We’re hearing, reading and seeing so much distress and negativity over Muslim and Western misunderstanding. So let’s instead consider Jeremy Middleton’s barely publicised African venture.
It centres on Sangailu, a community of 8,632 people on the Kenyan side of the troubled Kenya-Somalia border. They measure wealth in goats, live in huts of mud and straw, and like nomads must always travel to where water lies – until recently. A life, then, starkly different from what this North East entrepreneur – any North East entrepreneur – has ever known.
“I was looking for something a little different to get involved in,” says the youthful looking co-founder of the FTSE-250 company HomeServe plc, a key figure in the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, and a high profile business investor more usually reported financing projects at home.
Now the figure behind Middleton Enterprises is acting as a consultant on a development project totally different from his North East interests, such as in utility cost management consultancy Utilitywise on North Tyneside, and the soon to be launched Atom Bank at Durham.
He describes Sangailu as “a fragile part of the world, suffering terrible poverty. There’s no refugee problem there, but a huge problem from war just across the border. Security is an issue for Western visitors. It wouldn’t help the locals or me to have gone there recently. The Kenyan army has gone over the border to try to improve security. But, as a result, there are frequent raids back across.”
Yet he’s carrying out his work there, partnering World Vision which, since its founding in 1950, has become one of the world’s biggest relief and development charities, helping more than 100m people in 100 countries – and with more than 90% of its 40,000 staff coming from countries being assisted.
“I’ve long supported World Vision,” Middleton says. “It’s best known for sponsoring children. They were looking at how to extend the support to parts where there’s no aid because it’s too desperate and their traditional programmes can’t operate. We developed a plan – one of the first pilots they’ve done – where, instead of sponsoring a child, we’re sponsoring a whole community.”
How does it work? “We put a team on the ground for three years. We work with the local community to win their trust, do geological surveys and make proposals to provide clean, safe, reliable water, their vital need. Then we’ll work with the government there, and others, to put in a variety of solutions – irrigation systems and water pans for example.”
The water pans are ponds dug into the ground where water is known to lie. The ponds then have to be lined so the water won’t soak away. “Our plan over three years is to work with the community on putting in the water, working on hygiene and sanitation through education programmes – even handwashing – then help them to take their economy into a surplus. We’re trying to help a community currently nomadic because their children have to chase around the area for water, preventing many of them from going to school.
“We’re helping them to remain in one place also by improving their strain of goats, enabling them to make more money. Their children will then be able to attend school which will have water, instead of them having to walk maybe 20 miles for water.”
The state provides the schools and, says Middleton, “the children are desperate to attend, even though for many it may involve a 10 mile walk every day. Some even come from 20 miles away and stay there during the week. They also have to learn a foreign language, English or Swahili, since only their community understands their local language. I’d seen nothing like it. It was an experience for me.
“We provide water butts for the schools, big plastic tubs to catch water running from the roof when it rains. If you’ve water at school you can stay at school,” Middleton points out. “If not, you have to go home.”
They’re 18 months into the project now and last year Middleton and his daughter Lucy spent a week there, travelling via Nairobi, Mombasa, then for six hours a day, mile after mile, along dusty and unmade tracks. “Lots of charities do a good job. But this is something giving us a full sense of involvement, as well as sponsorship. It’s quite different. I feel the money can impact. I hope it can impact, even though it carries lots of risk, since things can go wrong.
“It’s just across the border from a 100% Muslim area and 100% female genital mutilation. So there are lots of issues to deal with. We’re trying to create a long term change. This is about trying to change something, not about giving food. Giving food is fine until next time it’s needed.
“These people all have goats and we’ve already improved their goat strain. They’re giving more nutritious milk. This helps children’s development because the surplus milk can be sold. You then start to create an economy.”
Thus, then, directly and indirectly, about 23,000 people can be helped. Elsewhere apiaries have been introduced and a honey surplus created. Middleton has seen a fishery too. “Once you have the fish in and the locals are shown how to do it, they can run a fish farm.
