Meeting him on the streets of Nairobi, you would think this down-to-earth lad is just another kawaida mwananchi, but Kennedy is anything ‘But’ !
Kennedy Odede is a social entrepreneur and founder of the movement, Shining Hope For Communities (Shofco), which brings people from low-income areas together to transform their neighbourhoods and lifestyles by working as a unit.
He grew up in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, and when he ran away from home, he ended up on the streets of Nairobi begging for food and collecting plastic bags for resale to survive.
Today, he’s behind an influential transformational movement that’s changed more than 250,000 lives, educating and sponsoring girls and boys from primary to university level, and providing amenities in slums around the country.
He’s brushed shoulders with past and present presidents and prime ministers, including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. At a World Economic Forum, he shared a platform with Bill Gates and Bono, giving a speech at a private dinner.
He also has a New York Times bestseller, Find Me Unafraid. The movie rights have been bought by celebrity actor, director and producer, Tony Goldwyn, who played President Fitzgerald Grant in the acclaimed US TV series, Scandal.
And last year, Kennedy won the Hilton Humanitarian Award, the biggest award of its kind in the world.
All this, and he’s just 34 and amazingly down to earth, brushing off his achievements and instead choosing to focus on his driving force.
“Poverty makes you invisible, it robs you of your dignity,” he says.
“I want to help people in this situation change their lives.”
He shared his story with a local publishing house.
Growing up, there was never enough food at home, his parents couldn’t educate me and his father was violent.
He didn’t see a future there, so he took to the streets. The irony is that being on the streets opened his eyes to a world greater than Kibera.
Up until then, I thought the richest people were the guards who had jobs in places like Industrial Area because their children had food and went to school. When I got to the city, I saw a completely different level of wealth.
But in this world, I was even more invisible and irrelevant than I’d been in Kibera. It hit me that being poor in Kenya was like being black in America when a black person wasn’t considered human enough to vote. Poverty meant you were a secondary citizen with no voice. I wanted to change this.
About four years later, and then in 2004,he decided to go back to Kibera.
It had become clear that no one was coming to save him or his friends from our situation. He surprisingly convinced them that we could start a movement to help ourselves.
The first meeting only had four people: Mary Mutio, who eventually ran our Health and Sanitation arm, George Okewa, whom we nicknamed ‘Serikal’, Nicholas Masivu, whom we envied because he had a Simu ya Jamii business, and me, whom the community nicknamed ‘Mayor.’ Our task was to spread the word about our movement.
In three months, they had 200 members.
We ran sports, theatre and environmental activities. We went into money-making ventures like rearing chicken, selling eggs and making jewellery. We were working towards self-sustenance.
Kennedy believes that when you do the right thing the right way for long enough, people will hear about it and show up to join your cause. That’s what he credits to bis growth into 8 Kenyan slums.
I didn’t think of it this way in the beginning. In fact, I was beyond help, especially from foreigners because I didn’t think they understood our plight. I felt their help was about rich people sitting around drinking wine and champagne and talking about poor people to make themselves feel better.
In 2007, however, a woman from the United States called Jessica Posner sent them an email asking if she could come and teach theatre.
I replied: “This is a black movement and we don’t welcome Americans. Sorry.”
To his surprise she replied telling me she was different and felt that theatre was a great way to impact young lives.
Because of her insistence, Kennedy shared her offer with the committee. Serikal thought we should give her a chance, but agreed she had to send a CV so we could verify her credentials.
Picture this: I only checked my emails once a month because I didn’t have money for bus fare into town and had to walk all the way. I couldn’t type or access my email account without help, so this guy, Njoroge, would log in for me – I didn’t even know my own password.
But we had the audacity to ask this American lady to send a CV before we considered her.
She did send the CV and came to Kenya to teach theatre.
The first day she arrived in Kibera, I had to buy a soda on credit to offer her something to drink. It was money well spent though – Jessica Posner is now my wife.
On a professional level, she brought structure and systems to our organisation. Up until then, we didn’t keep any books, files or data.
In fact, I’d take it as an affront if someone asked me for a receipt. Why? I wasn’t a thief.
Jessica made me see the error of my ways, including my ‘no foreigners’ policy. With structure came confidence from larger organisations and it opened us up to the rest of the world.
They have had some great partners, like the M-Pesa and Safaricom foundations and the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI).
Today, Shofco has 600 members of staff. They run Kibera School for Girls, which was visited by, among others, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta and celebrity artiste Madonna.
They have 10 students on scholarship in the US. They also get sponsorships for boys and girls to attend top-notch high schools around the country. More than 300 students have passed through this system.
Through the girl’s school, they run a health centre that treats more than 1,000 people a week. As well as offer clean, piped water, and two years ago started a Sacco that now has 40,000 members and has loaned out Sh30 million.
I like the fact that I’ve been able to speak frankly with the world’s best-known leaders .
When I met former US President Bill Clinton, for instance, he started a discussion about the free education in primary schools in Kenya and how proud he was of that initiative.
Kennedy told him that the shortfall of the free education in Kenya was that it came without infrastructure and so many of those who needed it the most hadn’t benefited from it.
I think my boldness caught his attention and we spoke for a while. He introduced me to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom I met with for an hour. He gave me insightful strategies and helped open many doors. Both have supported and walked with Shofco.
At a different event, Kennedy ended up standing next to a man he thought was simply called ‘Tom’ and we talked for 45 minutes.
I then asked him what he did for a living and he told me he was in entertainment. Turns out I was talking to movie star Tom Hanks.
My world as a child revolved around survival, I didn’t have the luxury to learn about the finer things in life, and I don’t pretend that I did. I think that makes me real and I gain trust from people.
Kennedy doesn’t refer to himself as a hero.
I promised myself I’ll never become an elitist and lose the thing that pushed me to start Shofco in the first place. I’m an ordinary man who built a movement out of necessity for survival. That’s it.
The things that move me are the milestones we’ve made, and the journey always continues.