Fail Fast, Learn Fast: How Nuru International Collaborates, Learns, and Adapts
Jimmy Leak is an Education Program Strategic Advisor with Nuru International.
Nuru International is a small NGO with integrated, holistic programs covering the sectors of agriculture, financial inclusion, health, and education. Its mission is to end extreme poverty in remote, rural areas by equipping communities to create effective solutions that create sustainable, scalable impact. Nuru works at the local, district level to create impactful and sustainable poverty solutions serving the holistic needs of communities. Currently, Nuru serves several thousand households in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Nuru was founded by a former Marine, Jake Harriman. In Jake’s previous line of work, a mistake, or “failure” could have life-threatening consequences. If a mistake was made, adjustments and decisions had to be made in real-time in order for the mission to succeed and team to be kept safe. Over the last nine years, this “Fail Fast, Learn Fast” mentality has allowed Nuru to be flexible, iterate to improve its programs, and ultimately to get closer to achieving its goal of ending poverty.
While Nuru is not currently a USAID implementing partner, there are some clear similarities between collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) and Nuru’s approach to development. Here are some examples of how Nuru operationalizes CLA:
How Nuru Collaborates
Nuru prides itself as an organization that learns from others. While developing integrated programs across four sectors is challenging and complex, Nuru draws upon the work of organizations who have created quality programs with proven solutions and adapts them to fit the context. For example, Nuru partnered with Save the Children to implement its Literacy Boost program in Ethiopia when the baseline needs assessment showed this approach would fit the education needs of children and communities in its target areas. In addition, Nuru has had a relationship with One Acre Fund (OAF) since Nuru launched in Kenya in 2008. Nuru and OAF collaborate on iterative solutions to past challenges, such as maize disease and drought.
In addition to external partnerships, Nuru fosters internal collaboration through its Program Planning Process (PPP) in which expatriates, in-country staff, and local community members co-create programs based on communities’ needs. In addition, team members conduct rigorous research on best practices of the sectors in which Nuru works. This collaborative, human-centered process based on design thinking is a bottom-up approach with information flowing from the local level, rather than dictated by a national or international office. The PPP gives local staff and community members ownership of the solutions to ensure future impact and sustainability.
How Nuru Learns
Even after undergoing an intentional co-design process with local communities, the government, and local staff, things do not always proceed as planned. For example, Nuru learned that iterating programs too quickly and having expatriate teams go in and out of country every few months created an unsustainable work pace for in-country staff and ineffective programs. This was just one lesson that was a part of a 40+ page report Nuru released in 2014 documenting failures, lessons learned, and action steps to improve programs. This transparency from the top allows Nuru to foster an open dialogue and space for people at all levels to admit mistakes or failures without fear of consequences.
Learning at Nuru also occurs through cross-country exchanges. The Kenyan team and the Ethiopian team have sent members to each other’s country projects to learn from their experiences. When the Kenya team traveled to Ethiopia in 2015, they learned about the farmer cooperative-based model that the Ethiopia team had co-created as a sustainable vehicle for farmers and their families to continue to receive long-term benefits from Nuru’s programs. From that trip and future discussions, Nuru Kenya transitioned its farmer groups into cooperatives to promote greater community ownership and sustainability in early 2016.
How Nuru Adapts
Nuru’s in-house monitoring and evaluation helps each program create data collection and analysis systems to assess the effectiveness of programmatic activities. At Nuru, programs are evaluated annually to track progress toward impact targets. Quarterly monitoring reports track the fidelity of program implementation. After reviewing data, local M&E teams meet with program managers to discuss trends and opportunities to improve program implementation. Rapid feedback loops allow for data-driven decisions to be made while the project is in operation rather than when it’s too late to change direction or over.
For example, data showed that Nuru Kenya’s programs produced positive impact, but the impact was not sustainable. As a result, Nuru Kenya’s Healthcare and Education programs were adjusted to focus more on community and local government ownership.
Finally, Nuru adapted to changing environmental and climate conditions in both country projects. A crop disease called Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) started to affect Kenya in early 2013 and made its way to Nuru’s project area in by mid-year. Some farmers lost the majority of their crops. The following year, in response to this disease and some instances of drought, Nuru diversified its crop package to include sorghum and millet in addition to maize. These additional crops were more drought resistant and less prone to disease.
In Ethiopia, a major drought affected more than 15 million people in the country in 2015. Many of Nuru’s farmers lost the majority of their crops. Nuru responded quickly in early 2016 by injecting capital into its farmer cooperatives in the form of risk reserves to provide a buffer against bad seasons due to changing weather patterns. Nuru is exploring livelihood diversification in the form of animal fattening to help supplement family income in times of drought and hedge against the risk many smallholder farmers experience from climate shifts and crop disease.
Nuru’s “Fail Fast, Learn Fast” organizational culture enables program adaptation similar to the adaptations Nuru’s founder made every day in combat. At Nuru, staff members approach fighting poverty with the same sense of urgency and commitment as Jake did in the Marines. Without an open environment in which staff can admit their mistakes and use data and processes to improve to programs, Nuru will fail to achieve its mission. It is validating to see USAID encouraging a similar approach with collaborating, learning, and adapting, and Nuru intends to continue learning from colleagues experimenting with adaptive management across the international development field.
 This report is available upon request and has since been updated internally on an annual basis as we collaboratively drafted and shared a dozen of our most critical lessons learned from 2015 and a dozen more in 2016.