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Seeds of Promise

Can growing corn in Kenya fight terrorism? One veteran says it can.

Photo: Courtesy Nuru Kenya

Harriman with Nuru Kenya field manager James Magaigwa Chacha.

By Robert L. Strauss

By his own reckoning, Jake Harriman has told the same story more than 500 times. It is early morning in April 2003. The fog is lifting along Highway 7 in southern Iraq. A small car blazes up the road. Harriman fires a warning shot. The driver bolts from his car, frantically waving his hands, and starts sprinting toward Harriman’s position. 

Harriman’s face and those of his men are as drawn and depleted as the vast rock desert that surrounds them. Taking the man for yet another suicide bomber, they train their sights on him. 

As they do, a black truck roars up, weapons shredding the man’s car like Sonny Corleone’s Lincoln Continental in The Godfather. The man screams and turns back. 

Harriman orders his men to open fire on the truck. The six fedayeen have no chance against the overwhelming American firepower. 

But it’s too late. 

At the car, the man—who was trying to flee across American lines—sobs uncontrollably. There is blood everywhere. In the passenger seat, his wife is dead, shot through the head. In the backseat, their 6-year-old daughter bleeds from the stomach. Her baby sister is already dead, a mangled, bloody stump where her arm once was. 

Harriman - marine
Photo: Courtesy Nuru Kenya
IN IRAQ: Harriman during a raid.

A few feet from the car, Harriman stops running. The Marine Corps officer and the Iraqi embrace and begin crying. There are no words. There never will be any words.

If a screenplay is ever written about Jake Harriman’s life, this will be the “inciting incident,” the moment when the light goes off and everything changes; the moment that sends the hero forward upon a new journey; the moment that, 12 years later, has once again brought Harriman back to Kuria in remote southwestern Kenya. There, in 2008—freshly armed with an MBA and connections from Stanford—he established a beachhead in his quest to end extreme poverty around the world. He called it Nuru, Swahili for “light.” Swahili for “hope.” 

Every year, billions of dollars flow into Kenya as development assistance. The United Nations alone spends $750 million annually and employs more than 5,000 people. The United States chips in another $600 million or so. Then there are the countless multinational and bilateral aid programs, foundations, corporate social responsibility departments, non-govern-mental organizations (NGOs) and faith-based groups—all pledged to raising the quality of life for Kenya’s 45 million citizens. 

In this sea of good intentions, Nuru is a speck of flotsam. Harriman isn’t concerned. In the Marines, he saw the need for a new, two-front war on terrorism. One front would combat the people who finance terrorism; the other would take on the economic conditions that allow terrorist movements to grow and thrive.

“Terrorists rely on an endless supply of desperate people living in extreme poverty with no other options in life,” Harriman explained in a 2011 video. “The only chance we have to see the end of terrorism is to end extreme poverty”—not as conventionally defined, as income below $1.90 a day, but rather poverty that traps people in a loop of hopelessness that denies them the possibility of making meaningful choices in their lives.

Superficially, Nuru seems little different from the numerous do-good organizations in Kenya. “Our theory is that it takes an integrated approach to lift these communities out of poverty in a sustainable way,” says Harriman. Nuru offers farmers input loans (seeds and fertilizer), and technical, marketing and financial training. Its health-care program provides home visits, medical referrals and access to supplies for purchase. Nuru also runs literacy sessions in primary schools, develops curriculum and supports teachers. Nuru’s approach—coordinated interventions—has been around since at least the 1970s. The differences in its tactics, however, are numerous and significant. 

For one, Nuru is in it for the long run. Most development projects address short-term needs or focus on flavor-of-the-month approaches driven by donor whims, foreign policy initiatives or whatever “year of” the U.N. has declared. (In 2016, the U.N. will celebrate “pulses” and “camelids.” Previous years heralded “the potato” and “quinoa.”) Typical projects run for three to five years. Nuru is planning for 2020 and beyond. 

Nuru’s principal distinction is its emphasis on training, feedback and “servant leadership.” Many development organizations do one or two trainings per year. Nuru Kenya’s senior staff members get one to three hours of training per week. Additionally, all 274 staff are trained to give feedback up and down the chain of command, something very unusual in traditional African communities. Regarding servant leadership, the problem in Kenya has been—as described by Jane Omanga, manager of Nuru Kenya’s leadership program—that leaders expect to be served rather than serving those whom they consider beneath them in social, academic or economic standing. This is something Nuru intends to change.

