Living on Little
Navigating financial scarcity in modern Kenya
Living on very little money doesn’t just mean that you worry about how to feed your family and pay rent. It also means that you have a narrow set of choices about whom to marry and what kinds of marital discretions to forgive. It means making heartbreaking tradeoffs between paying for education or healthcare. Where there are weak government institutions and labor markets, it often means that the cost of playing by the rules is untenable, pushing people into illicit markets and making bribery practically inevitable.
Low-income people, just like everyone else, face challenges with addiction, mental illness, and infertility, but have few resources to find solutions. Living on Little tells a holistic story about how low-income Kenyans optimistically pursue life-long missions to build richer lives—literally and figuratively. Along the way, it provokes new insights, pokes at old assumptions, and inspires creative thinking about the problem of poverty.
- Introduction: Listening to Kenyans through Financial Diaries
- 2. Looking for money: Generating income from a variety of sources
- 3. Managing money: Meeting daily needs and investing for the future
- 4. Growing up: The challenges of low income for children and young people
- 5. Being a woman: How social norms affect women’s lives and livelihoods
- 6. Staying alive: The difficulty in financing healthcare
- 7. Being a citizen: Interactions between low-income people and government
- 8. Living the dream: Hopeful stories of achievement and aspiration
- Appendix: Methodological note
'Living on Little is a rich exploration of ordinary Kenyans’ money lives, painting a detailed picture of the painful tradeoffs poverty forces and the incredible investments people are making to build better lives. It is a powerful reminder to keep our eyes open to the systemic barriers that hold ordinary people—and especially women—back from achieving their full potential.'
Rodger Voorhies, President, Global Growth and Opportunity, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
'This book gives insights on the resilience of low-income Kenyans, how the unbankable became bankable through innovative solutions such as M-Shwari, which was launched seven years ago. “Living on Little” is about empowerment and financial inclusion.'
Isaac Awuondo, Chairman, NCBA Bank Kenya PLC
'Julie has provided us with a valuable window into the complex lives of low-income people in Kenya, through the lens of how they earn and manage their money. The stories told go far beyond dry financial details and illustrate the difficult trade-offs made every day by those who simply do not earn enough. They also tell us much about the social dynamics in households and society, as control over scarce resources is often central to both. This is a must-read for anyone working in development, whether in financial services or any other field. It is a compelling story about people who must do so much with so little.'
Greta Bull, CEO of CGAP
‘The Financial Diaries are an outstanding resource that document what it means for people to be financially empowered with relevant technologies such as M-PESA. As different Kenyans narrate their lived experiences, we get to appreciate how innovation is useful and the need to support and encourage it.’
Sitoyo Lopokoiyit, Chief Financial Services Officer, Safaricom
'A compelling reading on aspirations and financial strategies of Kenyans who live on little, but maintain focus on advancing their livelihoods for development. The book seamlessly uses money lens to unearth the several income streams that enable a significant Kenya population to have an agency and plan their own future, despite continually being undermined by structural realities of governance.'
Winnie V. Mitullah, Professor of Development Studies, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi