Kenyanomics: Can We Harvest Toilet Paper?


A warning to the readers: this will be a different type of blog post. As the title indicates, I will finally be putting my University of Colorado Degree in Economics to use, to illustrate the incredible strides we have made in sustainability. Did I steal the title from Levitt's and Dubner's now famous book, Freakonomics? No, but I will follow their lead and look at Arrive's Keumbu Rehema Childrens Home, especially the sustainable aspects of it, from a new economic perspective. I have tried to keep the following analysis efficient yet thorough, short enough that you will read it to the end but long enough so you won't be left with questions. I tried not to use the words I learned in those long university lectures. (Econometrics, anyone? Or maybe some applied macroeconomics?) But where to start? The first step to finding the right answers is to ask the right questions:

Why Should We Bother With Sustainability?

We care about sustainability because of our quest to become  eco-friendly and our goal to become financially self-sufficient. Sustainability is the link between these two aspects of our organization; sustainability not only reduces Arrive's cost to run the Keumbu Rehema Childrens Home, allowing us to stretch each donated dollar, yen, and euro further, but it helps the environment too. Teaching our kids environmentally friendly practices while at the same time saving money seems like a no-brainer. (Note that financial self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability, both Arrive goals, undoubtedly have a correlation, but a correlation alone between two variables, X and Y for example, does not explain if X causes Y, Y causes X, or a third factor, Z, causes both X and Y. Through on the ground observations and data collected here in Kenya, I state with confidence that higher environmental sustainability causes lower operating costs [a.k.a. financial self-sufficiency]. This assumption shall remain throughout the remainder of this post).

Can We Harvest Toilet Paper? 

There are many various ways Arrive can become more sustainable. By now I'm sure you have read about our running water system, vegetable farm, livestock, solar energy, and more. But we will never be able to grow toothpaste or new shoes; never be able to harvest lightbulbs or toilet paper. There is no doubt that the greatest opportunity to become sustainable lies within lowering our monthly operating costs. Looking at our financial records, 25.3% of our total expenses in 2015 went toward monthly operating costs (the cost Arrive pays to run the Keumbu Rehema Childrens Home for a period of one month); the rest went to projects such as building infrastructure and volunteers' initiatives (43.9%), sponsoring students to attend secondary education (7.9%), costs incurred to host volunteers (8.4%), Arrive Administrative costs (a mere 9.9%, a figure we are very proud of), and other line items. Within the 25.3% of total spending that makes up our monthly operating costs lies our greatest opportunity to reduce spending: resulting in increased financial self-sufficiency and more sustainability.

Why Haven't Monthly Operating Costs Significantly Decreased?

In May of 2014, less than 1.5 years ago, our monthly operating costs were $1,932. For this month of September, our monthly operating costs are $1,855. A quick glance shows very little improvement ($77, under 4% decrease, to be exact). However, taking a different look at the data shows us very encouraging signs:

  • Since May 2014, the number of children whom live at the KRCH, whom Arrive cares for, feeds, clothes, and provides eduction to has risen from 29 to 35.

  • Since May 2014, the following are still being supplied to all of the children but are not being paid for, thanks to sustainable practices at home: all vegetables (kale, tomatoes, peppers, onions, lettuce, potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, melons, avocados, guavas, and more), milk, and electricity. In fact, electricity has become more reliable - the kids no longer need to worry about long power outages thanks to our solar energy system.

  • Since May 2014, we have added a new volunteers' house, a new girls' dormitory, and a new boys dormitory. Three new homes mean a huge increase in electricity usage. We have built a pig pen, house for the rabbits, goats, and sheep, and chicken coop, all of which all need bulbs at night for the newborns to stay warm. We have installed running water system which uses electricity. By our estimations, our electricity consumption has risen by over 600% since 1.5 years ago. Yet, due to our sustainable practices, we are paying less this month for electricity then we did in May 2014.

  • Today, we provide the kids of the KRCH with everything we did in May 2014, andmore, including but not limited to: a healthier diet with greater variety of foods (addition of eggs, fish, more fresh fruits and veggies, etc), clean running water which saves each child 45 hours per month having to retrieve water from the river resulting in a better nights' sleep or more time studying and playing, more reliable electricity, an allowance to show them we appreciate their hard work and to teach them financial responsibility at an early age, an abundance of additional infrastructure to increase quality of life and overall safety, and more.