“For water supplies we provide the engineering. They have to dig and run it. And, quite correctly, a little money is charged, so then it’s valued. That pays for the locals running it, for someone to repair it when necessary, and for someone to guard it so animals don’t come and defecate in it.”
Outsiders, however, must gain acceptance. “You can’t just go into a Muslim community as a Western organisation and do this. People don’t trust you enough, are unwilling at first to let you sponsor them. By the time I saw them they were receptive. They’d embraced it. But it has taken them time to understand and be familiar with what it’s all about – also to be confident this isn’t someone trying to change or convert them.”
First and foremost, the local chief agreed, then his council. “When you reach the schools you see incredible things,” Middleton recalls. “The whole village comes out to greet you. There’s lots of singing. Much speechmaking. You see handwashing programmes, and see what the schools are like.”
The outside world is virtually unknown. Only the chief has a mobile phone, apparently. The only television set was in a café in another village. And there’s no social security. “The Kenyan government hasn’t got roads in yet but is working on it,” says Middleton.
“It does have the schools, which is good. “When you ask children what they want to be, they want to be a teacher, an aid worker or a doctor which is good too. But they don’t know anything else. Success will come when they say also a businessman, a farmer, or an architect – when their horizons have been opened to the fact they could do anything, even coming from mud and straw huts. If they have water, and can go to school they have a chance.”
Another advance: the changing of attitudes towards disabled children. They had previously been kept out of sight in the family huts. It was felt bad to have a child unable to work. “So there’s this cultural thing also going on too, of persuading families these children deserve to come to school also. You see now various disabilities, but in what seems an environment of care and learning.”
Villagers probably felt assured by the team of five working on the ground being all Kenyan too. They had been trained up. Middleton recalls: “One lovely fellow, a project manager, told me he was originally brought up in a bush village, in a mud hut like theirs. Sponsored by World Vision, he was able to go to school, had gone on to university and now was going back to his roots working for World Vision.”
Middleton says it’s hoped there’ll ultimately a sustainable community that can then support other types of aid. He’s now trying to help World Vision find others interested. “I think there are lots of opportunities for high net worth individuals to engage,” he says. “You don’t have to be a Bill Gates to feel you’re making a difference.
“We haven’t sought to promote this,” he stresses. “I’m not trying to raise money but that’s what we’re doing. It would be great to find one or two people. Everyone must decide what’s right for them, though.
“A lot of people want to do things closer to home. But I’m quite interested in doing this. It’s different, something I could get involved in with my family. World Vision is at heart a Christian organisation. It doesn’t evangelise. It doesn’t seek to convert. But they do what it says on the tin – a fantastic organisation, I think, with some brilliant people.”
A business visionary: Jeremy Middleton’s CV
Age: 54. Has been a brand manager with Procter & Gamble and a marketing consultant with PwC. Co-founded HomeServe plc, the FTSE-250 insurance and maintenance company valued at around £1bn. A board member of Utilitywise plc, and investor in Atom Bank.
Founding owner in 1993 of Middleton Enterprises, a £50m business investment company.
Owns minority stakes in numerous SMEs. Ranges also across commercial property and property development, manufacturing, environment and digital media. It invested in the Tim Roth film of 2013, The Liability, set in the North East of England.
Middleton’s other involvements present and past include:
Business board member of NELEP. Deputy chairman, Conservative Party Board (2009-2012). President, National Conservative Convention (2008-9). Chaired the party conferences on Tyneside and in Birmingham in 2008. Board member, Cyrenians. Member of promotions board, St Oswald’s Hospice. Business governor, Studio West school, Newcastle.
Appointed CBE in 2012 for services to politics and charities.
Birthplace: Wolverhampton. Education: Tettenhall College, Wolverhampton, and Kent University. He and his wife Catherine live in Gosforth and have three grown-up children: Jessica, 23, who works in a London advertising agency, Lucy, 21, who attends Nottingham University, and James, 18, studying at Sheffield.