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

Wed, 11 December 2019
kennedy-odede-shofco-kenya-nairobi-shining-hope-communitiesPhoto: Candace Hope

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.

A 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 lifetime.

Where are you from and how has that shaped or inspired you?

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 setup Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO)?

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 Kenya.

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?

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 slum.

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 me.

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 remember.

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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