Written by Adrian Noronha.
Part 2 of a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1.
In part 1 of my piece on "The Africa the Media Never Shows You," I spoke about how a Western foreigner like myself is expected to write about my experience in Kenya based on the bleak media narrative of Africa we are used to receiving in the West. I revealed that I wanted instead to use this space to focus on the positive aspects of my experience in Kenya, inspired by the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, and to shine light on the story of an entrepreneurial Kenya I have been exposed to that the media never shows you. With this article, I am not attempting to ignore the very-real struggles and challenges that many Kenyans and Africans face, but rather celebrate and highlight the great aspects of Kenya that we rarely hear about – in particular, the vibrant community of motivated entrepreneurs that exists here.
In these next two parts, I will profile the stories of entrepreneurs and enterprises I have come across in Kenya that have inspired and impacted me, and have taught me lessons about entrepreneurship. With each profile, I will tell you a little bit of the story they have shared with me, the challenges they face, why they inspire me, some of the things I’ve learned from them, and then link you to where you can get more information about their products and story. I hope I can do their stories justice.
VAVA COFFEE – empowering vulnerable Kenyan communities using coffee
Vava Coffee is the company I have been working for this summer. Vava Coffee is a social enterprise that empowers vulnerable communities across Kenya, using coffee as its choice instrument of change.
Vava Coffee offers a solution to the challenge faced by coffee farmers in Kenya. The challenge: the major coffee companies that control the Kenyan coffee industry purchase indirectly from auctions and farming co-operatives, but in the process coffee farmers are cut out of making sustainable profits for growing coffee. Vava Coffee’s solution: establish direct relationships with small-holder coffee farmers across Kenya, ignore auction-house prices, and pay all of their farmers a fair price for their coffee so farmers can grow coffee profitably and live sustainably.
But that’s not all Vava Coffee does. They also work with Choose Life Today, a self-help group of HIV+ women in Kibera who make the handcrafted fabric coffee bags. Vava Coffee provides these women with work and sustainable source of income, which they have difficulty finding due to the social stigma associated with being an HIV+ woman. What’s unique about Vava Coffee is their entire supply chain takes place within Kenya, and focuses on providing employment and sustainable income for traditionally marginalized and vulnerable communities within Kenya.
Vava Coffee's handcrafted coffee bags, made by Choose Life Today
Vava Coffee would be nothing without its very bold and badass founder, Vava Angwenyi, a Kenyan-born woman who studied at my own Western University in London, Canada. Vava founded Vava Coffee in 2009. I have gotten to know Vava over the course of my experience, and have been inspired by her inborn passion for both Kenyan coffee and social change.
As a woman and female entrepreneur in Kenya, Vava faces many challenges that men do not, and the challenges she faces are exacerbated by the Kenyan cultural stigma arising from her being a single unmarried mother. For female entrepreneurs like Vava, particularly if unmarried, it is difficult to access financing as banks and investors immediately judge her to be untrustworthy and unreliable with money. Vava and our team were at dinner one evening with a prominent male investor in the hopes of obtaining financing, but during the meeting, the investor was intoxicated and unserious and paying more attention to the soccer game on the TV screen behind us than he was on our discussion. Over the course of the night, he also seemed more focused getting into Vava’s pants than into her business.
In spite of such challenges and situations, Vava is never a person to back down from a challenge and is resilient in the face of obstacles. She has persisted, and is a prime role model of what a Kenyan woman entrepreneur can accomplish in Kenya. Currently, she is representing Kenya on an exciting fellowship opportunity in the USA called the Africa Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, organized by the US State Department to empower female African entrepreneurs. Vava has faced tough challenges, but she has not given up, and I respect that spirit. From Vava, I have learned to be tough, self-assured, and persistent in the face of failure and in the face of being told I’m not enough. I have also learned from her to never give up on what I believe in. That never-give-in mentality is what has propelled Vava to success and opportunity.
Choose Life Today: self-employed HIV+ women in Kibera pursuing economic empowerment, and fighting the stigma of HIV/AIDS
In urban slum areas such as Nairobi's Kibera slum (also the largest urban slum in Africa), HIV/AIDS is endemic, and women find themselves at a much higher risk than men of being infected, a consequence of gender inequality and widespread sexual violence against women in slum areas. Infected women in slums find themselves highly stigmatized and are often unable to find sustainable work and income; the struggle is often exacerbated by the fact that their husbands have either left them (after having infected them no less), or have died from the illness, leaving these unemployed women as the sole care-providers for their children (often also infected). Without a sustainable source of income, these women cannot provide for themselves or their children nor can they purchase the antiretroviral medications that keep them alive and healthy.
