Jake Harriman got malaria, was struck by lightning, experienced an earthquake, had spiders infest his hut and was attacked by thieves. That was just his first week in Africa.
Harriman moved to Africa in 2008 to launch his brainchild, Nuru International, an organization that helps people move out of extreme poverty.
After that horrible week, Harriman was ready to give up and return to the states. “I never really ever quit at anything, but I’m not really cut out for this,” Harriman told his partner, Philip Mohochi.
Mohochi told Harriman that the women in the villages they’d visited had a rough week too.
“While you got malaria, went to the clinic, got medication and got better, a lot of their kids got malaria this week, too, and several of them died because they couldn’t get medication or transportation to the clinic. They had a bad week last week and the week before that because they couldn’t put more than one meal a day on the table to feed their kids,” Mohochi said to Harriman.
Mohochi convinced Harriman to stay and work with him to transform those impoverished regions so that those folks would never have a bad week ever again.
Mohochi, who became Chairman of Nuru, was only a few weeks from retirement when he was killed in a car accident near Migori, Kenya on May 13, 2014.
“Philip’s local roots, irreproachable ethics, proven career success and poise commanded respect and opened doors for Nuru that I could have never knocked down. He was trusted by farmers, their chiefs and the local ministries, whose support was imperative in Nuru’s ability to gain acceptance and traction in our work and programs. The lessons Chairman taught us about how to build relationships and earn trust are a fundamental part of Nuru’s ethos to this day,” said Harriman.
He attended the Naval Academy and graduated as a Commissioned Officer in the Marine Corps. He started out in Infantry and eventually moved over to the Special Operations side.
“I did several tours of combat in Iraq and part of Africa, and it was during my time in combat that I began to see this disturbing connection between this desperation that extreme poverty creates and the kind of proliferation of extremist and terrorist organizations that we were fighting,” Harriman said.
Harriman grew up in humble beginnings on a little farm in West Virginia, but his parents taught him “that even though we were poor, there was always somebody who was in a tougher situation than we were, and those lessons kind of really stuck with me.”
Harriman says he had an awakening while commanding his team of Marines in Iraq.
“There was one particular incident that caused this awakening in me and put me on this new path,” he said.
Harriman and his team were moving through the town of Nasiriyah and had to “dig in” at one point and wait for supplies since they hadn’t eaten in a couple of days. A small white car came racing up to their position on the highway. Harriman said, “knowing that they put bombs in their cars and strap bombs to their bodies,” he grabbed a couple of his guys and took off running toward the car to try to stop it.
“A guy gets out of the car and starts swinging his arms frantically and runs toward me and my men. Thinking he’s a suicide bomber, I start yelling for him to stop. I lift my weapon and see a large black military truck roll up behind the little white car. Six guys dressed in black jump out and run up to his car and start shooting people inside the car. That’s when I realized this guy was just one of those poor farmers who was trying to get his family across our lines to safety. I tried to stop the soldiers, but by the time I got there, it was too late. The wife had been shot in the face and she was slumped over in the passenger seat. He had a baby girl in the back, whose arm had been shot off and she’d been shot in the head, and the farmer was cradling the body of his six-year-old daughter. This guy had really lost everything within a matter of two seconds. For the first time everything slowed down for me, and I put myself in this guy’s shoes,” Harriman said.
“I thought to myself, ‘I live in a world of choices where I get to choose where I go to school, where I want my kids to grow up’. What were this guy’s choices when he woke up this morning? You know, he could strap a bomb on himself, he could pick up a weapon and go fight people he didn’t even know or [even] how to use the weapon. He could watch his kids starve to death. He didn’t have any choices,” Harriman added.
“Then I got really, really angry. It wasn’t fair that the GPS coordinates of a man’s birthplace could dictate what choices he had in this world,” Harriman said.
Harriman said the tragic incident started a conversation with his team, and that’s all they would talk about over the next couple of years in combat.
He said he saw a market gap.
“There was the military doing work in the villages, but they were trained to take out their targets. There were aid workers, and they were doing their best, but the work was mostly short-term solutions.”
He said, “I saw the need for a third way to develop a hybrid that could create a sustainable economic development model to eradicate extreme poverty in these regions and staff it with former operators like us that know how to handle themselves in really dangerous situations.”
