Bernard Oguta – With My Own Two Hands

Movement Matters #19 – Bernard Oguta, With My Own Two Hands

This month we sat down with Bernard Oguta, the East Africa Regional Director With My Own Two Hands (WMO2H), a member of MCLD Kenya. In this insightful conversation, Bernard shares his experiences and strategies for tackling critical issues such as water scarcity, food insecurity, and health challenges through community capacity strengthening. From drilling boreholes to implementing regenerative farming practices, Bernard explains how WMO2H’s innovative projects not only address immediate needs but also generate long-term socio-economic benefits. Bernard’s dedication and vision for a better, more equitable society shine through as he discusses the challenges and triumphs of his work, offering valuable insights into the power of community-led development.

Sera Bulbul: To start, could you tell us a little about what you do for With My Own Two Hands?

Bernard Oguta: My role as East Africa Regional Director of With My Own Two Hands Foundation (WMO2H) involves sustainable community socio-economic empowerment. 

Our primary focuses are water solutions, sustainable agriculture (through drip irrigation, greenhouses, and regenerative farming), and food security; we also work in health and hygiene, basically, everything that encompasses water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). We have 61 different projects countrywide that reach over 120,000 people across East Africa. 

Sera: What main challenges do Kenyans face that WMO2H addresses when it comes to water and agriculture? Can you share more about the focuses of WMO2H?

Bernard: A large population of Kenya does not have access to clean running water. Some areas also face very long droughts and lack sustainable water sources. In such places, we drill boreholes to the range of 230 meters deep to create sustainable water solutions. Through water, we have created a cultural paradigm shift based on a community’s cultural competence. Pastoralist communities have embraced agriculture, and small-scale farmers have expanded their farms courtesy of sustainable water sources.  In other places water solutions are also peace resolutions – wars break out over the search for water, especially in pastoralist regions. Having a borehole helps restore peace. 

A Model for Sustainability

Our projects are designed intentionally to be income-generating activities. We have worked hard to ensure that they are not viewed as charity. To drill a borehole, we carry out a very intensive and inclusive needs assessment to learn the true needs and priorities of a community. Some communities may indeed be lacking water, but that isn’t a priority at that particular moment. 

We focus on the cultural competencies, the population of the region, project sustainability, community buy-in, and accessibility to every community member within reach. 

The needs assessments that we conduct are normally carried out in a clear place that any member of the community can access. Through stakeholder analysis, and with the help of the entire community participants, we establish a a project steering committee. This committee is headed by a site director – this is the team lead and point person between the foundation and the community. He or she gives written updates on the progress of the project twice a year. We train the community on water management, project management, and most importantly, sustainability.

Our sustainability model is what we call the shared investment model. Under the model, every project must generate some income that sustains the project itself and makes a socio-economic impact to the targeted group. We look into households in our investment model and charge them a given amount – agreed by the community – which goes into a common account for the specific project. These funds are used to pay for any repairs and maintenance needed for the borehole and also contribute to other projects in their community. 

Our main limitation is our financial resources. This year, despite receiving 61 applications for water programs, we are only able to work on eight. We are limited, but we are doing as much as we can. 

Regenerative Farming

Kenya is facing a serious food insecurity problem because of the recent flooding. Crops have been swept away and most farmers do not have sustainable food stores or food security centers. This year we are working on 12 sustainable  agricultural solutions with an emphasis on regenerative farming and drip irrigation 

Our regenerative farming involves training community farmers on conservation and rehabilitation approaches to food and farming systems, it involves minimal soil tillage. We are trying to rejuvenate the soil at this point, in response to climate change. Land needs to recuperate before farmers can have better yields. We have developed a curriculum for regenerative farming and agribusiness that acts as a guide to better contemporary farming systems. 

Our programs focus on women’s socio-economic empowerment and most of our groups are led by women. 

WASH and Water Solutions

To run medical camps and community sensitization on health, We have both local and international partners to spearhead community medical camps where we focus on waterborne diseases. These camps focus on how to identify and mitigate waterborne diseases, live a healthy life, and having a balanced diet. 

On international platforms, we have partnered with a French group called Sanofi among others, locally we have cooporates like Davis and Shirtliff who have been our companions in addressing these societal challenges. In these camps, we run hygiene trainings,  testing, diverse diagnoses, treating, and referring patients. We have seen a major reduction in waterborne diseases given the increased awareness among community members. 

At the end of the day, each and every program that we run must be an income-generating activity for the community. I must say that some of them have done very well. For example, in one community we made the borehole, and within two years, they had generated revenue to support the establishment of a greenhouse. With stable income from the first project, communities have the power to develop and transform themselves– they have the power. 

Sera: Who normally comes to the trainings that you organize?

