Interview with Katie Smith Milway, author of One Hen

Katie Smith Milway is a partner at the Bridgespan Group, an advisory to nonprofits and philanthropy. She has written many books and articles on sustainable development and has coordinated community development programs in Africa and Latin America for Food for the Hungry International. She co-authored Cappuccina Goes to Town with her mother, Mary Ann Smith.  One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference is her first solo children’s book. Katie lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
One Hen: How One Loan Made a Big Difference is the tale of Kojo, a young boy from Ghana who grows up to be the biggest chicken farmer in his country, thanks in part to a very small loan he used to buy a hen. The book is inspired by the real-life story of Kwabena Darko, founder of Sinapi Aba, a microfinancing organization that has helped thousands of Ghanaians to improve their lives through microcredit. When and why did you decide to re-craft Darko’s story as a book for children?

In 2004, two years after my first book, Cappuccina Goes to Town, came out (a whimsical story about a quirky cow who loves the color “Blooooooo” ), my publisher, Kids Can Press, asked me if I could draw on my international development experience and write a story that introduced kids to poverty alleviation for a new series of books for “a world that works,” called ” Kids Can Make A Difference.” As I pondered the right angle, it struck me that microfinance was one of the best windows into that world for kids, because it addresses poverty in increments of entrepreneurship that any child who has run a lemonade stand can understand.   But I also needed the right example.  A month or so later, I heard Darko speak at a microfinance conference hosted by Opportunity International, and decided he was it. He had actually made the leap from micro-entrepreneurship to major industry and really could take kids from the impact of a backyard business to the impact of a major business on a nation’s economy.  That said, microfinance is largely a women’s movement, so it was important in One Hen that Kojo’s mother received the initial loan, giving Kojo a few coins from it.

You have said in an interview that “Part of the fun of writing One Hen was ‘hearing the voices’ of West African children I had met.” Would you tell us a little bit about your experience of living and working in Africa and about the children you met there? 

I lived and worked in a dozen countries of Sub-Saharan Africa on and off for a decade (from 1984 – 1993), doing graduate school research, consulting on community development projects and on the management team of NGO Food for the Hungry.  And I truly fell in love with the sounds, smells, peoples and lands.  Each country and people group is different, of course, but throughout I consistently encountered strong, rural traditions around meeting, greeting, hospitality and storytelling. Memories of nights under the stars, kibitzing and playing music with Tuareg herders and their children; or of an afternoon break with village women and girls, laughing and munching on roasted crickets, flooded back to me as I wrote One Hen.  At the same time, traditional languages, like Bambara or Swahili, tend to be cadence rich, but have very simple grammar. Simple word choice and constructs carry over into conversations in English and French, too. It was this spare but complete style and the rich cadences that ran through my head, and that I attempted to capture, as I wrote the book.

Through Kojo’s inspiring story you introduce children to very important and timely ideas and values – from the basics of microfinancing and sustainable economies to the importance of family, community, education and hard work. One Hen makes for a kind of literacy interaction that provides rich learning opportunities. What feedback have you received so far from teachers and students? Have you heard of any One Hen-inspired classroom projects? 

It’s been very exciting to see and hear how teachers are using One Hen and the classroom resources on to teach not only the 3Rs, but also financial literacy, entrepreneurship, youth philanthropy and global citizenship.

A few examples: JFK School in Canton, MA has created an entire 4th Grade curriculum around One Hen concepts.  The teachers use the story and online activities, video and photo library and lesson plans to teach reading, math, social studies, geography and public service.  In addition, JFK’s principal established a fund to provide loans to kids to start small businesses around baking, raking, etc. The kids must pay back their loans before school’s out this summer, and they plan to vote on where to donate the proceeds. In NYC, City Year teachers have introduced One Hen into after school programs in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx to give kids who combat poverty every day a vision of entrepreneurship.  And at Heritage School, just outside Dallas, I did a full day of One Hen readings and activities for all 780 students, K-5, concluding with a village “trust group” role play, led by microfinance partner Opportunity International, where kids had to confront both business choices and hardships of the working poor.

We now have a volunteer program team that works to support classroom efforts, visit schools and host teacher focus groups to build out  in ways that are truly relevant to the classroom. And teachers using One Hen are sending us lesson plans which we aggregate on our Teacher and Librarian tab.  Teachers who are looking for support or to share their lesson plans can write to us…

Kojo’s story is a testament to the power of microloans and microbusinesses to break the cycle of poverty known to so many around the world. Kojo (Darko) grows up to be a successful chicken farmer who is able to give back to his community and help others as he was helped. What core message did you hope to get across to young readers? 

At the broadest level, I hoped to inspire kids to can-do and compassion; to expand their world view about the role they could play in helping themselves and others.  At a micro level, I delight in teaching kids about the country of Ghana and ways of West Africa;  how kids from different cultures and circumstances can share the same dreams and paths to achievement.

Mitali Perkins’s Rickshaw Girl is the only other children’s book I’m aware of that introduces the idea of microfinancing and its potential to change lives and communities. In your opinion, how important is financial literacy in today’s literacy equation?  

Yes, Mitali also lives in the Boston area and reached out to me when One Hen first came out.

