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Un­til re­cently, Molly strug­gled to imag­ine life be­yond the end of each repet­i­tive day: work in some­one else’s ields and earn enough to eat, rinse, and re­peat.

“It was a vi­cious cir­cle I could not es­cape,” says the 25-year-old vil­lager in the Bondo re­gion of western Kenya.

Her hard­scrab­ble, ru­ral ex­is­tence is the same for many in Si­aya County where peo­ple eke out a liv­ing farm­ing maize, mil­let and cot­ton in the ochre soil.

But that was be­fore the in­tro­duc­tion in her vil­lage of a cash hand­out known as “uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come.” It’s part of a large, in­ten­sive, multi-year study aimed at dis­cov­er­ing a new way to end poverty in Africa.

Molly be­gan re­ceiv­ing a no-strings, ixed monthly do­na­tion of 2,250 shillings ($22, 19 eu­ros) two years ago, and since then “ev­ery­thing has changed,” she says.

“I was able to save to study to be a nurs­ery school teacher,” she says proudly in­side her tin-roofed ce­ment home as chick­ens pecked out­side.

“It was the lit­tle bit of help that turned my sit­u­a­tion around.”

With a paid in­tern­ship at the vil­lage school Molly has built on the foun­da­tion of uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come to see her monthly in­come more than dou­ble to $50, broad­en­ing her hori­zons.

“Be­fore, I barely had enough money to sur­vive but now I have plans. I even go to the hair­dresser once ev­ery two months,” she says with a smile.


Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, over a third of Kenya’s nearly 50 mil­lion cit­i­zens live be­low the in­ter­na­tional poverty line of $1.90 a day.

Molly’s vil­lage — which is not be­ing iden­ti­ied in or­der not to stir envy or skew the study — is one of scores in the area cho­sen by the US char­ity Give Di­rectly to test the uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come the­ory.

The re­gion was se­lected be­cause of its poverty, but also its sta­bil­ity and, cru­cially, the ef­fec­tive­ness of Kenya’s mo­bile money trans­fer sys­tem, M-pesa that al­lows the easy dis­tri­bu­tion of pay­ments.

Founded in 2010 and work­ing in six African coun­tries, Give Di­rectly sends money straight to the poor al­low­ing them to choose their own pri­or­i­ties, rather than out­siders “de­cid­ing in­stead of them,” ex­plains the non-proit’s spokes­woman Caro­line Teti.

Pre­vi­ously, re­cip­i­ents were given a sin­gle lump sum, but now monthly pay­ments are be­ing tri­aled.

“When you give peo­ple money monthly, will they stop work­ing? Will they take risks in the way they in­vest know­ing they will have an in­come what­ever hap­pens? How does that af­fect their as­pi­ra­tions?” says Teti of some of the ques­tions their pro­gramme is test­ing.

“There is a global de­bate about uni­ver­sal in­come and we want ev­i­dence to move for­ward,” she says.

The study is the big­gest in the world and will in­volve a to­tal of 20,000 peo­ple in western Kenya.

Res­i­dents of 40 vil­lages will re­ceive $22 a month for 12 years, a fur­ther 80 vil­lages will re­ceive the same amount for just two years, while an­other 76 vil­lages will re­ceive two lump sum pay­ments of $507 spaced two months apart.

Molly’s neigh­bour, 29-year-old Ed­win, hopes to re­place his mud hut with a ce­ment home, while Monica and her hus­band have in­vested in small-scale chicken farm­ing.

“We have a new en­clo­sure and a few chick­ens,” says Monica, 30, wear­ing an el­e­gant black dress, mended in sev­eral places. She hopes to be able to send her three chil­dren to school so that they won’t “live in poverty, like us.”

With­out pa­tro­n­is­ing pre­scrip­tions from donors, “ev­ery­one in the vil­lage is us­ing the money dif­fer­ently,” she adds



Give Di­rectly be­lieves uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come is use­ful, but not a panacea.

“When you are in a conlict sit­u­a­tion, you may have been af­fected be­yond ba­sic (needs), you may not have a place to sleep, you’re more vul­ner­a­ble to dis­ease,” says Teti.

“In that con­text, ba­sic in­come can be a part of a so­lu­tion, but it can­not be the sole so­lu­tion.”

Nor, she adds, is it a sub­sti­tute for the state’s obli­ga­tions to pro­vide life’s ba­sics such as schools and health­care.

For vil­lagers in­volved in the ba­sic in­come ex­per­i­ment, the money is an as­sist not a so­lu­tion, and also an op­por­tu­nity, to be seized or squan­dered.

“2,250 shillings is not enough to buy use­less things,” says Judge Sam­son, 72, ex­plain­ing why vil­lagers are not wast­ing their cash hand­outs. “It’s just enough to feed you and get out of poverty.”

Monica has in­vested her money to beneit her fam­ily, but wor­ries that if the ba­sic in­come trial is a suc­cess, oth­ers might prove less thrifty.

“Maybe in the fu­ture some will for­get what we went through and start buy­ing stupid things,” she warns, but then adds, “I don’t think that will be the case.”

A woman pre­pares goods to sell it in a vil­lage.

30-year-old Monica feeds chick­ens at her home.

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