Ex-Marine Jake Harriman helps people who've had only bad choices find a better life

Nuru International fights extreme poverty by handing its projects off to local groups. If Nuru is still around in 30 years, Harriman says, it has failed.

Courtesy of Nuru International
Former US Marine Jake Harriman started Nuru International, fueled by investors from Silicon Valley, to battle extreme poverty.
Nuru International
Jake Harriman

Jake Harriman is a cargo pants and muddy shoes kind of guy.

Visiting the sleek offices of hedge fund managers and venture capitalists, as he has been doing of late, is not his thing. “I hate it,” he says matter-of-factly of the job of raising money for his nonprofit group. Among other activities, it works to increase crop yields in Kenya – a place he would much rather be.

But Mr. Harriman is used to taking on difficult tasks to achieve a higher goal. One such assignment led him to found Nuru International, dedicated to nothing less than “ending” extreme poverty.

As a Marine Special Operations platoon commander, Harriman was waiting for resupply on the highway to Baghdad in 2003 in an area where Saddam Hussein, still in power, was coercing poor Iraqi farmers with promises of food if they sabotaged oncoming coalition forces.

Unbeknown to Harriman, one such Iraqi was looking to escape that devil’s bargain. On a clear morning, the man jumped into his car with his wife and two children and headed down Highway 7 toward Harriman’s platoon.

Concerned that the car might be packed with explosives, and its driver on a suicide mission, Harriman and his marines fired warning shots, and the car stopped. The man bolted from the car and came running toward the Americans, frantically waving his arms. Suddenly an Iraqi military vehicle pulled up behind the man’s car, sprayed it with bullets, and sped off. As Harriman and the desperate farmer ran back toward the car they saw the carnage: The man’s wife and two children had been fatally shot.

Harriman left the military two years later as a decorated marine. But the events on Highway 7 remain a constant companion, both a tormentor and motivator.

Harriman has distilled from that day a life’s purpose revolving around restoring choices for people who, like the Iraqi farmer, have few. In Harriman’s words: “Something awoke inside of me – an anger that burned and grew. That day, I vowed to devote my life to giving people choices and hope where none previously existed.”

In 2008 that manifested itself in the founding of Nuru International, whose mission is to address extreme poverty using an integrated approach that requires its programs to become self-sustaining.

Nuru is designed to exit countries once its programs reach that goal. If Nuru is still around in 30 years, Harriman is fond of saying, it has failed.

Nuru’s activities over the past six years have been centered in Kenya and, more recently, Ethiopia. These locations serve as prototypes for refining the Nuru model before going into failed states and conflict zones such as Somalia, South Sudan, and Congo.

Harriman’s military service took him to areas of conflict in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It is to some of those darkest corners of poverty and hopelessness that the West Virginia farm boy has decided to return, his sword now a plowshare.

Though skilled as a military man, Harriman knew he was not ready to build a successful antipoverty program without training. An engineering graduate of the US Naval Academy, Harriman applied to and was accepted into Stanford University’s graduate business program.

“Jake was one of the few students with the guts to say he didn’t understand something out loud,” recalls James Patell, Herbert Hoover professor of public and private management at Stanford.

Harriman took a computer-modeling course from Professor Patell as well as a class on how to “design for extreme affordability.” The “extreme” program, which runs for two quarters, develops products and services for people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Students partner with on-the-ground nonprofit or for-profit enterprises and work on solving key problems or finding new opportunities.

Harriman developed and refined Nuru in tandem with his academic work, and he credits other students and faculty members for both supporting and helping construct the Nuru model.

“We started by revisiting the definition of the problem: What was it we were trying to solve?” he recalls in an interview.

Building off the work of economists Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, Nuru embraces the idea that extreme poverty is more fundamental than the World Bank definition of living on $1.25 per day. Rather, it is a lack of the choices necessary to attaining basic human rights. This meant reframing the problem to not focus solely on increasing food supply, but to simultaneously address issues of health, education, and the ability of poor communities to withstand economic shocks, such as drought.

Pivotal to Nuru’s success is being invited into a community and finding local leaders who have a strong sense of service.

“We start by asking locally, ‘Who do you look to when you lose a child, or during a drought when your crop has died?’ ” Harriman says. At early meetings, community members are told the leaders must volunteer, which often leads to 80 percent of the people leaving the meeting, he says.

Community leaders are eventually paid after a probationary period, but the initial filtering is essential to finding true “servant leaders,” a form of leadership that strives to diffuse rather than concentrate power.

“It’s the most powerful form of leadership I’ve ever seen or experienced,” Harriman says.

In Kenya, Nuru (which means “light” in Swahili) has established a for-profit social enterprise that incubates businesses in a variety of fields including consumer, cultural, and agricultural products. Profits are used to fund education programs for children and household training aimed at reducing disease and death and increasing crop yields.

In the Kuria West District, where Nuru has organized and trained local farmers, average maize (corn) yields grew by 123 percent from 2011 to 2012. Hit by drought and a maize disease, yields declined in 2013, but Nuru farmers still outperformed non-Nuru farmers, according to the organization. Nuru also has held literacy development workshops at local schools, taught financial planning, and spread knowledge of improved sanitation and health practices in the region.

Nuru’s efforts are coupled with rigorous monitoring and evaluations driven by a desire to “fail fast, learn fast,” Harriman says.

Harriman hopes the Nuru model will prove itself in Kenya by 2016. Meanwhile, he is raising $22 million to fund Nuru for the next three years.

Patell has seen lots of projects in the developing world. Nuru’s distinguishing features, he says, are its aim to be integrated yet remain small, its devotion to turning over its functions to local communities, and its goal to take its model into conflict areas.

The Peery Foundation, based in Palo Alto, Calif., has been a Nuru funder since 2008, investing about $575,000 to date. “An endeavor like this requires someone like Jake who will not rest until he succeeds,” says Dave Peery, the foundation’s managing director, in an e-mail. “He is committed for life to lifting others out of poverty. So investing in Jake was also a big part of this.”

Nuru’s goals may be audacious, but in Silicon Valley the perennial search for the next big thing is the holy grail. It is in this land of technology dreams that Harriman has found his investors.

Nuru is “a risky proposition with a huge upside,” Harriman says. Young people with newfound riches, he says, often ask themselves, “How can I make my life count?”

Harriman has his answer.

• To learn more visit www.nuruinternational.org.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are groups selected by Universal Giving that help people in need in Africa:

Give A Day Global connects international travelers with one-day volunteer opportunities. Take action: Volunteer to help women in Kenya through microlending.

Develop Africa establishes meaningful and sustainable development in Africa through capacity building and education. Take action: Support business training and help small businesses in Africa grow.

The Selamta Family Project creates families for orphaned children and disenfranchised women affected by AIDS, poverty, and lack of opportunity. Take action: Support catch-up tutoring for an orphan.

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