I think the current meltdown of financial markets, spiraling out of lots of adults taking on mortgage and other loans they couldn’t pay back – with banks complicit in the equation – underscores the need to ensure the next generation is financially literate.  Microfinance is a great vehicle.  For one thing, it’s one of the few financial sectors that has been consistently profitable and growing, largely because micro-entrepreneurs create products with real value – transportation, garments, food products – and more than 90% of them pay back their loans.

I understand you read your book to investment bankers at a microfinance forum. What was that experience like, and how did they react to the story?

I was invited to present One Hen at Morgan Stanley last year: they had a special forum on microfinance, a market they were developing at the time – and it was a very positive experience.  I was invited back to speak to more bankers and their kids at “Bring Your Child to Work” day.

Microfinance as a sector dates from the early 70s and has been largely led by non-governmental organizations. Today, NGOs are building bridges beyond microfinance to create true banks.  Meanwhile, huge financial players like Morgan Stanley or Barclay’s are building bridges from commercial finance toward grassroots markets, so the options for people like Kojo to make the leap from micro-credit to commercial credit appear to be growing.

Have you ever met microfinance pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus? Has he read your book? Is his story similar to Darko’s in any way?  

I met Dr. Yunus briefly at the San Jose Museum Tech Awards, this past November.  He had read my book and sent an email via an aide mentioning how much Kojo’s travails in obtaining a bank loan reminded him of his own experience.  It was a thrill for me to shake hand with him.

How do you juggle your work with your personal writing? How much time can you spare for readings and school visits?

I made a decision, a year ago, to move back into the nonprofit sector and left a 14-year career at the global management consultancy Bain & Company to join The Bridgespan Group, a North American advisory to nonprofits and philanthropy that Bain incubated, back in 2000. The move took me back to my roots and has given me a much better work-life balance – in part because now I work in 3 time zones instead of 24!  Always a night owl, I used to be on the phone with China or India after our kids went to bed.  Now I spend a couple of evenings a week working on content, teacher support, and chipping away at my next book.

As for school visits, we now have One Hen volunteer corps across the country, both through Opportunity International’s Women’s Opportunity Network and through a community of folks involved with the website, so we can usually find a “One Henner” in any state who can visit a school and lead kids in a discussion of the book and microfinance (anyone who’s interested, please contact us!).  I try to squeeze in local, Boston-area school visits and have taken time off for readings and discussions at all-school events in other states, and to train networks of teachers, like City Year’s after school corp.  In fact, when we have a major network of teachers who want to roll out the One Hen curriculum, we have even been able to get Kojo himself to help lead the training.

You have talked about One Hen’s accompanying website, in the U.S. and there’s also in the UK: these are designed to provide additional resources for teachers and parents and to educate children on the benefits of microfinance. Through the website, children can answer quizzes and earn virtual beads that the website translates into actual loans for small-business ventures in the developing world. What was your involvement in conceiving and developing the website?

The website has been a veritable barn-raising!  I’ve led a team of 10-30 volunteers (at any given time) since October 2007, who have developed and aggregated content, tested games and features with focus groups, developed site partners and built community via our “Share Your One Hen Experience” section of the sites, where kids write in.  But we would not have a site at all were it not for the talent and generosity of online marketing firm, Sapient Interactive, which has supplied creative vision and all technical support, pro bono, to build and maintain both  and its mirror European site,  Meanwhile, the site wouldn’t have a home or grip kids’ imaginations, were it not for Opportunity International, which hosts it for free, and maintains a fund, donated by The Jenzabar Foundation and a number of individuals, that releases money to microentrepreneurs in Africa every time kids “donate” the beads they earn playing games.

I hear that you are planning a children’s book that introduces kids to another timely topic: organic and sustainable agriculture. Can you tell us a little more about this idea/project?

It’s still in development, but the goal is to drive home the message that if we nurture the soil, the soil nurtures us.  In an era of food crisis, any child can play their part in their home or school garden, or in supporting poor farmers through acts of giving.

Could you recommend some additional books that might further inform children interested in our world community and help them discover their own power? 

Sure. Beatrice’s Goat, which tells the story of the Heifer Project, is a great one to inspire kids to make a difference with their chore money, and David Smith’s If the World Were a Village is one of my favorites regarding teaching kids about the world’s resources – and each nation’s stake in them – in a simple, memorable way.  Another good one is Ryan and Jimmy – And the Well in Africa That Brought Them Together, which tells the story of a North American boy who began saving money to build a well in Africa, and drew supporters to the cause. His efforts eventually transformed the life of a Ugandan community, including a boy about his age, Akana Jimmy, who came across the Atlantic to thank him.

Finally, Kevin Salwen, former Wall Street Journal writer, and his daughter are at work on a book we’ll all want to read when it comes out later this year, entitled The Power of Half.  It’s about their family’s experience in selling their large, historic home and giving half the money to The Hunger Project to build a school, health center and more to help a village in Ghana move from poverty to self-reliance. Their story encourages others to find the ‘half’ they can contribute from facets of their life (e.g. money spent on consumption, time spent on TV/computers) and use it to do a little bit of good in the world.  “The big win, of course, is the impact it has on your family,”  says Kevin. “The collective activity makes it a family strengthener.  The outward activity helps the world.”

If you could choose a place anywhere in the world to send One Hen, where would it be and why?

If I could send One Hen anywhere in the world right now, it would be to Haiti, in Creole, to inspire children there to play an entrepreneurial role in rebuilding their nation. Happily, a Haitian Creole edition of the book is due out in 2010 through publisher EducaVision.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s