SHOFCO’s Kennedy Odede on the Slums of Nairobi and the Power of Community

SHOFCO’s Kennedy Odede on the Slums of Nairobi and the Power of Community

Kennedy Odede is the co-founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a grassroots movement that aims to combat urban poverty and gender inequality in the slums of Nairobi.

non-profit organisation with a social agenda, Shining Hope for
Communities (SHOFCO) started small. Growing up in Kibera, the
largest slum in Africa, Kennedy Odede made $1 for 10 hours work as
a teenager. After saving up 20 cents, he bought a football so that
the youth in his community “could come together and play soccer”.
Inspired by Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s mobilisation of the Civil
Rights Movement through the church, Kennedy saw similar
opportunities to unify community through sports.

Co-founded in 2004, the non-profit SHOFCO became the first youth
group in Kibera to be founded and run by slum residents. Combatting
urban poverty and gender inequality in the slums of Nairobi,
SHOFCO’s model focuses on holistic community services, providing
community advocacy platforms for all, as well as education and
leadership development for women and girls.

Never formally educated himself, the social entrepreneur and New
York Times bestselling author has achieved more and done more for
others in his 35 years of living than most could hope to do in a

Where are you from and how has that shaped or inspired

Just ten years ago, I lived in Africa’s largest slum. I have
experienced a dramatic transformation from a life that felt
hopeless and powerless to one filled with both hope and
opportunity. I realised that hope is essential for survival amidst
the crushing realities of poverty – it won’t solve all the problems
associated with extreme poverty, but hope reminds us of the promise
of imagination and ingenuity.

In Kibera I lived a devastating daily reality in urban poverty
for twenty-three years. The oldest of eight children, I experienced
the cycles of structural violence, gender inequality and
hopelessness first hand. At age seven, I began to sell peanuts on
the road. Never formally educated, I taught myself to read and
write. I dreamed of finding a way to change my community.

At 10 years old, I was the secretary for my mum’s womens’ group
in our home. The women began to save, and soon this economic
freedom empowered them to speak out against the regular violence
they experienced. The women’s group was outlawed, but my mum wasn’t
deterred and they continued to meet in secret. Ethical leadership
means standing up for what you know is right, even if your
community isn’t ready.

Tell us about how you obtained a scholarship to study in the
US, having never gone to school…

My education was entirely informal. I taught myself how to read
and write from garbage scraps that I found on the street. There was
a time when a priest sponsored my education, but at first I did not
do well in math. The teacher said to me “Kennedy, one day you will
be the CEO of a large organisation and you will need to know math
so you can review the expense reports and make sure nobody is
stealing money”. That really stuck with me, the idea that knowledge
would be a tool for leadership.

While I was growing the SHOFCO movement, I met a Wesleyan
University student named Jessica studying abroad in Nairobi. She
encouraged me to apply to school in the United States. I was
awarded a scholarship to Wesleyan University, and became the first
person from Kibera to receive a college education.

Why did you decide to return to Nairobi?

Kenya is my home. Even when I left Kibera for college, I always
felt connected to my community. I am at my happiest when I am
spending time with the people in the community.

What inspired you to set up Shining Hope for Communities

As a teenager, I was working a factory job and earning $1 a day
for 10 hours of manual work. That job is where I experienced real
pain and suffering that comes from knowing that you have worked
hard and yet have so little to show for it. I saved 20 cents and
bought a football to bring together the youth in my community
through sport. I was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King and how he
grew the Civil Rights Movement out of a church. My church was
soccer. SHOFCO became the first youth group in Kibera founded and
run by slum residents. I ran SHOFCO for four years with no money,
but with faith in people’s abilities to change their own lives.

Tell us more about SHOFCO and what your role entails…

I am the co-founder and CEO of SHOFCO. We believe in the
strength and resilience of the urban poor, and their capacity to
create a better future. Our model combats extreme poverty and
gender inequality by linking schools for girls to a set of
high-value, holistic community services for all. In our model, a
girls’ school becomes a portal for large-scale social change.

SHOFCO’s innovative approach brings gender equality to urban
communities, inviting both men and women to participate in the
solution. SHOFCO’s innovative model creates a ripple effect of
improvements across areas of education, health, sustainable
livelihoods, water, sanitation and health. In 2018, SHOFCO directly
impacted over 300,000 beneficiaries across eight urban slums in

How do you recruit your staff at SHOFCO?

Seventy per cent of SHOFCO staff are slum dwellers. We are the
biggest employer in Kibera. That’s really important to me, the idea
of creating jobs in the community where you work. When you are an
organisation that is embedded In the community, that recruitment
process happens very organically. We involve community members in
other ways, too. For example, in our primary school for girls,
mothers cook and serve food in the kitchen. I love spending time
with the mums and washing dishes together.

You take a community-led approach to urban poverty. How can we
best help empower poorer communities around the world?

Any solution is always more successful when there is a feeling
of ownership in the community. When I walk around Kibera, I notice
the pride that people take in being part of the SHOFCO network.
Real power comes from the things that make people hopeful about
their future.

What are your views on philanthropy, as it stands, in

Africa is not a uniform continent, so there are many different
patterns to watch. Overall I think the rise of African philanthropy
is a good sign. For me, the more important thing is the question of
whether that economic growth is really benefiting the most
vulnerable. The power of economic self-sufficiency and inclusion
provides more benefit to more people’s lives than pure philanthropy
ever can.

What’s next for SHOFCO?

In the past three years, I have built a platform to organize
Kibera residents called SUN (SHOFCO Urban Network). SUN brings
together a network of individuals with the vision of giving the
urban poor a voice. On a micro-level, SUN facilitates community
groups and peer-to-peer savings networks to create an
entrepreneurial investment fund for businesses, and micro-life
insurance funds. On a macro-level, SUN mobilises groups and
community members to lead grassroots campaigns focused on peace,
family planning, land rights and government service provision;
promoting community participation in change and creating a platform
for leadership accountability. In Kibera, SUN has more than 30,000
members and has influenced government action to build a road in the

SUN does not yet have a strong presence in the other urban slums
across Kenya. If I had unlimited resources I would expand SUN to
catalyse a country-wide slum dwellers’ movement. That is my vision
for the future.

Best piece of advice you ever received…

Growing up in Kenya, specifically the slums, politics were
always associated with corruption.

It was felt that the government did not care about us. I was
deeply angry about my own experiences of being ignored and
right-less within my own country. This wound has stayed with

However, as my goals for sustainable change have grown, I have
realised that the government is an essential part of achieving
change in Kenya and throughout the world. Our unwillingness to work
with the government ensured that the progress we wanted and needed
could not happen. One cannot thrive without the other; we need to
work together for structural changes. Since this realisation, I’ve
met with several government officials and discussed ways to partner
and promote peace.

Where’s your next adventure?

One of my heroes is Marcus Garvey. Someday I want to go and
visit where he lived in Jamaica.
Maybe we will go on a family trip when my babies are old enough to

What are you reading at the moment?

I am a new father and I always keep a stack of good books on the
nightstand for when I am up during the night. I love to go back to
the books that really shaped me growing up. I often re-read Nelson
Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr – these are the books that
inspire me to think about the purpose in how I spend every day.

If there was one destination you could go back to immediately,
which one would it be?

West Point slum in Liberia. For many grassroots leaders on the
front lines, it’s easy to feel alone in your work. I love any
chance to visit with other leaders who are working in real
partnership with their communities to make a positive change and
bring hope to the people.

And finally, what’s in your SUITCASE?

I always pack light, wherever I’m travelling. I can’t get on a
plane without a notebook and pen. I love to use my time on planes
to think and collect myself.

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