“We’ve always waited for people to solve our problems,” says Nuru Kenya country director Pauline Wambeti. “The perspective we’ve had is that it’s the white man who has the solution.” This is an inclination that she and Nuru want to eliminate. Nuru doesn’t give handouts, and after five to seven years of operations, its expatriate staff leaves, or “exits,” turning over the reins to the local staff. 

Harriman - classes, home and net
Photos: Courtesy Nuru Kenya
PLANNING AHEAD: Nuru provides financial training and savings options, home health-care visits and access to supplies such as antimalarial bed nets for purchase.

The organization’s funding model is also atypical. Its for-profit division, Nuru Kenya Social Enterprises, incubates and holds the majority stake in businesses such as dairies and poultry operations. If it all works out, a few years from now NKSE will spin off enough cash to underwrite Nuru activities designed to lift rolling cohorts of 10,000 farmers out of extreme poverty. 

This year NKSE expects to make its first-ever operating profit—$38,000. After seven years of effort, Harriman, who has raised $26 million to fund Nuru, is not deterred. He’d be happy with a $38 profit. “I’ve never seen a positive number before.”

Another difference: In the world of development, admitting mistakes or washing dirty laundry in public is akin to heresy. Nuru sees it differently and in 2014 published a case study about its own missteps. In the 42-page document, the word “failure” appears 42 times. 

“That’s not something you see a lot,” says Jimmy Leak, Nuru’s strategic adviser for education. “But our donors and investors see that as a positive thing—for us to be honest with ourselves.”

It’s part of Nuru’s “fail fast/learn fast” philosophy, made easier by its approach to fund-raising. Mark Rostal, who’s been in the development game for 23 years and in Kenya for the last 12, explains the usual process.

“Someone in the U.S. or British or Swedish government releases an RFP, a request for a proposal. A contractor or an NGO responds and writes to what [the donor] wants to hear. They can’t propose something completely different [just] because they’re at the grassroots level and know what’s best”—because if they contradict the donor’s ideas, they won’t win the contract. The result is a multitude of projects that go forward even as the people implementing them know they have little hope.

Nuru, by contrast, tells potential donors what it plans to do and asks for their support. If the U.N. declares 2020 the year of spelt, Nuru will not need to change course.

In 2005, Harriman returned stateside from his second combat tour as “a deeply broken man.” In Iraq, he felt incapable of solving the problems of the extremists he was fighting. “I kept getting very frustrated because we would do a hit or snag a bad guy only to have a bunch of other people step up and take their place. To go back and do ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns [afterward] was too little, too late.” A point of pride is that not one of the Marines he commanded was killed or wounded. Asked how many men he had to kill, he’d rather not go into it. “Too many,” he finally answers.

His intention was to go back overseas with an NGO, but no one wanted him. They didn’t see the relevance of his seven and a half years in the military. Job offers from Honeywell and Conoco-Phillips didn’t appeal. Finally, he took a job driving a seafood delivery truck in Southern California. He got up, surfed, did his deliveries, surfed again and spent his evenings studying development. “I needed a job where I could decompress from the war,” Harriman says. It was the last time he recalls not having something heavy on his mind.

After his admittance to the GSB, he blogged, “I had somehow fooled them all and slipped through the cracks in to the hallowed halls . . . (I think they had a blue-
collar quota for fish truck drivers that year.)” In a first-year social entrepreneurship class, he wrote a business plan for Nuru, which he refined the following year in Professor Irv Grousbeck’s Managing Growing Enterprises class. Harriman intended to raise $3 million to get his project up and running by September 2008, just a few months later. 

Kenya, let alone its neglected Kuria region, was hardly preordained as the place for Harriman to break ground. But he had become friends with Jessica Jackley, MBA ’07, co-founder of the nonprofit micro-lender Kiva, who suggested he meet Sangai Mohochi, her Swahili instructor at Stanford’s Language Center. Hearing about Harriman’s idea, Sangai mentioned Kuria, his home district, as a place to consider. He also suggested a name: Nuru.

Grousbeck, an owner of the Boston Celtics and a faculty member since 1985, became an early fan of Harriman and Nuru. “I was just taken by him in class. How committed he is, how earnest he is, how driven, how personable. He’s such an authentic person.” He helped Harriman scale back his fund-raising plans to a more realistic $450,000—enough to operate for six months.

The broken man Harriman had been in 2005 continued to heal during a 10-week summer internship in 2007 with the One Acre Fund in western Kenya. He blogged that while waiting for a bus, “I was the lone white dude in a busy marketplace. . . . The last time I was in a situation like this, the eyes I was looking into were filled with both fear and hatred.”

