Penelope James CPA puts her accounting skills to work in Kenyan permaculture project

PRI's accountant Loise (left) and Penelope James CPA at PRI-Kenya.

An urge to make a difference drew Penelope James CPA to a permaculture project in Kenya, where her accounting skills helped build financial management and confidence.

Certified practising accountant Penelope James spent her whole life in Melbourne until late 2016 when, driven by a need for change, she relocated to a small coastal town in northern New South Wales.

The change wasn’t just geographical. James became more aware of her impact on the environment and made use of the local farmers’ markets, began to eat less meat and was more conscious of her consumption. In over a year, she still hasn’t used up her first roll of plastic wrap.

Her growing passion for social justice and concern for the future of the environment saw her seeking the right opportunity to give back. 

“I thought to myself, I have turned around my life dramatically – I’m not going to stop being brave,” James says. 

The small business owner, who set up Archer Business and Accounting Services in 2012, has made a career based on her holistic, individualised approach – helping clients develop strategies, set goals, and understand their business operations. 

For many years she’d admired the work of humanitarian aid organisation MédecinsSans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and dreamed of being a medico so she could help. 

It was one such conversation with accounting friends that introduced her to Accounting for International Development (AfID), a CPA Australia-supported social enterprise that links experienced finance professionals with volunteering opportunities with not-for-profits around the globe. 

AfID suggested a number of options, but the one that stood out was the Permaculture Research Institute Kenya (PRI-Kenya). 

“I knew it had to be Africa, which has historically been pillaged by the Western world,” James says. 

“It’s a place where a lot of work needs to be put in to have a safer world and I feel we need a more equitable distribution of resources. 

Professional Development: Find a finance-related volunteer role

“I’m an accountant by trade and training, but if we don’t look after our planet and environment, everything else we do is moot.” 

In February, she travelled to Nairobi for five weeks to help with building the capacity of Permaculture Research Institute Kenya’s head office team. 

Working out of a tiny office affected by regular power outages, and with two desks for five people, she helped PRI’s accountant learn Xero, worked with its director to develop a big-picture overview and analysed the various programs being offered to tighten budgets and establish income-generating cash flows. 

Apart from instilling skills and knowledge, James boosted the team’s confidence. 

Just 18 months earlier, US$110,000 had been embezzled from the NGO, which resulted in a loss of donors and left the organisation financially fragile. By working to enhance the transparency of the NGO and strengthen its financial base, James was able to help entice donors back on board, restoring hope. 

“I was really well briefed by AfID about the organisation and the work involved,” James says. “I believed in everything they stood for and I felt their programs were something I wanted to assist with – even if it was at the backend with strategy and budgeting. I want those programs to succeed because they can be life-changing for participants.” 

James says the experience has enriched her life. 

“Since I got back from Kenya, I’m so appreciative of what it is to have stable government and infrastructure projects, to have roads and footpaths, and places to exercise, and reliable internet and power.”

She keeps in touch with the people she worked with in Kenya and continues to liaise with them whenever they need her advice. 

“Loise [PRI’s accountant] did the month-end [reports] for March and April and sent them through to me to look at. It was two months of beautiful stuff that all reconciled and contained everything we had been talking about. 

“It nearly made me cry.” 

Permaculture Research Institute Kenya

Permaculture Research Institute Kenya seeks to empower East African communities to become climate resilient, healthy and food secure by taking a holistic approach to farming. PRI-Kenya’s philosophy is based on embracing the relationships in nature as a tool to create sustainable ecosystems. 

It has a strong ethics base around regeneration of the environment and the fair distribution of resources. PRI-Kenya was registered as an NGO in 2011 as an umbrella for its three streams: permaculture, education, community projects, and research. 

For the past five years, PRI-Kenya has worked with farmers' associations and women's groups to set up small ecological enterprises to show communities how they can reap a sustainable income while regenerating their environment. 

By working with farmers to gather and analyse data, PRI-Kenya is investing in the science of the scheme by committing to research that will map the social, environmental and economic impact of permaculture in East Africa.

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