Entrepreneurs in Kenya Are the Future

Day 3: Karen and Nairobi, Kenya


Me in Kibera with Zulugrass from the Entrepreneurs

Today was a pretty amazing day here in Kenya. We met with Kenyan entrepreneurs this morning, and a representative from US AID, which is deeply invested in building Africa’s world presence as an exporter.

Then this afternoon, we spent time in Kibera, one of Nairobi’s most well known kagigis, or slums. The two are linked in my mind, because I think it is the first that will eventually help lift the circumstances of the second.

I heard a Kenyan joke today, “We don’t have oil here in Kenya- our people are are main exports.” We all laughed, but the truth is, though Kenya has many great natural resources, the people are an amazing asset. I have yet to meet an “ordinary” person. The energy, creativity, and enthusiasm they’ve gifted us with on this trip simply astonish me. And I don’t think they’re putting on brilliance for the out of towners, you really can’t fake this level of extraordinary-ness.

There, I’ve created a new word.

What do people brimming with energy, creativity, and enthusiasm do best?

That’s right. They make things.

BEAUTIFUL things, that quite enthralled the ten of us at the impromptu shop after our meeting this morning. We all left adorned with Zulugrass, Katchy Collections, and MooCow items, both gifted by the business owners and then purchased in alarming volumes by the lot of us.

The founder of Katchy Collections, Anthony Mulli, spoke of his employee philosophy:

“When I hire someone to work for me, I tell them, ‘You had a dream before you came here. Whatever it is, don’t become content in this position and forget it. If you want to go to university, do that and then there will be a place for you here in the business side. I am here to help you reach your dreams, as well.'”

That’s what will put an end to the need for places like Kibera. People with drive and spirit to spare, encouraging others to tap into their core strengths.

We visited the home of Mercy while in Kibera. She and her daughter Nicole live in a small room that is beautifully kept, but where she needs to walk to fetch water every day, cook in a small corner of the room, and risk respiratory infections and worse from living in an area that is notoriously good at spreading contagions.

But that is not even close to all of Mercy’s story. She also takes in clients and braids hair, a skill she learned from watching her mother, who learned from her mother.

Mercy braiding Emily's Hair

Mercy braiding Emily's Hair

She also makes beautiful jewelry, a skill she learned from a friend who taught her after she expressed interest. It rivals any that I’ve seen in shops, and I bought a beaded ring that I already know is one of my new favorite things. In fact, we’re talking about Mercy having an Etsy shop- and if and when she does, I will be so sure to let you know.

There are many Mercys in Kenya, with skill, drive, and an entrepreneurial spirit- but how to create a structure that allows for their products to reach a global market? Africa is sometimes viewed as remote, and has not always been the first place a company would look to to source products.

That’s where the ORIGIN Africa Project comes into play.

Origin Africa was developed by US AID as a part of the COMPETE program, which is part of the African Growth and Opportunies Act (AGOA).  COMPETE takes an integrated approach to addressing the issues of advancing trade and economic growth in East and Central Africa.

This approach is based on the premise that regional integration is the best way to grow regional markets, and simultaneously increase the competiveness of African products in global markets.

In other words: Trade, not aid, developed from a collaborative standpoint.
All stakeholders – from African farmers to U.S. retailers – develop, guide and promote African trade in apparel, cut flowers, specialty foods, home decor and fashion accessories. They also sponsor pretty stellar events, like July’s Africa Fashion Week New York.

But does it actually work to generate new trade opportunities?

Absolutely. It’s generated over $50 million in exports to the U.S. in just the last two years. This diversifying of the African economy can build stability, which will be a game-changer on both an individual and a continental level.

Another Kenyan entrepreneur we met this morning is Katy Leakey. Her business was founded in 2002 by Katy and her husband, Philip Leakey. They live in the rural bush of the Rift Valley in Kenya, among the Maasai. Together, they created a product called Zulugrass, which is so much more than adornment- though they’re gorgeous.

Katy Leakey Wearing Zulugrass in Karen, Kenya

Susan Leakey Wearing Zulugrass in Karen, Kenya


Their mobile work sites in the Rift Valley provide employment for over 1200 Massai women, depending on the time of year. Over 10,000 people are supported by the work generated from assembling Zulugrass.