As the weeks passed, Harriman was able to meet people, and pick up and play with children. “It was a great feeling,” he wrote. “I felt that my life had finally come full circle.” 

As the long rains come to an end over Isebania, 30 miles east of Lake Victoria, thunderheads tower thousands of feet above the rolling farmland. In late afternoon, they glow majestically in shades of blinding white, tarnished silver, lapis blue and iridescent magenta straight out of a Bierstadt landscape. The scenery on the ground is more prosaic. 

Up close and personal, Isebania, where Nuru Kenya is headquartered, looks like thousands of African towns. Its main street—really its only street—is lined with bare-bones cement-block stores. Nearer the street, sparks fly as men fabricate metal windows, doors and security bars. Closer to the pavement, charcoal, flip-flops, donated clothing, hands of bananas, lottery tickets, mobile phone credit and countless other everyday items are for sale. At the top of the hill, Chinese- and Indian-made motorcycles squeeze through a pedestrian gate and pass across the effectively uncontrolled border into Tanzania. Everywhere the smell is of damp earth and overproofed yeast, with undertones of charcoal dust and stale human sweat. Isebania is not the poorest place in Kenya, but it is a place where 7 1/2 cents will buy you one cigarette, one brick or—if you don’t have enough money to buy a whole one—a single broken egg. 

Teacher David Ndebe says the area was “a no-go zone” when he arrived in 1989. Cattle rustling was rampant. The four local clans were often at war and would stop just long enough to let teachers and students get to school before going back at it. Ninety percent of the population lived in grass-covered huts. 

Harriman - school
Photo: Courtesy Nuru Kenya
TWO Rs: Nuru's integrated approach includes literacy efforts.

Kuria is far more developed now yet still has the problems of a border area. It’s not unknown for vigilantes to “necklace” a suspected thief—placing an automobile tire around the culprit and setting it on fire. Ndebe says that when Harriman first visited in August 2007, a local administrator cautioned him, “These people are very hostile. They are backward. They have never gone to school.” The story Ndebe heard was that Harriman responded, “We want people who are hostile”—because Nuru’s long-term plan is to focus on difficult, “conflict” states where those without options are easy prey for terrorist recruiters. 

Kuria might seem far from the frontlines of the war on terror, but it is not. Al-Qaeda made its African debut with the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The 2013 attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi by the Somali group al-Shabaab made headlines around the world: 67 dead and 175 wounded. Al-Shabaab’s attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College last April killed 147 people, nearly all students. Bucolic as Kuria may look, al-Shabaab is said to be recruiting there. Still, Kenya is relatively stable compared with its neighbors Somalia and South Sudan, and a place where Nuru could work out the bugs in its model without excessive concerns about safety. 

Another reason to choose Kenya was Sangai Mohochi’s older brother Philip. As a young man, he promised God that someday he would return home to serve his community. As a boy, no one could explain to him why his people were poor. “We had the sun, good land, flowing rivers, crops and animals, and hard-working people,” he explains in a Nuru video. When he told his wife that he was taking early retirement after 23 years with Standard Chartered Bank, she angrily asked how he could leave a salaried position in Nairobi to start something from nothing in a rural area nobody knew. “God will show me,” he told her. Sangai says putting Philip and Harriman together was “a match made in heaven.”

Harriman’s first week in Kuria did not, however, go as planned. Despite believing that he had found his life’s mission, he was lonely. He missed his family and fiancée. He came down with malaria, and was attacked by thieves and swarmed by black widow spiders. And that was all before he was struck by lightning while setting up a satellite Internet system.

“It was a very bad week,” recalls Harriman, who received the Bronze Star for his performance during a “kill or capture” mission in Baghdad. He went to see Philip, who had been named executive director of Nuru, and told him he wasn’t as tough as Kenya’s farmers. The Naval Academy graduate and former Marine Corps captain—who grew up in a deeply religious family on a small farm in West Virginia—couldn’t hack life in rural Kenya.

Philip, better known as “Chairman,” agreed that Jake had had a bad week. But the people they were planning to help had also had a bad week. And the coming weeks weren’t looking so hot either. Chairman told Harriman that if he stayed, together they could build a community where farmers might never face a bad week again.

Harriman - chairman
Photo: Courtesy Nuru Kenya
LOCAL HERO: Ex-banker Philip Mohochi ("Chairman") joined forces with Harriman in his Kenyan hometown.

