Success Story from Kenya: Social Entrepreneur Kennedy Odede brings Hope to Nairobi’s Slums

Kennedy Odede (Kenya)

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Kennedy Odede was born to a teenage mother in 1984. He was the oldest of eight children. Kennedy was raised in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in all of Africa. He recalls getting his first grey hair at age six and being alone and on the streets by age ten. Kennedy, who was named for John F. Kennedy, did not attend school regularly due to a lack of school fees, but loved books and had a passion for learning. By the age of 13 he was selling peanuts at bus stations as a means to get by. Life was very difficult, but Kennedy also had a desire to make a positive difference in his community where open sewers and a lack of access to piped water, education, and healthcare was the norm.

He moved in with his grandmother for a couple of years and was able to obtain a bit more formal education in a rural setting. Thereafter Kennedy returned to Kibera to work as a day laborer, carrying stones for construction. One day he met an American named Alex who hooked him up with a “pen pal” in the USA. Through Linda, the mother of his original pen pal, Kennedy was assisted to attend an inexpensive high school in Naivasha, around an hour’s drive from Nairobi.

Back in Kibera once again, Mr. Odede was increasingly distressed by what he witnessed. A friend was shot to death by the police, another committed suicide. He personally woke up sad and without hope at times due to the terrible poverty in Kibera. Mr. Odede even contemplated suicide, but remembered what his mother said to him as a child, “you don’t have to be rich to make someone’s life better.” He also was inspired by a book of speeches by Martin Luther King he received when he was 16 years old. Martin Luther King didn’t wait for a donor to assist him; he took action to make things better in his community on his own.

In 2004, Mr. Odede purchased a soccer ball with money saved from working at a factory and founded a Kibera-based organization called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). After founding SHOFCO, Mr. Odede would wake up hopeful and wanting to see the sunrise. SHOFCO grew and people began to refer to Mr. Odede as “the Mayor of Kibera.” Several years later, an undergraduate student volunteer from Wesleyan University in the US state of Connecticut, Jessica Posner, entered Mr. Odede’s life. Ms. Posner wound up moving in with Mr. Odede, helping him to secure a full scholarship to her alma mater, and, in 2009, the year she graduated from Wesleyan, establish the Kibera School for Girls.

As a Wesleyan student, Mr. Odede not only had access to an excellent education, but things that the other students took for granted. Mr. Odede recalls spending two hours in the shower the first time he had access to one as well as running to the cafeteria to be first in line, fearing that the food might run out. He initially wanted to use his US opportunity to make a lot of money and was going to be a doctor or a corporate lawyer. Then he recognized that thinking based on greed was not good. He realized that life is about making positive change and being happy. Mr. Odede began to mobilize other students to fundraise for SHOFCO to substantially grow the services that it offered.

By 2009, Mr. Odede received the first of numerous international recognitions, a Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace Award. By 2011 Mr. Odede had an op-ed piece on ‘slum tourism’ in the New York Times, was recognized with a Clinton Global Initiative University Outstanding Commitment Award, as an Echoing Green Fellow, and had won the Dell Social Innovation Competition, including its Grand Prize and People’s Choice Award. He had served as a Clinton Global Initiative University panelist, received recognition from Wesleyan for scholarship and leadership, and was among the world’s top emerging social entrepreneurs.

Kennedy Odede graduated with honors in Sociology from Wesleyan in 2012. He served as the Commencement Speaker at his own graduation ceremony. By 2014, Mr. Odede had received many more honors including: Forbes’ 30 under 30: Social Entrepreneurs List; Business Daily‘s Top 40 Men Under 40 Kenya;  a Future Africa Award (for Advocacy); he was the People’s Choice Winner of an Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship; received the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, the Transform Kenya Rookie of the Year Award; and an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship. He had given talks at the Global Philanthropy Forum and at the Aspen Ideas Festival and had another op-ed piece published in the New York Times.

By late 2015, the book Mr. Odede co-authored with his wife Jessica Posner, Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum, was published. The book has received critical acclaim from Nobel Peace Prize winners Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, former first lady of Mozambique and of South Africa, Graça Machel, champion boxer Muhammad Ali, and the daughter of former US President Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton. Mr. Odede is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and a Senior Fellow with Humanity in Action. He divides his time between Nairobi and New York City. He hopes to expand SHOFCO’s impact from Nairobi to other major cities in Kenya and beyond.

Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why have Kennedy Odede and his initiatives been so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:

Kennedy Odede had a PASSION FOR CHANGE. He founded SHOFCO with nothing more than a soccer ball and his belief in people’s ability to change their own lives. Since his organization’s founding Mr. Odede identified, LISTENED TO, and COLLABORATED with LIKE-MINDED others to realize his dreams. SHOFCO has grown to include services for more than 76,000 people. The organization currently supports a school for girls, a free health clinic, clean water and sanitation services, and programs to promote sexual health, micro-savings and micro-loans and to combat gender‐based violence. Mr. Odede’s program in Kibera has been featured on NBC and Young Rich television, in the PBS documentary Half the Sky, and by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. SHOFCO has become a MODEL for another Kenyan slum, Mathere. The female students supported by SHOFCO strive for EXCELLENCE and have outperformed students enrolled in Kenya’s most expensive schools.

Mr. Odede has had ROLE MODELS, including his mother, Martin Luther King, and Bill Clinton, who all came from humble backgrounds. It charmed and inspired Mr. Odede to learn that as a youth Clinton sat in the Governor’s chair in Arkansas and dreamed of being someone great. Mr. Odede is an entrepreneur who believes in today’s youths and their potential to be INNOVATORS who will make the world a better place.


By Heidi G. Frontani


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