The picture I just painted is consistent with the picture of poverty, illness, and struggle that we typically associate with Africa. One might also imagine in this picture international NGO's and foreign governments swooping in to provide aid and rescue HIV/AIDS-infected Africans. While these struggles make up the reality many HIV+ women face, and while NGO's such as the Red Cross are doing commendable work to help fight the illness and the stigma through funding and support programs, the image I have painted is far from the full picture.
The full picture is incomplete without bringing attention to groups like Choose Life Today.
Located in a small two-storey resource center in Olympic village of Nairobi’s Kibera slum (the largest urban slum in Africa), Choose Life Today is a self-employed group of 10 women, all of whom are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Many of these women are widowed, most of them have multiple children to care for, some of them have faced traumatic sexual violence by men, many of them didn’t have the opportunity to pursue a secondary education, and all of them face the stigma of being impacted by HIV/AIDS.
But as the name of the group “Choose Life Today” suggests, the women have decided they will not live their lives helpless and weak. These are strong, resilient, and tenacious women. And the force of necessity to make a sustainable income for themselves and their families has brought these women together to forge a path out of the stigma, poverty and illness born from their challenging circumstances. These self-employed women, joined under the umbrella of Choose Life Today make and supply beautiful handcrafted bead and fabric and bead products from which they generate income. These women also make the beautiful handcrafted bags containing the coffee bags Vava Coffee sells. The products they make and sell include everything from child's dolls, tablemats, traditional African shirts, and quilted handbags. These women are skilled and trained in their craft, and each woman has her own specialty (i.e. a book-bag made by a woman in the group named Gladys is now called by the other women “the Gladys bag”).
Choose Life Today is led by Rose Mongare, a woman carrying equal measures of passion and compassion. Rose always wears a smile on her face, has a mischievous laugh, and a playful and ribbing sort of humour. At the conception of Choose Life Today, Rose brought the women together as a prayer group to provide them with spiritual empowerment and community, but with the assistance of organizations such as Shining Hope for Communities in Kibera and Netherlands NGO Uniting Global Communities Through Aid (UGCA), the centre has transformed into a self-help centre for economic empowerment.
When you walk into the work room of resource centre in which the women work, pinned above the sewing machines, above piles of colourful fabric and stacks of product, you will see walls covered in handwritten posters preaching messages of optimism, hope, self-care, and spiritual empowerment. These are precisely the qualities these women have chosen to live. Beyond the energy, humor, warmth and of course sass that these women exude, they are carry an optimism and hope I am not used to seeing amongst the Canadian university students I encounter every day back in Canada. True to the name of the group, the women have chosen to make something of their lives today; and they are carpe diem’ing the heck out of their lives.
For the past few weeks, on every Tuesday my co-intern Nicola and I have visited the centre to share lunch and conversation with the ladies. We provide the money for ingredients, and one of the ladies who is also named Rose (we call the other Rose #1, Mama Rose) cooks a delicious meal for us – usually some combination of rice, ugali, steamed cabbage, meat or bean stew, and kachumbari salad (my absolute favorite Kenyan dish ever). One time, we brought the ladies a bottle of Tanzanian red wine on their request, and they were very happy about that. Gladys (pictured far left in the picture below) in particular couldn’t keep the excitement off her face, and has said that she will be taking a small gulp of wine every day for the next week on the recommendation of her physician.
What Choose Life Today currently is in search of right now is investment to expand the centre, bring in more women under the umbrella, and to finance additional training. A more pressing need however is finding sustainable markets for their products. Nicola and I are trying to assist the ladies with finding these; we will help them launch a new website, rebrand, and create a catalogue that can be sent to potential markets containing their products, the story of Choose Life Today, and the stories of the ladies.
As a start to this, last week, with the assistance of the talented pro-photographer Julian Manjahi who agreed to work with us pro-bono, we spent our lunch with the ladies professionally photographing their products, also taking photographs of the ladies (many of them had fun modelling their own creations, i.e. Gladys and the Gladys bag, some of them were very skilled models - Tyra banks would be impressed).