Traditionally, Massai women do not earn an income, so there were initial cultural barriers to overcome when Zulugrass was developed. But the men of the tribe now prize the peace it brings- with the added income, their home lives grew more peaceful.

And as we know from the Female Report, women re-invest 90% of their earnings right back into their households, elevating the status of many. The women use the income for everything from the basics of food, education fees, and medical expenses, to improving their life styles such as buying their own herds of goats, purchasing land and starting their own businesses. Communities become more stable financially and politically. Small service businesses begin to flourish as there was money to spend locally.

Many educated, talented and skilled African designers and entrepreneurs are quickly and indelibly creating change in their countries. The next employee Anthony hires and mentors could be Mercy, and she and her daughter could perhaps save enough to leave Kibera and pursue her other dreams- to open her own salon, named after her daughter, and eventually see her daughter in medical school.



Today’s Agenda:
Speak with Kenyan entrepreneurs and learn about how the US Government plays a role in their business (Trade)
Meet with members of Carolina for Kibera and learn about their programs (Development)

Daily Action: Today we’re meeting with entrepreneurs in Karen, Kenya who are leading in building their communities’ economies and providing opportunities to others. Check out ONE’s report “Africa’s Future is Female” to learn more about how women are leading a revolution on the continent: http://one.org/c/international/hottopic/3806/?rc=onemompartner. Then, using hashtag #ONEMoms tell us (@ONECampaign) one thing that surprised you. Or leave a comment on our Facebook page (http://facebook.com/ONE)


Disclosure: Travel and lodging on this trip are covered by ONE.org, an advocacy group funded by their board and private foundations like The Gates Foundation. My editorial policies and content are governed only by me.


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Comments (8)

  1. Lyn H Saturday - 30 / 07 / 2011 Reply
    I really just wanted to say thanks so much for going to Kenya and sharing your experience online for other women, like me, to read. I started to get involved with HIV and AIDS campaigning back in 2002. sadly, not long after, I found myself in and out of Pediatricians and other specialists offices with my son for the next five years, so my campaigning kind of came to an end. Something has been stirring up within me again over the past three or four months. I recently finished reading Shayne’s book “Global Soccer Mom” and have been trying to work out what and how to get more involved with eradicating global poverty. The ONE Mom’s trip to Kenya has come at the right time for me. With each of your blog posts I have felt like I could be there in Kenya with me. I have greatly appreciated your raw honesty about everything and it has been good to see success among the slums etc. and where aid is helping. Your trip has impacted me so much. I went grocery shopping today and when I walked through the doors to the store I had to take a few deep breaths as I saw so much abundance in food, compared with images of Kibera that I had been looking at just twenty minutes beforehand. I can’t even begin to imagine the impact that it has had on you. So, thank you, may you have safe travels back home. Keep spreading the word ☺
  2. Pat Reed Saturday - 30 / 07 / 2011 Reply
    Ella and I enjoyed reading about Mercy this morning! What a wonderful story.
  3. Barbara Field Thursday - 04 / 08 / 2011 Reply
    I'm involved in a local women's microfinance group that gives small loans to women. We can change women's lives and that of their children! Thank you so much for shining light on the beautiful Anthony, Mercy and Leakys. Thank you for your generous spirit and being part of the ONE Mom's trip to Kenya!
  4. No Drama Momma Monday - 15 / 08 / 2011 Reply
    Thanks so much for sharing your trip to Africa. The personal experience is so much more than what you see on the news. And on a side note--so glad to see a fellow blogger from D.C. doing amazing things!
  5. Jillian Lauren Tuesday - 23 / 08 / 2011 Reply
    Loving these posts. Moving and fascinating. Thanks for sharing your experience!
  6. veronica lee Friday - 26 / 08 / 2011 Reply
    Hi! Stopping by from MBC. Great blog! Have a nice day! http://ofmiceandramen.blogspot.com
  • ONE Campaign Engages Mom Bloggers to Ignite New Audiences - August 4, 2011

    […] The bloggers broke through the jargon of complex global development issues. When the bloggers went to blog about their trip, they didn’t use the regular global development jargon you would expect to see. The moms connected with the Kenyan women in ways that many of their followers would as well. Jyl Pattee, of Mom it Forward, wrote about connecting with a woman in a Kenyan slum over blue eye shadow. Lindsay Maines of Rock and Roll Mama, discussed social entrepreneurship but sharing a story of jewelry making. […]

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