently out in the field?

    • nate0316 says:

      You’re very perceptive, Mr. Fumanchu. That’s basically the central tenant of our business model. Our businesses buy goods in large quantities from a wholesaler. They then sell smaller quantities at a markup to individuals in their community. With the seed capital the businesses can make that large purchase, but a poor individual prefers to/is only able to buy rice a cup or two at a time, rather than a kg at a time.

      This idea is also really prevalent for big companies (think Coke, Unilever) who market in developing countries. By selling smaller quantities of the same goods (such as single-use shampoo containers) they are able to find customers who can’t afford the larger purchases.

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