Reflections From Kenya
By Lucy Zhao, founder of The Kenya Project
Aug 16, 2013
From an early age, I remember learning to think big about impact. We studied the history of great people in school and in our admiration came to believe that a single person can change the world. Constantly asked whom we wanted to be when we grew up, we aspired to futures of greatness like those in our lessons: the George Washingtons, Martin Luther King Jrs., the Mother Theresas. College admission essays encouraged us to think about our dreams, and parents gave advice echoing the motivational posters on my middle school walls saying, “Stand up for what you believe in.” I came to the University of Michigan last year with this upbringing influencing my thoughts on my role as a student and young adult. I brought with me the pressure of greatness and a longing to do “good” by the world, when the task seemed so big it was impossible to know how to begin.
Towards the end of first semester, I met Dan Clauw, a medical school professor who told me about his work in Kenya, a continued commitment that had now lasted several years. He introduced me to Kithoka, a rural region of Kenya that is home to BLISS, a day school for previously underperforming and often poor children who cannot afford the usual boarding school. BLISS is now consistently rated as one of the best secondary schools in Kenya. Yet even though BLISS produces bright graduates, many of them cannot afford to move onto university education. As a result, these students suffer from a lack of opportunity. Too educated to return to their parents’ practices of subsistence agriculture and stunted from lack of employment in the region, they idle away their most productive years.
The Kenya Project started to offer these students another option. A completely student run initiative run by MPowered Entrepreneurship, we bring University of Michigan undergraduates to Kithoka to partner with locals to start small-scale businesses. We ask ourselves to take the theory of creating impact we talk about in school and actually apply it, try our hands to see what we can build. We want to enable people to help themselves and create their own jobs. This July, six of us set out armed with a semester of entrepreneurship preparation based off learning from other student entrepreneurs, professors, Skyping with Kenyans, etc. We left for Kenya with a mix of personalities and backgrounds representing the College of Engineering, LSA, the Ross School of Business, and the Taubman School of Architecture. Once there, we met with our Kenyan partners, setting action plans to produce a business model canvas for each business idea. The Kenyans, familiar with the needs of their own communities, enthusiastically offered their ideas and insights, taking ownership of the process. We focused on three ideas: chicken farming, cultural tourism, and food processing/ready-made foods production. From last year’s trip, business plans to make local soap and installing solar panels continued. In the process of working, we complicated our ideas of what it means to “help” in developing countries and to “change the world.” In working with the Kenyans, we did not come with the attitude of “helping.” Rather, we came because the people there share a common humanity with ourselves. Starting a business is not forgiving. It does not take pity on the poor, but rather requires dedication and hard work form anyone that attempts it. In that sense, it levels the playing field. Both University of Michigan students and Kenyans worked as equals.
When we look at the privilege we are provided with in our lives, I believe we have an obligation. It’s not about changing the world. It’s about doing your part and giving back with what you have been given. Rather than letting huge problems like poverty and inequality paralyze you from action, just do what you can. Greatness does not come in acts, but in habit. Really, in this process you are helping yourself most of all. By the end of the trip, we had together created three business model canvases that are now in the stage to apply for seed funding. We made friends in Kenya and developed bonds of trust, and even if these businesses fail, as is the risk with any new venture, the people behind them will not fail. They will try and try again, never resting because we are counting on them and they are counting on us.