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The Hardest Workers

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When I returned to work in Seattle following my trip to Kenya and Ghana last January, I was filled with tremendous optimism mostly due to one fact: while we here at the foundation work hard to help lift people out of poverty, the poor work harder.

The Hardest Workers

In January, I visited three Kenyan slums: Kibera, the site of our TEDxChange event, Korogocho, and Mathare. (Watch the TEDxChange@TEDxKibera videos.) Most people associate these slums and others like it with immense poverty, substandard housing, disease, and inadequate water and sanitation services. And they are right--there is no question that life in the slums is difficult. These are serious problems that need to be addressed.

But spend an afternoon in one of these places and you'll find something else that may surprise you--these slums are also hotbeds of entrepreneurialism and innovation. The residents are incredibly resilient. They are geniuses of survival, taking advantage of every possible business opportunity to feed, clothe, and educate their families.

Walk down any dirt path there and you'll find an amazing collection of small businesses: internet cafes, barber shops, clothing stalls, butcher stands, fruit and vegetable carts, and M-PESA outlets. In Kibera I even saw a pub featuring the upcoming Chelsea-Bolton football match on satellite TV. In fact, one of our grantees, Slum Dwellers International, recently compiled informal statistics about a few villages in Kibera and found out that in an area of 4,000 households, there were over 2,700 small businesses. That is an astonishing ratio of businesses to households, much higher than even here in the United States.

But what might have impressed me most was the innovative use of both traditional and new media. In Korogocho, we met with Doreen Mwasi, host of a radio show on KOCH FM, the "first community owned ghetto radio in Kenya." The station reaches a potential audience of over 500,000 people and covers issues important to the community. When we listened in, with quiet reggae music playing in the background, Doreen was discussing ways to prevent maternal deaths.

In Kibera, we met with the Kibera News Network (KNN). KNN is a citizen video journalism program that reports on local issues. KNN reporters all come from Kibera and cover news and stories happening in their backyard, from their perspective. You'll know KNN is around when you see their Flip cameras--anything for a story!