Harriman left the Marine Corps and everything he knew. He researched extensively to see what other organizations were doing to help impoverished regions like the ones he’d seen in Iraq.
After a year-and-a-half of research, he decided to go to Stanford Business School to learn how to devise a business model for an organization that would tackle the problem of extreme poverty.
Although Harriman’s goal is to go to conflict regions, his mentor at Stanford recommended he test his model in a more stable region first.
When he moved to Kenya and launched Nuru International in 2008, people were getting malaria and couldn’t feed themselves.
“It was a really terrible situation. We work in really remote areas where there’s desperate extreme poverty… in rural areas. A typical situation is a family experiences the hunger season, so they have several months where they can’t get enough food to feed their families… they typically don’t have access to reliable healthcare or can’t afford transportation to get here, so their kids are dying from stupid diseases like malaria, or diarrhea or respiratory tract infections. If there are schools there, and if the kids can go, they basically have to self-learn in the schools, because the teaching methodologies are really outdated, and there’s no access to banking services that the farmers can afford… so they can’t save money and they can’t take out small loans, so it’s a pretty desperate situation,” Harriman said.
Through Harriman’s initiative and hard work, he and his team of veterans and international development practitioners have created an organization that’s integrated into the society, one that trains and educates the people to carry on the work.
“So we go in and identify local leaders to build an organization around, and we work with those leaders to design sustainable and scalable programs in four key areas:
“The programs that we design with the local leaders are designed to really address the needs of that region in those four areas in a sustainable way so that they can empower these communities out of extreme poverty,” Harriman said.
Harriman and his team just recently exited Kenya, having successfully moved more than 78,000 people out of extreme poverty. They’ve also left behind a courageous staff of 250 Kenyans, led by Pauline Wambeti, who are now scaling that model around Southwest Kenya.
“We can end extreme poverty in our lifetimes and give people the opportunity to live their lives with choices,” Harriman said.
He said their mission is to tackle the very toughest places in the world to do this work, where other people cannot or will not go, and to reach populations that don’t have hope.
From his experiences he believes that the War on Terror won’t be won on the battlefield alone and that the contributing causes of terrorism—disenfranchisement, lack of education, and extreme poverty must also be eradicated.
Harriman believes that “Terrorism isn’t caused by poverty, but poverty allows terrorism to grow, thrive and sustain itself over time.”
“Probably the greatest lesson and the most powerful component in creating lasting solutions for extreme poverty really lies within those trapped in extreme poverty themselves. The best ideas don’t come from outsiders or Westerners. They actually come from people who are trapped in that situation. It’s really all about them unlocking their own potential,” he added.
Nuru International is currently working in Ethiopia and plans to take their model into their first conflict region next year.
Nuru International is in their next round of fundraising. They’re trying to raise $16 million and have already raised $11 million.
Individuals or organizations who would like to contribute, may donate by going to their website: NuruInternational.org and click on the “DONATE” button. Contributions may also be made by wire or stock transfer. Nuru International also accepts personal checks sent to their offices: 5405 Alton Parkway, Ste A-474, Irvine, CA 92604
Contact NuruInternational.org for more information or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube.
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Jake Harriman, Founder and CEO of Nuru International
Jake graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy and served seven and a half years as an Infantry and Special Operations Platoon Commander in the Marine Corps. He led four operational deployments and was awarded the Bronze Star for actions in combat. Jake’s experiences convinced him that the “War on Terror” can’t be won on the battlefield alone; the contributing causes of terrorism – specifically extreme poverty – must also be eradicated. Jake left the military and enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business to found Nuru International. Upon graduation, Jake led a team to launch Nuru’s first project in Kenya.
Pauline Wambeti, Country Director of Nuru Kenya
Nuru Kenya is in the capable hands of Country Director Pauline Wambeti, a Kenyan woman who overcame childhood poverty and has proven her effectiveness in empowering her fellow citizens. The more I interact with Nuru Kenya staff like Pauline, as well as my colleagues at Nuru Ethiopia since 2014, the more I understand that our expat staff must not be permanent fixtures in the community, but instead a temporary “scaffold” that supports a locally led organization until it is ready to stand on its own.