As you can see, we are paying slightly less but gaining significantly more.

But How Much More?

To quantify our strides in sustainability, I introduce to you a new statistic: CPCPM (Cost Per Child Per Month.) It is simply how much Arrive pays Fariji to take care of one kid for the period of one month. This is the best representation of our "sustainable" gains (pun intended). CPCPM is simply calculated by our taking Arrive's monthly cost and dividing it by the number of kids we support; the lower CPCPM the better while still providing for that child all the necessities (and, as you've read above, even more).

In May of 2014, our CPCPM was $67. That means for Arrive to have supported and cared for one of our children, for the month of May, it cost us $67. In this month, September 2015, not even 1.5 years later, our CPCPM has dropped to $53. That is a 21% decrease in CPCPM;meaning: at 79% of the cost we paid less than 1.5 years ago, we are now providing more kids with more things (see above list in final bullet point) and a higher quality of life, at a cheaper price per child per month. Boo-ya!

What Do Pigs and Chinese Herbs Have In Common?

The answer is quite simple: both can be grown and sold. Looking forward, we want to continue to lower CPCPM. To do so, we must either (a) lower our monthly operating costs, or (b) take in many more kids without raising our costs at all. For this section, let's focus on the former idea. But how do we implement it? There are three main plans:

  1. Continue to improve the proven successful sustainable practices already in place.

  2. Selling over-produced products in a competitive market: for example, selling pigs to butchers in Nairobi. One of our sows has already given birth to piglets; as cute as they may be, they provide us with two things - meat and profit. When we will have enough pigs to eat and sell them, the profit will offset part what Arrive pays per month: decreasing monthly operating costs and reducing CPCPM.

  3. Build additional infrastructure which creates more sustainability: for example, a maize mill to grind maize into maize flour. Now is not the time for me to expand on the enormous socioeconomic benefits for our home (both financially and quality of life) and for the poorest village families (who, just meters away from our home, are starving to death) that this particular project would generate, but know that ideas are in the works.


As you can see, we have made incredible strides in keeping our costs at a minimum, providing the kids with even more necessities (and fun things, too), while becoming more environmentally sustainable and economically self-reliant. Sure, we have a long way to go. But in less than 1.5 years, and with plans in the works, I am confident we are heading on the right track. Looking at other KPI's (Key Performance Indicators), like CPCPM, is the type of self-evaluation that the members of the Arrive team routinely do. By taking a step back and looking at the data, we can better sense the overall direction of the organization and set realistically achievable yet challenging goals for the future.

Can We "Sustain" Every Kid Living With Us Forever?

No. Each of our child's dreams, and path to reach those dreams, are different. We sponsor some of our 8th grade graduates to continue onto secondary boarding school, then onto university, to empower them to build for themselves an independent life. But like I said, everyone is different. Remember Joseph? In the now famous movie, Welcome Home, he says at 3:04, "My name is Joseph. I slept on the street for four years. Street is so bad, bad. But now, I go to school; I am happy, I have clothes, I have food, I have bed,  I am happy because this is my home!" (he says it with a lot more enthusiasm then typed words portray, so if you haven't watched the movie, I insist you do).

Some of you may be disappointed to learn that Joseph no longer lives with us. But don't be! After a while and once we mutually agreed that school wasn't the right path for him, we propelled Joseph to get a head start in the field he truly wanted to enter - mechanics. Now, he is a motorcycle and car mechanic, making money, paying his own rent, buying his own food, living in his own apartment. Joseph has become financially self-indpendent, thanks to Arrive and your continued support of our organization. (From a Kenyanomics point of view, I could write a few more pages on the crime that was prevented, the heroin that was not dealt, and the other socioeconomic benefits to the community due solely to the fact that Joseph, instead surviving on the street, came to our home, learned life skills, and has entered the work force as a contributing member of society instead of a low level criminal. But I'll save that for another time).

Arrive will continue to increase our efforts to become more sustainable. Taking a look at the tangible data we have kept over the past 1.5 years, along with the intangible positive impact we've created over that time period, puts a smile on our faces. And while smiles don't lower our monthly operating costs or CPCPM, they are sure nice to have around!