Film director Lauren DeFilippo, journalist Larry Madowo, Caroline Teti and LBx Africa co-founder Sam Soko at the premiere of 'Free Money' at Toronto International Film Festival.
Image: courtesy

How would you react if someone offered you money to spend whichever way you want, no strings attached, for 12 years?

This was the dilemma most residents of Kogutu village in Western Kenya faced. Many were reluctant to accept free money.

"What if we are being recruited to some cult or Illuminati?" was one of the questions they asked themselves.


Each registered beneficiary is receiving $22 (Sh3,198) a month sent directly to their mobile money wallet.

GiveDirectly, a US non-profit organisation, decided to carry out an experiment that involved dishing out money to needy communities as part of a universal basic income project.

Kogutu village was picked as part of the experiment in Kenya.


The project, being bankrolled by Silicon Valley, is one of the ways the organisation is looking at disrupting global poverty—by giving people cash.

Experiments like these have been carried out before, but in different forms, whereby people are equipped with materials or machines to make a living out of them. Many did not succeed.

The documentary, which was filmed over five years, is scheduled to premiere on Netflix on September 1, 2023.

Free Money chronicles the ups and downs of the experiment for the residents of Kogutu while revealing the possibilities and pitfalls of this radical project.

The idea of people getting support from the government was more evident during the pandemic. The need to provide a social safety net through UBI was widely accepted to reduce stress and anxiety among citizens.

The film will answer the question many people already have in mind. Will giving people money work in practice, and what consequences might there be?

Some men in the village feared that their women might leave them after receiving the money. Others feared their women would 'grow horns'.

According to studies by various organisations, including GiveWell, cash transfers have a strong track record as a poverty intervention method in low-income households compared to other forms like food assistance or vouchers.

At the World Government Summit in 2017, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk said UBI would ultimately be necessary.

Automation of industries will leave many people jobless. “I don′t think we have a choice. These are not things I wish they'd happen, but I think they′ll probably happen,” he said.

The documentary is a collaboration between Kenyan-based film production company LBx Africa, led by director Sam Soko, and Lauren DeFilippo of New York's Insignia Films.

When Lauren learnt about the UBI experiment, she came to Kenya and got hold of Soko to bring the film to life.

The idea of Westerners experimenting on poor Kenyans had been shocking to DeFilippo from the start, and it was a critical piece of the film she wanted to make.

After a few meetings with DeFilippo and a visit to the village, Soko was hooked.

During a recent question-and-answer session with DOK.Fest München, one of Europe's largest documentary festivals, Soko said he was also sceptical about the whole UBIn project, taking into consideration previous NGO interventions.

“Getting to be part of this film was not only important, but it will also bring out the macro conversations of what is taking place here and how we can deal with poverty now and in the future,” Soko said.

Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo is featured in the film as a sceptical observer, with the aim of knowing the consequences of outsiders re-engineering a local economy in this manner.

The film highlights how the villagers decided to spend their money. John Omondi chose to use his share to cater for his basic needs while in college.

It also shows how neighbouring villages reacted to their friends' benefit in Kogutu while they missed out.

The documentary, the first of a three-part series, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

As the film makes its Netflix debut next month, it will also have a theatrical run at the Unseen theatre.