During field visits, farmers poured out their hearts and problems to the retired banker and the former Marine Corps special ops officer. “This is the place to start,” Harriman wrote in a blog. He said a silent prayer. “God, I have no idea what I’m doing. Please give us the strength and the wisdom to deliver on the hope I have given these people today.”

A year later, Nuru set up an office-cum-granary outside Isebania. Harriman made the commute on foot, 75 minutes each way. It was part of his strategy to be among the people, not cut off in an SUV like many development workers. Watching him, the locals figured him for another crazy mzungu. Antony Okonji, a colleague of Rostal’s at the international development firm DAI, says Harriman wasn’t so crazy. “Forget about the needs they have in the community—first, are you accepted? Do they want to work with you?” Harriman eventually was accepted. Of his decision not to give up, he says it was the best he’s ever made.

Despite his training and preparation, Harriman made mistake after mistake at Nuru, caused in part by his desire to run at a pace more attuned to Silicon Valley than rural Kenya. “I just came out of the gate so hard—kind of starry-eyed—thinking that I can somehow disrupt the [development] industry quickly. It was very naive and arrogant to think that I could do that within a couple years.” At the same time, Harriman’s innate enthusiasm compelled him to talk about all the great things Nuru would accomplish in short order. An early collaborator suggested he tone it down: “Let’s just get through the first harvest and see if we can grow maize.” 

In fits and starts, Nuru did make progress. Many farmers increased their yields three and six times. But as Amy Sherwood, a Nuru strategic adviser, says, “Subsistence agriculture is never going to end extreme poverty.” Nuru’s objective is to raise it from a hand-to-mouth existence to one that more closely resembles a small business and provides the means for farmers to consider options that mere subsistence does not allow.

Even as Nuru broke new ground, setbacks seemed to come as often as the advances. Floods followed droughts. Crop yields were almost halved in 2013 when rainfall reached only 13 percent of the average. Farmers were hesitant to adopt Nuru’s suggestion of crop diversification. “It’s a big deal,” says Sherwood. “It’s their whole livelihood that you are asking them to change.” And in doing so, Nuru made more mistakes. “We went in full force with a really ambitious crop [diversification] package,” Sherwood says. Nuru now offers farmers more flexible terms.

Listening—really listening—was another area where Harriman was wanting. “I had this attitude that [feedback] was what I wanted, but when it started happening, I was annoyed. I’m like ‘Why don’t they just listen to me?’” Once he was discussing Nuru’s agricultural policy with Josphat Mokami Maroa, a local farmer who joined Nuru in 2009 as a volunteer and is now an agricultural field manager. Harriman knew prices varied slightly among neighboring markets and wanted to pay farmers accordingly. Maroa insisted that would be a mistake.

Harriman - corn
Photo: Courtesy Nuru Kenya
PAYOFF: Field manager Maroa compares Nuru yields (right) with those of non-Nuru plants on the left.

“Finally I was like ‘Listen, I have an MBA. I’m trying to add value here.’” Maroa wasn’t moved by Harriman’s degree or argument. As Harriman got increasingly worked up, Maroa explained that if they didn’t pay all farmers the same prices, they would think Nuru was unfair and leave the program. If they did pay the same, farmers would stay. “He happened to be right,” Harriman says. “And he was willing to persist to the point where I finally listened to him.”

According to head teacher Ndebe, one reason Nuru is succeeding is that it develops local leaders like Maroa who know the people’s problems, speak the same language and are going through the same process, not just talking about it. “The effort Nuru gave was far better than the effort of some other community building organizations,” Ndebe says.

It wasn’t only in Kenya that Harriman had to work on listening. As detailed in a case study written by Grousbeck and co-taught twice a year at the GSB by Harriman, Harriman wasn’t ecstatic when, at an off-site early on in California, his American staff laid into him. He said he wanted a no-holds-barred, “brutal facts” feedback session and that’s what he got, getting madder and madder the longer it went on. It didn’t help that Harriman was drugged up and in a neck brace following emergency surgery, possibly brought on by injuries from his military days.

Nowadays, he still gets angry but holds it inside, accepting that every critique contains some truth. Grousbeck says the difficulty, the challenges, even the misjudgments Harriman has made come with the territory that all new entrepreneurs go through. 

At Nuru’s Regional Training Center outside Isebania, Harriman sits with his financial team, which includes Gabriel, the newly hired internal auditor. It’s the first time they have met. “Who checks you?” Harriman asks him point-blank.

