Ms Samantha Power, President Joe Biden’s appointee to lead the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is expected to visit Kenya once her nomination is approved.
Ms Power, who recently held a meeting with Kenyan activist and founder of Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco) Mr Kennedy Odede, has begun familiarising herself with grassroots development initiatives around the world.
During the inaugural World Communities Forum on March 23, Ms Power learnt about the impact of grassroots engagement and localised solutions from Mr Odede.
The two-day virtual forum, organised and hosted by Mr Odede, brought together global leaders who are driving community-based solutions. The topics discussed included empowerment of women and girls, economic recovery, coronavirus vaccine equity, the future of grassroots organising and the localisation revolution.
The virtual meeting, which was attended by over 1,300 people, brought together philanthropists and grassroots leaders. Mr Odede will be expected to play a key role in familiarising Ms Power with Kenyan operations when she officially takes office.
“After attending elite conferences focused on solving different world challenges, I had a vision to create a new kind of space where those close to the problem are recognised as being in the best position to solve it,” said Mr Odede, co-author of the New York Times bestselling book Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in African Slum, in his opening remarks.
Ms Power learned how Mr Odede beat poverty to turn a simple dream into a movement that has impacted over 2.4 million slum dwellers in 22 informal settlements in Kenya through access to health, water, community advocacy platforms, education and leadership development for women and girls.
“Growing up in Kibera slums, I experienced extreme poverty. But my life changed when I secured a scholarship to study in the US and that is when I decided when to go back to my community and make change,” said Mr Odede, winner of 2018 the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, 2014 People’s Choice Award for Outstanding Social Entrepreneur and Muhammed Ali Humanitarian Award.
Mr Odede said that while in Kibera, he was inspired by Dr Martin Luther King's books.
“It is from there that I got to learn from people like Dr Martin Luther King Jr who championed the civil rights movement from bottom up. Dr King started in a small church but I started with a soccer ball. I bought a soccer ball, organised tournaments that brought people together and we started interacting and doing things together,” added Odede, on how Shofco began in 2004.
From Mr Odede’s story, Ms Power sought to know how Shofco achieved acceptability among slum dwellers.
“For real change to happen, you have to involve people. They have to be people on the ground who understand the people's problems better. That is how to win their trust,” he told Ms Power.
The Shofco boss also shared how Covid-19 has revealed the inequalities within communities and countries.
“Covid-19 has been an eye opener. Canada and the US are buying more coronavirus vaccines than they need,” he said.
He shared how, as a member of the National Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund board, he advised Kenya’s Health ministry on how to fight the virus in the informal settlements.
“The poor have trust issues with the government. They never believed in the existence of Covid-19 here. So I told the Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe that he could not tell slum dwellers to wear masks and observe social distance when they live in tiny rooms and share toilets,” he said.
“Most of the people who live in the slums are casual labourers who lost their jobs when the pandemic struck. They would rather die of corona than hunger. That is how we devised ways on things like free soap, sanitisers, masks, cash transfer, free food and handwashing stations at every entry point in the slums. This calmed their fears while reducing new infections.”
He plans to use Shofco networks to help the government effectively vaccinate slum dwellers against Covid-19.
Mr Odede, who was awarded a Head of State Commendation by President Uhuru Kenyatta last December for his work in slums during Covid-19, also revealed his plans to empower women.
“My mother never went to school and got married at 16. She went through a lot of problems and when women were being beaten, she would teach me about gender equity. In school, I could see more boys than girls and I said one day, I would have a school for girls here,” he said about how Kibera and Mathare schools for girls were born.
The American envoy appreciated the power of grassroots work and promised to work with Mr Odede when she comes to Kenya.