Kennedy is a social entrepreneur and founder of the movement, Shining Hope For Communities (Shofco), aimed at bringing people from low-income areas together to transform their neighborhoods and lifestyles by working as a unit.
He grew up in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, having ran away from home, he ended up on the streets for food and resale plastic bags.
However, today, he’s the author of a movement that has bettered over 250,000 lives, educating and sponsoring girls and boys from primary to the university level, and providing amenities in slums around the country. An act born of experience.
He 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.
Only last year, Kennedy won the Hilton Humanitarian Award, the biggest award of its kind in the world.
In his words, “Poverty makes you invisible, it robs you of your dignity. I want to help people in this situation change their lives.”
“There’s a popular saying that if you want to educate a village, educate a woman. I think this is a Western concept. I’m not sure it works in the Africa setting. I believe if you want to educate a village, get the men involved as well,” Kennedy Odede said in an interview.
Here’s what how he began his journey to building Shofco:
“Growing up, there was never enough food at home, my parents couldn’t educate me and my father was violent.
I didn’t see a future there, so I went to the streets. The irony is that being on the streets opened my 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.”
When asked how Shofco grew so big, seeing that it operates in eight slums around the country, he said;
“I believe when you do the right thing the right way for long enough, people will hear about it and show up to join your cause.
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 me an email asking if she could come and teach us theatre.
I replied: “This is a black movement and we don’t welcome Americans. Sorry.”
I didn’t think she’d reply, but she did, telling me she was different and felt that theatre was a great way to impact young lives.
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 it, and she came to Kenya to teach us 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.
We 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. We run Kibera School for Girls, which was visited by, among others, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta and celebrity artiste Madonna.
We have 10 students on scholarship in the US. We 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, we run a health centre that treats more than 1,000 people a week.
We offer clean, piped water, and two years ago started a Sacco that now has 40,000 members and has loaned out Sh30 million.”
When asked how it’s been like meeting some of the world’s best-known leaders, here’s what he said;
I like the fact that I’ve been able to speak frankly with them.
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.
I 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, I ended up standing next to a man I 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.”