Harriman has cause for concern. Nuru now uses special receipts with watermarks visible only under ultraviolet light to prevent field staff from taking in money and giving out false receipts. “Remember,” Harriman tells the team, “every dollar, every shilling that is sent here is being done in good faith by people who want to help. I’m depending on you guys to ensure that the money that is sent here accomplishes our goals.” 

That theft is a daily reality even in the world of good intentions is a lesson Harriman learned the hard way in 2011 when Chairman got a call from the bank. Someone was trying to cash a check for 800,000 shillings, about $10,000. Harriman’s signature didn’t look right.

Harriman had started Nuru Kenya with six people. It was a tight-knit family, and the forger was a member Harriman thought couldn’t possibly be corrupt. “I knew his kids.” 

Harriman realized then that he wasn’t working with middle- or upper-income individuals who have lots of opportunities, but rather with “leaders who feel the very real tensions of survival. Leaders who are trying to feed their families and ensure that their kids can go to and stay in school.” His attempts at empathy didn’t make him any less furious. He felt betrayed—“like an idiot”—having trusted his friend and colleague of three years. Harriman had arrived at a much-trodden fork in the road. 

In Africa and elsewhere, peel away the politically correct answers about why expatriates are almost always still in charge of internationally funded development projects, and you find that fundamentally they don’t trust the local staff. Harriman could decide that he would never trust any locals again—or he could accept that he himself might have done the same thing in the same circumstances. To Harriman, going down the path of not trusting would have been “completely ignorant, completely arrogant.” Nuru decided not to press charges. “What was that going to do? Cause his wife and kids to starve to death,” Harriman says. He doesn’t go out of his way to do so, but he still says hello to his former friend when their paths cross.

Along the streets of Isebania, children are everywhere. Even the smallest seem to know the same few words of English: “Hello. How are you? Thank you. Bye-bye. Give me money.” The requests for money, from young and old, never stop. 

Harriman blames this on misplaced good intentions. In 2007, he blogged, “Developed nations have been a catalyst in a growing epidemic of dependency.... Decades of free handouts . . . have crippled ... Africa.” Despite an ongoing debate about the benefits of kick-starting economic growth by giving away inputs—seeds, fertilizer, cement and other fundamental materials—his opinion hasn’t changed.

“Handouts destroy the dignity of a person,” he says. “It creates a system that makes the person getting the handout feel good. The person giving the handout feels good, too. But what happens after that person leaves? Who’s going to replace that handout?” 

But what about the crippled kid or the widow with seven children? Or the horribly disfigured blind man who was caught in a fire? “I don’t give money,” Harriman says. “It’s been hard.”

Kennedy Odhiambo Opondo, Nuru Kenya’s market linkages and cooperatives manager, is a farmer himself and has been around agriculture and development for years. He describes Nuru’s no-handout policy as “a very big switch for me. A big plus.” His experience had been that donors fund everything. The result is no sense of local ownership or responsibility. When something breaks, the recipients tell the donors, “This—your machine—is broken down.” 

In the past, Nuru did underwrite infrastructure projects such as drilling wells. But when the income-generating plans associated with the wells didn’t work out, Nuru stopped. They weren’t sustainable.

Right now, one of Nuru’s educational initiatives may also be unsustainable: mentoring young children in basic English literacy. In Kenya, teachers teach to an examination-based national curriculum that often leaves students semiliterate. For an hour a week, Nuru provides tutoring to small groups of students to help overcome this deficit. It’s impossible not to feel inspired watching the kids—upright and alert—receiving small adhesive dots on their foreheads from Nuru’s teachers for participation and correct answers, rather than undergoing corporal punishment or sleeping with their heads resting on roughly hewn wood desks in classes of 50 or more. But Nuru doesn’t yet know how to make this project successful long term. “A lot of stuff has to be figured out,” Harriman says of Nuru’s evolving model.

One challenge that Nuru may not be able to address is the exponential growth of Kenya’s population. Between 1950 and 2013, it grew from 6 million to 44 million, a 633 percent increase. This is one reason why Kenya’s per capita income has barely budged since 1985, while India’s has tripled and China’s septupled. The U.N. projects that by 2100, Kenya’s population may reach 160 million people. Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto has said that if the country doesn’t fix its out-of-date educational system, then Kenya Vision 2030—the plan to achieve an annual growth rate of 10 percent by 2017—“may  as well easily become Vision 3020.”