We also spent some time taking the ladies stories. While I played assistant to photographer Julian, Nicola spent time interviewing the ladies. From these interviews, we found that beyond the challenges these ladies have faced in their lives, they also had unique hopes and aspirations for the future. For instance, Margaret (who specialized in making beautiful fabric dolls, and quilted bags), aged 45 and mother of 8 children (you would never be able to tell from her picture though), is currently taking pursuing an education that she was never able to take before, and her favorite class is English. Rose number 2, who cooked all of our delicious lunches, aspires to start her own restaurant.
Rose aspires to start her own restaurant
The women of have taught me a few crucial things. They have taught me that I should live my life in the present. They have taught me that instead of wallowing in my struggle and challenges, I must fight and take action to overcome the challenges I face. Most importantly, I must also live my life with hope and optimism burning in my heart to fuel me in the face of challenges.
In the case of the women of Choose Life Today in Kibera, their entrepreneurship is born out of necessity, born because opportunities for employment do not exist or are impossible to pursue because of the stigma they face. But it is also born out of optimism and hope for a better future. The entrepreneurship from necessity and hope that the ladies have demonstrated has proven to me that the human spirit, when placed under difficult circumstances, is a force to be reckoned with. The highly motivated and hopeful women of Choose Life Today are a prime example of the force and power of the human spirit.
Right now, Choose Life Today does not have their own website, as we are working to launch this soon with their catalogue. However, you can learn more about them on the page set up for them on UGCA's website and a UGCA youtube video featuring Rose. You can also email Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries and more information.
Soap, honey, school uniforms and women's TV: Serah Mucha, serial entrepreneur
Serah Mucha is a fierce Kenyan woman who along with her husband Ronnie Mdawida, manages the Mdawida Homestay I have stayed in for the past three months. Serah is a personable and charismatic mother of three boys, and carries a healthy amount of sass and spirited wit. She also makes a mean chicken and vegetable curry, and legendary fried chicken that is far better than anything you can buy at KFC (and she has some pretty sweet dance moves).
Beyond all of that however, Serah is also an ambitious serial entrepreneur who manages multiple projects and businesses. In addition to the Mdawida Homestay, Serah also leads other ventures under the “Dawida” brand name, selling organic homemade soap, and organic honey. Serah also makes and sells school uniforms to her children’s school, and has a consultancy business on the side. While managing even those five would be impressive on its own, that’s not even the end of it.
Serah and a group of other Kenyan women will soon be launching a TV talk show, for Kenyanw omen made by Kenyan women. The format, similar to American women talk shows like “The View” and “The Talk” but showcasing African women and issues, will feature a group of Kenyan women with distinct personalities and perspectives debating current issues facing the everday African woman. I have been fortunate to see clips of the Pilot episode and in this particular episode, the ladies were discussing the issue of African men who cheat (they also had a workout “operation: lose that potbelly” segment). The show gives Kenyan women a voice and I was very impressed by the quality of the content and execution, even though the pilot was by Serah’s admission only a rough cut. And Serah totally stole the show – she was vocal, opinionated, charismatic and sassy. I definitely think we have a future Kenyan superstar in the works.
Serah Mucha, hard at working, cutting her organic "Dawida" soap
Serah presents an example of a Kenyan woman who knows how to identify opportunities and gaps in the market and go after them. Her women's TV show, which would be a refreshing addition to the Kenyan TV landscape, is perhaps the best example of that. In her own words, Serah “offers simple solutions to complex problems” and her "business is people." Serah has a strong business-mind and is a charismatic people-person. I have learned from her the value of effectively navigating relationships and people to be a successful businessperson. I have also seen from her the value of diversifying your prospects, and managing multiple ventures with success. Serah is able to do that all exceptionally, all the while having a strong and stable family life at home.
You can find more about the Mdawida Homestay and book a room there (highly recommended!) by visiting their website. You can contact Serah to find out more about her story and her multiple ventures by emailing her at email@example.com.
That's it for the stories of entrepreneurs and enterprises I will share today. You may have noticed that all three of these stories feature strong women entrepreneurs, and that is because I have seen many strong female entrepreneurs in Kenya. Gender inequality in Kenya and throughout Africa is a reality that should be and is widely acknowledged, but strong female entrepreneurs such as Vava Angwenyi, the women of Choose Life Today, and Serah Mucha disprove any notion that African women are oppressed and silent.
In the upcoming final part 3 of my piece on the Africa the media never shows you, I will continue with four more stories of entrepreneurs in Kenya that are showcasing to me the entrepreneurial and innovative Kenya the media never shows you! In the meantime “Asante sana” for reading this far. I hope you have enjoyed reading three amazing stories of entrepreneurship in Kenya.