Bernard: During the needs assessment of each and every project, we organize a training that involves almost the whole community. During that assessment, the community itself selects a nine-member committee that will run the project. That committee is normally composed of 80% women, and it’s that committee that we invite to the trainings. 

Sera: Shared Investment Transformation Model – Would you mind describing that in your own words for our readers?

Bernard: We want to make sure that the community understands each project as an income-generating activity, not a donation. For that concept to be abundantly clear, the community is involved in every step. Their involvement starts right from the inception of the project – that is, during the training. 

Let’s say a water project costs 40,000 US dollars. We quantify kind and cash to determine community contribution. This could be land where the project sits, fence, daily operator, and security. The community contributes a certain percentage of the costs, and this creates ownership over and buy-in to the project. 

The next step is to go through an investment analysis of the project. Continuing with the water project example, if the borehole costs 40,000 USD, we assess how much time it would take to break even. The money that they recoup in that time stays within the community, and they are able to spend it on their next priority, whatever that may be guided by the set community priorities. You know we are living in a very dynamic society and communities are also becoming woke, so the more you help them to own a project the better and you can only do that if you understand the approach and how to inculcate the buy-in. 

Numbers play a big role in assessing project impact, the more members own the project the better the impact. I love to look into all these possibilities when communities use the knowledge and resources at their fingertips. 

Sera Bulbul: Can you give us some information about your background and how you got to where you are? 

Bernard: My undergraduate degree is in English Literature Education. I was a teacher for some time before I worked on my Master’s degrees in Project Management, Development Economics, and am currently undertaking a MSc in Data Science at East London University. 

Before starting with WMO2H I was working with the Catholic Church as a Project Manager for Eastern and Central Africa. In this position, I conducted feasibility studies on education needs and community empowerment across six countries and worked in fundraising as well. I also consulted for UNICEF before starting with WMO2H.

Sera: What inspires you? 

Bernard: Actually my inspiration comes from endeavors to achieve a changed society or make a society a better place to live in for everyone. I am able to see that communities are becoming woke. I love seeing communities progressing from a state of poverty to having a very seamless paradigm shift even in their cultural orientation,and socioeconomically empowered; like seeing a Masai who is a pastoralist becoming a farmer.

To see communities embracing new ideologies and techniques for communal empowerment farming and shifting their viewpoints to better their community inspires me to keep pushing for people to understand more possibilities beyond what they live culturally. I see often how our cultural competencies confine us to thinking in one way in the kind of society we live in today, but when we think beyond that, I have seen how much is possible. 

Sera: Thank you so much, Bernard. Let’s now shift our conversation to talking about MCLD. How did you learn about the Movement and what inspired you about it? 

Bernard: In fact, it was John Coonrod who first exposed me to MCLD through a connection with another colleague. When I spoke to John on Zoom, I realized that the mission that he spoke about was exactly what I was living and practicing at WMO2H. John connected me to Steve [Ogutu, Coordinator of MCLD Kenya] and I quickly became part of the Association. 

I would say what MCLD is doing is exactly the paradigm shift that the world needs in terms of understanding how community-led development works. If we empower people from the grassroots levels then there is a much higher chance that projects will grow beyond what we ever anticipated. 

Regarding MCLD’s work, I actually use the Participatory CLD Assessment Tool developed by the MCLD team as part of my MEL process with WMO2H. 

I find the tool to be very practical – it covers the quantitative and qualitative parts of MEL and helps communities have a wider scope of thinking. It engages deeper thinking – for me I have found that it triggered my consciousness, and I can see it doing the same thing within our programs to expose loopholes or things we need to address. 

Sera: What is it like being on the steering committee of the Kenya National Association? 

Bernard: One of the main roles of the steering committee is to onboard more members and create an avenue for community-based organizations to express themselves. We offer them customized training to ensure that their projects run seamlessly and impact society as intended. 

We also are looking for local partners. Just like we worked with Makueni County and now Taita Taveta County, we are looking for more counties to partner with to help them understand the dynamics of community-led development. 

Sera: I wonder if you could share when you reflect on your life and work, what are you most proud of?

Bernard: I think I’m proud of both my successes and failures so far. The biggest challenges that I face in my work are community ownership and sustainability, as well as the need to integrate and onboard a whole community’s ideas. Success is also a big challenge because after you succeed once, you look for the next success. The motivation that comes from success offers a next challenge to consider what other knowledge we need to move forward. 

Sera: What advice would you give someone new to trying to do community-led development 

Bernard: I would tell them that the knowledge they have is a concept and what they need is to work with the reality on the ground. 

So for example, if someone came to me and told me that they had funding for a school, I would tell them to wait a minute. I have to work with the cultural competence of the people I want to build the school for. What do they know? What are they good at? What is their understanding of a donation? From there, you start guiding them. Sometimes what you have is not what they need, so you also have to be very practical and considerate because, in the end, you will exit. For me, post-exit is where a project starts.