Regarding the population, a U.N. expert says, “It’s a recipe for disaster.” Mark Rostal notes, “There’s always going to be this large gap of unemployed, disenfranchised and unhappy youth. Unless we can get the population growth back down to normal, a lot of these efforts are just not going to be able to keep up.”

Harriman isn’t so sure. He believes Nuru-like projects could make rural life more attractive to young people and that Malthusian doomsday predictions are overblown. He sees vast tracts of African agricultural land waiting for cultivation and Africa as a potential breadbasket for the world. 

In early June, Harriman has a ton on his mind. He flubs take after take while filming promotional videos for Nuru. He’s been in meetings all day and on the phone every night with U.S. donors and staff. Donations haven’t kept up with his ambitious spending plans. Nuru needs funds to pay for the seeds and fertilizer its 7,000 farmers will use to plant 8,000 acres in a few months. If Harriman can’t close the financial shortfall, he may have to lay people off or cut salaries by half. And he has to prepare for Nuru Day, when all employees will gather to mark its seventh anniversary. There will be prayers, speeches, dedications, awards, team-building games, a feast and a “Mr. and Mrs. Nuru” fashion contest. Harriman will be expected to mix, mingle, speak, encourage and energize. 

Harriman clearly loves what he does, but it has come with costs. Seven and a half years out of graduate school, he makes $60,000 a year, has $30,000 in an IRA and an empty checking account. In 2008, he had to choose between the life trajectory most of his friends were on—career, marriage, children—or go wherever Nuru would take him. His fiancée had a dress. They had a date and a venue. The invitations had gone out. Over the phone, from Kenya, he called it off. The two haven’t spoken since. Of his fiancée, Harriman says she was “amazing” and that he profoundly regrets the pain he caused her. But he also could not quit what he had started. Nuru, he says, was his whole life.

“There are times when the weight gets really heavy,” Harriman says. A few months earlier, when Nuru was running out of money, he “started thinking [about] all these guys, their jobs, all the farmers out there waiting for their inputs.” If he couldn’t raise the money and people went hungry, he felt it would be his fault. 

Harriman is unceasingly tough on himself. He characterizes himself as a “very flawed human being” and has repeatedly said that if Nuru and extreme poverty exist in 30 years—when he’ll be 70—then he will have failed in his life’s mission. Asked to think about the height of the bar he has set for himself, he says he put it there to drive him to do more, to dig deeper. “I really feel that this is a problem the world can solve. To do that, we need more people who believe it can be solved.”

The pace he has kept for the last seven years is unsustainable, and he knows it. “I’m close to exhausted,” Harriman admits, even as he plans to work in Africa full time in 2016 to open Nuru’s first program in a conflict state. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic—two volatile, fragile, fragmented nations that have defied almost all attempts at growth and stability in their collective 110 years of independence—are on Nuru’s short list.

A booming radio voice calls Harriman to the stage at the George W. Bush Center in Dallas in July. The pressure Harriman was feeling before the cameras in Kenya is no longer apparent. In lieu of his standard T-shirt, cargo pants and two-day shadow, he is clean-shaven, wearing a suit and dark red tie. His hair, typically styled by the wind, has been mussed and maybe moussed to look slightly more organized. Eschewing the lectern, he steps to center stage.

Harriman has been selected by his 59 classmates to speak at the inaugural graduation ceremony of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, an initiative of the LBJ, George H.W. Bush and Clinton foundations and the George W. Bush Presidential Center. He’s been given three minutes to thank the staff and sponsors of the mentoring program. He does—then looks down to the front row where Bill Clinton sits with his chin propped on interlaced fingers and George W. Bush slumps. Seated between them, Laura Bush, in pearls and a Nancy Reagan red dress, beams with a smile of such warmth one might think Harriman was one of her own children. 

Harriman thanks the presidents for working together to heal the partisan rift that “is tearing this country apart.” He then turns to his classmates and—without notes or a teleprompter—delivers an unscheduled, word-perfect, eight-minute speech in which he challenges them to help restore America to “the idea that is America”—to the country for which he repeatedly risked his life. A place “that stands for freedom and opportunity for everyone” in the United States and around the world.

Harriman - president
Photo: Courtesy Nuru Kenya
CALL TO ACTION: Harriman addresses fellow graduates and sponsors of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program at the July ceremony in Dallas.

