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From Factory Worker to Girls’ Education Champion
March 27, 2015

“Today we transform communities. Tomorrow we create the next generation of female leaders.”

— Kennedy Odede, founder of Shining Hope for Communities

Man and woman standing surrounded by students (Courtesy of Kennedy Odede)
Students surround Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner Odede.

With just 20 cents in savings, a soccer ball and no formal education, factory worker Kennedy Odede started the education nonprofit Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in the largest slum in Africa.

Odede, now 30, is a YALI Network member. Saying he was motivated by “the entrepreneurial spirit” of his neighbors in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, where more than 1 million people live in an area the size of New York City’s Central Park, Odede has become one of Africa’s best-known community organizers and social entrepreneurs.

SHOFCO aims to combat gender inequality and extreme poverty in urban slums by making girls’ schools catalysts of social change. “Our schools for girls serve as a long-term investment in transformative leadership. … Tomorrow, our girls will become next-generation leaders disrupting the systems that hold poverty in place,” the organization states.

SHOFCO’s core services are tuition-free education for girls and free health care, food and psychological services for residents of Kibera and Mathare, a separate collection of slums in Nairobi. It also provides these communities with affordable clean water and modern latrines.

Odede’s group begins to support girls from before they start school to when they complete university and begin careers. He recalls one particular girl that SHOFCO’s Kibera School for Girls helped transition from adversity to success.

One Girl’s Life Blooms

Pauline was 12 when she came to the school. Exposed to the traumas of civil unrest and the loss of her mother two years earlier, Pauline had underdeveloped physical and social abilities. So she was enrolled in a pre-kindergarten class. But over time, with the help of SHOFCO teachers and counselors, the young teen improved her hand-eye coordination, verbal communication and reading comprehension skills. She is now a proficient reader, a “wonderful writer” and more self-assured when she is around others, Odede says. She also excels in math, science and social studies.

“A positive environment and a quality education has contributed to a vastly growing confidence that has inspired Pauline’s dream of becoming a school manager,” he adds.

Man and girl leaning back-to-back (Courtesy of Kennedy Odede)
Kennedy Odede and one of the students of the SHOFCO Kibera School for Girls.

“Education is the greatest tool for women’s empowerment. It gives girls the tools to confront the challenges of the world [and] is the greatest way to give girls confidence,” Odede says.

Odede credits his mother — “denied an education and was still just a girl when I was born” — with inspiring him to fight for gender equality through education. Often beaten by her husband, his mother “taught me how to take care of other people and to take action to bring change. … My mother taught me to believe in the power of education,” he says.

SHOFCO involves the whole community in building new generations of empowered and healthy women, offering students’ mothers, fathers and brothers such opportunities as access to economic empowerment programs, adult literacy classes and youth sports teams. “Empowering women has always been about working from the grass roots. If you do not engage the entire community, including men, the change never lasts,” Odede says.

With more than 160 employees —  from teachers, to doctors and nurses, to case workers and data collectors — “SHOFCO is a movement that transforms urban poverty to urban promise,” he says.

New Partner and New Funding

Three years after Odede started SHOFCO, Jessica Posner, an American student of African-American studies, came to work at the organization and developed a strong bond with the community. Odede says that relationship “is something to be emulated — how people from different cultures can work together to fight poverty and gender equality.”

Odede continues to operate SHOFCO and has expanded its funding base to include grants from the Newman’s Own, Ford, General Electric, Pentair and Starkey Hearing foundations, Chime for Change, the Clinton Global Initiative and Barclays Bank, as well as donations from thousands of individuals every year. The organization plans to start operating in more urban slums and serve as a model for African leaders who want to start similar ventures in their communities.

Odede believes that with education, the best way to create more women leaders is by bringing in successful women to mentor girls.

“Today we transform communities. Tomorrow we create the next generation of female leaders,” Odede says.