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This West Virginian has a plan to end extreme poverty


During West Virginia University’s Festival of Ideas, Jake Harriman gave a lecture about extreme poverty in the world and his mission to end it.

A West Virginia native and former U.S. Marine, Harriman toured the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where he saw firsthand the devastating effects of extreme poverty. He founded Nuru International in order to lift rural farming communities out of poverty and into a cycle of self-sustainability.

Nuru is the Kiswahili word for light, and it connotes hope. Jake Harriman created the organization at Stanford University and he says he’s just a few years away from being able to definitively demonstrate how to end poverty.


Freedom of Choice?

According to the World Bank, the definition of extreme poverty is living on less than $1.25/day. But Harriman says that economic definition is too narrow. 

“One of the things that Nuru is trying to do is change the whole conversation about poverty," Harriman said in a recent interview with WVPublic. "A lot of my experiences that I saw while I was in combat, and the desperateness and hopelessness in the eyes if the folks I was working with and sometimes fighting didn’t seem to match up with just that strictly economic definition."

Harriman says his definition of extreme poverty is a condition where people are unable to make meaningful choices to secure their basic human rights. He experienced people stuck in these conditions firsthand when he was a marine. He says it was one experience in particular at the beginning of the Iraq War that changed his life’s trajectory:

This West Virginian has a plan to end extreme poverty
Jake Harriman relates the pivotal combat moment that changed his life and ultimately inspired Nuru International.

Lessons Learned

Harriman says there are key lessons he’s learned that guide his efforts in impoverished places—lessons that he says are applicable in all areas stuck in poverty:

  1. Instead of talking about what the key solution is, focus instead on who key leaders are within communities and how the efforts of those people can be reinforced.
  2. Determine need in 4 key areas:
  • Hunger,
  • Inability to cope with economic shocks,
  • preventable disease and death,
  • and access to quality education.
  1. Researching best practices to address needs with an integrated approach considering
  • impact,
  • sustainability,
  • and scalability—or how readily those practices will proliferate solutions, alleviating those areas of need.
  1. A sustainability engine.

Sassy Success

Harriman points to a woman named Milka as an example of how the process can help natural leaders improve their communities.

“Milka was a woman who had six children. They were all severely mal nourished. Her husband beat her severely. They had no money. They lived in a little mud hut. She was a farmer so she grew about three bags of maize on her one little acre. And her family needed six to survive.”

Harriman remembers that it was Milka who taught him that she and the women in her community were capable of sustaining themselves. But, she said she needed a push in the right direction. So together with Nuru, they found and taught an agriculture curriculum from another organization and Milka learned to increased her yield from 3 bags to 18 bags of maize.

“So she was able to feed her family with the 6 bags. She was able to pay the loan back that we’d given her for fertilizer and seed. She was able to sell the rest and start saving because Nuru had a savings club she was able to join so that she could pay for her kids’ education and to pay medical bills when her kids got sick.”

Milka was also taught how to take preventative measures to protect her family from malaria and other common health problems.

“And so over time, after that first season she worked so hard that a group of ten farmers elected her as a group leader for the next season. And every one of her group—mostly women—they all saw a great increase in crop yields.”

Harriman says she then became a field officer for about 50 farmers, then a field manager where she oversees some 500 farmers.

“And she cracks the whip. That woman is sassy. She’s so powerful now in the community. And she’s so inspiring. She’s very humble. She’s always out in the field teaching the other farmers what she learned. Milka gives me a lot of hope.”

Harriman says Milka is one of some 30,000 people with whom Nuru has engaged.

Passing the Torch

He’s currently touring the US, raising funds and awareness to grow his organization.

“We want to open-source our model. We want to share it with other organizations and governments to train them how to use it so that we can spread the success of this model and the impact of giving more and more people choices more quickly.”

“You know I have the crazy urgency that I live with every day. Every day I wake up and I see that man’s eyes on highway 7, and it drives me. Every day I get out of bed and I’m like, ‘That has got to stop.’ There’s far too much unnecessary death that I’ve seen in this world and we can stop it together.”

Harriman says he’s seen his model work in countries around the world and believes it could also help families right here in Appalachia pull themselves out of poverty. 

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