He repeats verbatim the words he said while walking the streets of Isebania: that war is a terrible thing, and that stories get written in combat that cannot be unwritten. What he doesn’t say is that stories also get written in peace that cannot be unwritten, and that can never be expunged from his memory. Like the time the drunken husband of a Nuru farmer wasn’t satisfied with just beating his wife, so he decided to rape her with a panga, a machete. She was raced to a local clinic, but it was too late. 

Harriman doesn’t tell this story at the Bush Center. Nor does he repeat the story from Highway 7, a story he says he’d prefer never to tell again but must, because people want to know what launched him on his quest. He simply says there is evil in the world, evil that fuels oppression and inequality. He encourages his classmates to be the men and women of their generation who are down in the arena, the ones whose faces Teddy Roosevelt famously described as “marred with dust and sweat and blood” from having fought the good fight. 

After a prolonged standing ovation, Harriman invites Presidents Bush and Clinton to the stage. Taking his seat, Bush says of Harriman, “You know, I know two people who are glad he’s not running for president.” When the laughter dies down, Clinton ripostes, “I know two who are glad he didn’t run earlier.”

Harriman sees no irony in the fact that some of the people who mentored him as a Presidential Leadership Scholar are the very people who sent him off to a costly, destabilizing war. He won’t be drawn into a political conversation. He says the ideals he fought for in Iraq are the same ones he’s fighting for in Kenya. And that he’s learned a lot from all the former presidents and presidential advisers he’s now had as mentors.

Weeks earlier—standing before his team at Nuru Day—Harriman recalled another story that can never be unwritten. In May 2014, incoming country director Wambeti received a call. There had been a car accident. When she got to the hospital, the dead were already being carried out, Chairman and his brother Robi among them. 

Remembering that day, a local taxi driver says that Chairman was a good man, “but it must have been God’s plan that he die in the way and time that he did.” It’s a classic example of the fatalism that allows people in Kenya and elsewhere to accept whatever comes, no matter how unfortunate, tragic or avoidable.

Says Sangai Mohochi, “I have no doubt about the first aspect of that answer. Philip was a good man.” Of the second part, he is less sure. What he knows is that the accident—like so many others in Africa, where accidents are one of the main causes of death—was the fault of “a drunken, reckless young man rushing to pick up other passengers” in the matatu,the African jitney, he was driving. “I don’t see God in that.”

When Mohochi told his friends in the Bay Area that he was leaving Stanford to return home, they thought he too was crazy. Now, he says, “I may not drive a top-of-the-range Toyota, but I’m happy in my own way.” He has taken over as chairman of Nuru Kenya and teaches at Rongo University College. 

The evening before Nuru Day is a special night at the Border Point Lodge in Isebania, not just because once again the power is out and Nuru’s senior staff is dining by candlelight. After seven years, the last of the expatriate staff have relinquished their day-to-day responsibilities and will leave Kenya the following week. “Exit” is a milestone very few internationally funded development projects achieve.

“It’s amazing to see Nuru Kenya for what it was always meant to be,” Harriman tells the staff. “Kenyans leading Kenyans out of extreme poverty forever.” According to its latest figures, Nuru has helped lift over 85,000 people out of extreme poverty in Kenya and through its new initiative, Nuru Ethiopia. Harriman places full authority for Nuru Kenya in Wambeti’s hands. She pledges not to let him, or Chairman, or the people of Kenya down.

Jake Harriman has been at war for 15 of the last 18 years, first against terrorism and now in his more personal war against extreme poverty. His experience in Iraq took him to “the bottom of my faith.” His work with Nuru has healed him and has transformed him into a “different, and, I think, better person.”

If Teddy Roosevelt could whisper in his ear, perhaps he would repeat words he spoke 115 years ago. That Harriman is one of those few who does know something “of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.”

Quelling the storm and riding the thunder have taken their toll on Harriman. He has lost friends, and love, and his mind will never be free of stories that cannot be unwritten. As he walks back to Nuru House, farmers and children working the fields call out using his local name: mwita. In Kurian that means “first-born son.” Some say it also means “warrior.” For Jake Harriman, the war is far from over.

Read how two other Marines turned swords into plowshares here.


Robert L. Strauss, MBA/MA ’84, has worked, lived or traveled in 29 African countries. He served for five years as country director for the Peace Corps in Cameroon and first wrote about international development for Stanford in the May/June 2000 issue.

Comments (7)


  • Mr. Glenn Benest

    These longer, indepth articles are truly remarkable.  We really get a sense of this person and his mission.  Please continue to provide these kind of portraits of people who are truly changing the world for the better.

