When college student Jessica Posner went to Kenya on a study abroad program, she fell in love with Africa and, more significantly, with Kennedy Odede.
Jessica was one of the first outsiders to live in Kibera, Nairobi’s notorious slum and one of the biggest in Africa. She witnessed a place of alarming poverty, deprived of clean water, sanitation, plumbing and education; a place that one million people called home, including Kennedy Odede.
Jessica was deeply moved by the overwhelming struggles facing the community every day and by Kennedy Odede, who was working to help deliver his neighbors and friends from the degradation of poverty. As their relationship deepened, she encouraged Kennedy to apply to colleges in America.
Although Kennedy was entirely informally educated, he received a full scholarship to Wesleyan University, where Jessica was also a student, becoming one of Kibera’s first to receive a degree from an American liberal arts institution. He graduated in 2012 as the Commencement Speaker and with honors in Sociology, and capped off that grand achievement with a trip to Jessica’s hometown of Denver, where two young people from very different worlds, became one happily married couple. Their lives together and their work had only just begun.
“As a naïve kid growing up in the slums of Kibera, I didn’t understand my environment,” recalls Kennedy. ”I thought poverty was normal until I was able to see how other people lived. And, to be honest, I became angry because at that moment I realized the world was unfair. Social change became a tool for me to channel that anger into something positive.”
Even before their wedding, Kennedy and Jessica were a team, working together on Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), an organization that Kennedy had created in Kibera in 2004 with savings from his $1 per day factory job.
“I feel so lucky to get to work with somebody that I love and admire so deeply,” said Jessica. “I think Kennedy is the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”
SHOFCO’s mission is to combat extreme poverty and gender inequality in Kenya’s slums by providing free schools for girls that are linked to essential services for the entire community. Linking services such as clean water and free health care with a superior school for girls shows that girls and their education are part of an ecosystem of value.
“I believe that a society that respects and values women and awards equal opportunities to them, will not only be happier, but also flourish,” says Kennedy.
In addition to clean water, hygiene services and health care for all, the SHOFCO model also focuses on community empowerment programs, including computer and library access, adult education, and group savings and loans. Kennedy and Jessica believe that girls are tomorrow’s leaders and given the right tools, they can lead themselves and their families out of poverty. In the SHOFCO model, a girls’ school becomes a portal for large-scale social change.
“It all comes down to humanity and what can we do with this life. Life is precious; we only pass through once. At the end of my life, I want to know that I did all I could to make this life my best for my community.
In 2015, SHOFCO collectively served more than 76-thousand people in the Kibera and Mathare slums, with plans to scale across more of Kenya’s most impoverished areas.
“Being a social entrepreneur and SHOFCO has given me hope that I can change the world.”
For his efforts to change the world, Kennedy has been honored by Echoing Green, the Dell Social Innovation Competition, Forbes’ 30 Under 30: Social Entrepreneurs, and the Clinton Global Initiative.
His work has been featured in the documentaries Half the Sky and A Path Appears. Kennedy is a senior fellow with Humanity in Action, and an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.
He and his wife, Jessica, are also co-authors of the New York Times best-selling memoir, Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in An African Slum.
Stay in the loop with SHOFCO on social media @shofco on instagram and @hope2shine on Twitter.
Check out SHOFCO’s Summer Institute, an annual competitive program that takes place from mid June to mid July, providing civic-minded university students with on-the-ground experience teaching at The Kibera School for Girls in Nairobi, Kenya.
Find out how you can become a SHOFCO supporter at www.shofco.org.