__There is a social entrepreneur in each one of us, waiting to be unleashed.
Last week when I was in Nairobi, I slipped away briefly from the conference on agriculture, which I wrote about in my last post, to visit some young friends, Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede.
I was accompanied by three dear friends and colleagues: David Rockefeller Jr, a philanthropist and conservationist (great grandson of John D Rockefeller, the founder of the Rockefeller Foundation); his wife Susan, a renowned filmmaker; and Josette Sheeran, President of the Asia Society. Josette is also the former executive director of the World Food Program, and sits on the board of AGRA.
I’d heard about the extraordinary work of Jessica and Kennedy from my wife. (They’re a married couple — she from America, and he from Kenya). I was keen to see it for myself!
This was not my first visit to Kibera, a sprawling, informal settlement where hundreds of thousands of people live on the outskirts of Nairobi. I’d been there before, and it was mostly still every bit an “eyesore” of struggling, urban, human existence and extreme poverty, as anywhere I’ve seen in Africa. I could have been in Diepsloot in Johannesburg, Katanga in Kampala, Makoko in Lagos… You know what I am talking about.
__But amidst all such places that can “look” so hopeless, you can also find hope shining…
“When were you last here?” my friend Josette asked, as we entered its dusty and noisy environment.
“Probably 5-10 years.”
“Has anything changed?”
“Not much, that I can see…”
To get where Jessica and Kennedy worked, we had to get out of the cars and walk through narrow streets for several miles. This is a hard environment, but the people were so friendly… that had not changed.
As we walked, Kennedy explained to me their audacious plan to build an aerial water reticulation system crisscrossing the entire settlement, to provide clean water. I was intrigued, and a little skeptical at first. But… when we got to the first water station complete with pipes running above us, I was completely taken aback!
Yes, they’ve begun to build a system which has water pipes in the air, rather than underground, something never tried before in such a place. I was impressed, very impressed. (Remember, I’m an engineer). I knew that laying water pipes below ground in such an environment would be prohibitively expensive… and this system stops water contamination and pipe tampering! This was pure innovation, which is why we call people like Jessica and Kennedy “social entrepreneurs.”
There was more:
# A school for girls starting at pre-school and primary. Another interesting innovation, they explained to me, was how parents who can’t afford to pay anything (which is virtually everyone) pay by volunteering time to clean the school, and cook meals for the girls, in rotation. I had never seen parents so engaged in the education of their children — beaming and excited. We need such engagement by parents in all our schools in Africa!
# The clinic was really a mini-hospital. They had so many innovations, some of them contributed by some very famous tech companies in Kenya like Safaricom, and Salesforce from America. Awesome!
Kennedy and Jessica actually live and work in Kibera where Kennedy was born and raised. When they first met, Kennedy was already working as a social entrepreneur in Kibera, but through the encouragement and assistance of Jessica, he managed to go to America and attend one of the country’s leading universities. They got married and returned to Kibera to continue their work, now armed with an education.
Walking back with Kennedy beside me, still talking enthusiastically about his plans to transform Kibera, I didn’t say much. My thoughts were filled with so many emotions. For one, I thought of the irony of an old nun who had just been declared a saint only a week earlier by the Pope in Rome.
I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I still admire the Pope and what he represents, and I’m privileged to have lived in a time when Mother Teresa worked and lived in the slums of the informal settlement of Kolkata in India, with the same selflessness and passion of Jessica and Kennedy.
“Did this young man and his lovely wife know about her and her sainthood?” I wondered to myself, but didn’t ask.
“Thank you for the assurance, that behind my generation is one coming up, which is better than my own,” I told them as we left, adding: “You are doing God’s work, and it is not without recompense.”
As my friend Josette explained to me when we entered Kibera: “Less than 100 years ago, there were places like this in cities of America and Europe. This is how they transformed them into what you see today… people like Jessica and Kennedy.”
All that needs to happen for change to happen is when one or two people stand up for that change.