Exiting responsibly: reflections on Nuru Kenya
Four years ago, Nuru International transitioned from their activities in Kenya, leaving in place their local partners Nuru Kenya. Looking back, Field Operations Director of Nuru International, Amy Sherwood shares reflections from herself and Nuru Kenya’s Country Director, Pauline Wambeti, on the process, challenges and successes of responsibly handing over to a local organization.
Nuru International (NI) sets up locally led organizations focused on development and poverty alleviation in rural areas of Africa. In late 2017, the Stopping as Success (SAS) consortium contacted Nuru International to ask them to participate as a case study in their research on transition strategies for international development projects. After several interviews with staff members based in the U.S, the SAS team conducted local interviews and an in-depth field review of Nuru Kenya in mid-2018, about three years after the exit of Nuru’s project in Kenya. Working with SAS gave the Nuru team a useful outside perspective on our exit strategy, provided a framework and opportunity to reflect on transitions, and produced transferable lessons.
Nuru International (NI) sets up locally led organizations focused on development and poverty alleviation in rural areas of Africa. In each project, NI international teams transition after approximately five years of organizational and capacity development; leaving national teams to continue their work, scale their impact, and innovate their approaches. Nuru’s exit strategy prioritizes relationships based on mutual trust, understanding, and respect as a way to develop and reach common goals. This ethos is at the center of how NI started working with Pauline Wambeti, Nuru Kenya’s Country Director, over five years ago and it continues to shape the collaboration today.
Nuru’s exit strategy prioritizes relationships based on mutual trust, understanding, and respect as a way to develop and reach common goals.
In June 2015, NI exited their project in Kenya, leaving in place Nuru Kenya (NK), which continues to thrive today. The exit strategy helped foster innovation, increased emphasis on locally led development at all levels of the organization, and developed a strong team with a high level of trust.
Exit strategies can drive innovation
The exit strategy allowed us to live out one of our values, “fail fast, learn fast”, in a meaningful and practical way. Having international teams on the ground for the first several years of the project provided an environment for rapid testing and innovation of the best programming for farmers, by working closely with local teams and target communities. By combining sector best practices and research with in-depth local knowledge, the NI and NK teams were able to quickly test what initiatives would work in communities, what adaptations needed to occur, and what was not a good fit. Since international and national team members were working side by side it was easy to work through challenges or situations where team members did not see eye to eye.
The exit strategy allowed us to live out one of our values, “fail fast, learn fast”, in a meaningful and practical way.
Some of the most successful initiatives, such as diversifying staple crop alternatives to maize, were started prior to the exit when there was extra support for innovation. Testing also enabled teams to make mistakes together, learn from them, and adapt or discontinue the less successful activities, Regardless of the outcome, the counterpart system set up between NI and NK in the years prior to the exit allowed teams to test, iterate and improve rapidly by working together and learning throughout the process.
More importantly, the SAS research found that this organizational set-up also set the tone for innovation far beyond the transition. Since NI exited the partnership, Pauline and her team have continued to innovate to improve outcomes and overcome challenges. Many of the most meaningful changes to Nuru’s approach have occurred in the years after the exit, for example, shifting to a more community-owned cooperative model and rolling out a comprehensive “feed to market” dairy program to accompany farmers throughout the transition from subsistence to business. Pauline feels that the key to continued innovation was building innovation into the fabric of the organization during the pre-exit phase. Team capacity was developed around piloting and scaling up new activities, and strong, trust-based relationships allowed failures and challenges to be openly discussed.
Prioritize leadership development at all levels to achieve successful exits
Another important reflection is how the exit strategy’s emphasis on capacity and agency of local and national leaders has been integrated into every facet of NK’s work. During the years prior to exit, Nuru invested in local leadership in a myriad of ways – through one-on-one counterpart mentorship between international and local team members, formal leadership training, and external or online support. The learning that occurs between counterparts is two-directional: both team members learn new skills and gain knowledge that can be used to continue to drive the success of the existing project or transferred over to a new project after exit. This emphasis on and investment in capacity development acts as scaffolding to ensure a strong, capable team and organization is in place before exit.
After the exit, the scaffolding remains while building blocks continue to come into place. Teams that remain on the ground have seen firsthand the value of investing time and energy into their own professional development and are eager to continue to do so.
Furthermore, NI maintains a remote, advisory focused on continued support for both professional development and innovation. Since the exit, we have seen continued growth for the NK team where they have completed courses on financial modelling and business development with close support and feedback from the NI teams.
Interestingly, Pauline and her team have also doubled down on this approach to leadership and organizational development by making it a core part of what the NK team does with the communities they work in. Since seeing the success of an exit at the organizational level, Pauline has refocused NK’s work on structure creation and community leadership development for farmer cooperatives. This work will allow NK to also exit self-led and sustainable farmer cooperatives and move on to other areas to continue work. This was not an initial core component of the NK model but emerged over time as the value of exiting was realized and the need for sustainable strategies for community ownership of initiatives was identified.
Since seeing the success of an exit at the organizational level, Pauline has refocused NK’s work on structure creation and community leadership development for farmer cooperatives.
Trust is critical to exit
Perhaps most central to the success of Nuru’s exit strategy was developing relationships based on deep trust and mutual understanding and respect. As mentioned above these relationships helped NI and NK navigate challenges and innovate honestly and effectively prior to exit. Equally as important has been their role in helping teams navigate post-exit dynamics. The relationship between NK and NI continues to be one based on collaboration which we believe results in stronger outcomes. Due to these long-lasting, trustful relationships, NK is able to act independently (as was the intent of exit) while NI is able to fulfil its role in providing key support and advice as required.
As with many things in life, the tone set at the beginning of a project can be important to the longevity and success of the project over the long term. At NK, investing heavily in the partnership early on created mutual trust and a strong, capable team confident of success in the future. Both the NI and NK teams had to work hard to ensure the exit happened responsibly and effectively and were, at times, unsure of what the future would hold. However, we have found that a clear exit plan focused around core values of trust, innovation and local leadership is a winning strategy.
All photos from Nuru International