    Posted by Mr. Glenn Benest on Nov 21, 2015 8:07 AM

  • Ms. Tanja Markovic

    Great reading, a small book about this very special man, I enjoyed very much every bit of it. Luckily that  these people exist and do their work. Thanks for discovering!

    Posted by Ms. Tanja Markovic on Nov 21, 2015 8:34 AM

  • Ms. Julie Reinganum

    Thank you for this in-depth look at a GSB alum and the impact of his work.  The article provided me with a thoughtful glimpse into the challenges of implementing meaningful change. Great article!

    Posted by Ms. Julie Reinganum on Nov 21, 2015 2:55 PM

  • Mrs. Hannah Silverman

    This Nuru Kenya article was most interesting, with the author's background in Africa no doubt contributing a healthy dose of skepticism for development efforts there. Hooray for Jake Harriman and his dedication to figuring out the local challenges and soldiering on to make a difference in partnership with Kenyans. It takes a lot to understand and explain life in Africa--thanks for trying, and adding humor to boot.
    Also liked the sidebar about Alex Martin.
    Proud of and grateful to our veterans :)

    Posted by Mrs. Hannah Silverman on Nov 23, 2015 7:08 AM

  • Mr. Evan Schlessinger

    Great article. Great subject. Well written. Could have read more!

    Posted by Mr. Evan Schlessinger on Dec 2, 2015 3:30 PM

  • Mr. Joseph Ryan, Jr.

    This is a wonderful article, thanks!

    It's especially encouraging that Mr. Harriman is working in conflict-affected areas.  It's difficult to know what do do in those environments, so Mr. Harriman's dedication is a precious asset.

    The article makes a number of wise observations, such as, "Subsistence agriculture is never going to end extreme poverty."  The mention of market linkages hopefully
    indicates that Nuru investigates market opportunities before setting production plans.
    Nuru's emphasis on developing local leaders is also very wise.  Note that every member of Nuru's Kenyan team has a postgraduate degree.  This gives an accurate indication of how to lay the bases for indigenous leadership.

    There is a slighty sour note in the article's persistent ragging on other development assistance efforts.  Nuru is praiseworthy enough that you don't need to do that, and besides it leads to errors like the article's mistaking 3-5 year phases for the entire duration of development programs that can actually go on, where needed, for decades.

    Leaving this aside, the story of Mr. Harriman's experiences and initiatives is very evocative.  The struggle over full-cost pricing vs. "handouts" appears to be eternal: I thought it was resolved 30 years ago, but here Mr. Harriman is dealing with it again.  His branching out from agriculture to schooling will speak to many readers, and his difficulty in getting a job in development before getting his MBA is something many face.

    I have read that over a million Americans had tours with the U.S. military in Iraq.  While we can't know all the impacts that will have, note that the Swahili "nuru" for light comes from Arabic.

    Posted by Mr. Joseph Ryan, Jr. on Nov 6, 2015 4:45 PM

  • Mrs. Caroline Orszak

    A soon as I saw the name "Chacha" in the caption of the first picture, I knew the story was about Kuria. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, along with my husband, also a Stanford graduate, at Isibania Secondary School - a boarding school - from January 1969 through December 1970. (No running water; no lights until the second year we were there, when we had a fluorescent tube in each of our three rooms for three hours a night: bliss!)
    Occasionally we were invited to stay with a student's family. Visitors came flooding in from miles around; many asked my husband if he was worried, bringing his wife into the bush. A few said I was the first white woman they had ever seen. We spoke fluent Swahili, but sometimes our host student would have to interpret for us, as not everyone spoke it in that little corner of Kenya.

    It is true that there were horrible incidents in Isibania from time to time - cattle rustling, extreme violence - but we never feared for our safety and everyone respected walimu (teachers).

    The day we left Isibania at the end off our tour was the day the road construction crew reached the school. Before that, the road to nearby Migori and beyond to Kisii was dusty red dirt. Isibania (it was spelled with an "i" then, not an "e"), sounds practically industrial now, compared to the speck on the map it was all those years ago.

    Two years in Kuria changed my outlook. As a family friend said when we returned to the slush of American life, "She'll never complain about a leaky faucet!" I was lucky enough to return to Kenya some years later, and taught in another harambee (self-help) school, this time working with Maasai/Kikuyu children.

    I would very much like to contact Jake Harriman and learn more about Isibania, where a big chunk of my heart remains.

    Posted by Mrs. Caroline Orszak on Nov 12, 2015 10:45 AM

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