Kennedy Odede: From Living in the Streets to Founding the Biggest Grassroots Organization in Kibera

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Kennedy Odede with President William Ruto and wife Jessica Posner. [Photo|Courtesy]

By Prudence Minayo

Growing up in the slums of Kibera, surrounded by hopelessness, violence and poverty, Kennedy Odede could not have imagined the kind of hope he would offer to thousands across the slums. Today, he runs Shinning Hope for Communities (Shofco), an organization that helps slum dwellers in urban areas and can easily be one of the biggest employers in Kibera.
Kennedy has received a lot of global recognition with some of his works being featured by the likes of former US president Bill Clinton, Beyonce and Madonna. He co-authored a book with his wife named, ‘Find me Unafraid: Love, Loss and Hope in an Africa slum‘, which became a New York bestseller. He has also written several opinion articles which have been featured in The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times and Project Syndicate.

Difficult Background

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Odede grew up in the Kibera slums where he experienced bitinh poverty. At the age of 10, the first born of eight, became a street child and at one point was attacked by an angry mob for stealing a mango. He had gone hungry for a few days but when the crowd in Toi market caught up with him, he was almost lynched with the mob not considering his age.

Growing up in his neighborhood, he realized that women were the victims of a vicious violence in the slums. This bothered him greatly and the violence hit close to home when his sister was raped at the age of 16 and fell pregnant.

“I lived in a community where life was really tough and the biting poverty and sexual abuse entrenched in the slum bothered me a lot,” he said in a part interview with The Standard.

Founding Shining Hope for Communities

One of the things that greatly changed the trajectory of his life was when a tourist gave him the Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. It helped him find his spirit of social activism and Nelson Mandela also became one of his biggest inspirations. In 2004, he worked at a factory earning $1 for ten hours of work. He saved twenty cents and bought a
ball which he used to form a soccer club. It is from this this club that the Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco) organization was born. He created the organization with the hope of discussing social issues which would in turn reduce poverty and violence.

The organization’s expansion and activities caught the attention of many both locally and internationally. He got his first global recognition after the United Nations invited him to speak about the difficulties of growing up in Kibera.

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Meeting his wife and Studying in the US

In 2007, Jessica Posner, then a student at Wesleyan University, came to Kenya. She had the desire to work in the slums and her lecturer who had heard Odede speak at the UN forum connected the two. She went to stay with Odede and his family and got involved in the lives of slum dwellers. Eventually, she laid a ladder for Odede by securing him a scholarship to Wesleyan University. He joined the university in August 2008 and eventually their friendship morphed into a romantic affair.

In 2008, following Jessica’s graduation, the two came to Kenya with $10,000 which they had won as a grant from Newman’s Own Foundation. They used the money as initial capital to set up a school for girls in Kibera. The school was started with a
view of offering tuition free education to the girls. With his initial grant, more grants followed which helped sustain the school.

Odede went back to the US to complete his education and left Jessica at the helm of Shofco projects including the school. In 2012, he graduated with honors in Sociology and he and Jessica eventually tied the knot eventually.

Growth

Shofco has so far expanded its reach and established a clinic, a day care center and a water tower to help people get access to clean water. They also launched a Sacco whose vision was to help those in Kibera access collateral free loans. The occasion to launch this program was graced by dignitaries including British High Commissioner and UK ambassador to Kenya.

Today, the organization has reached millions of people living in the slums and was one of the organizations at the forefront of helping people during the wake of Covid-19.

Awards and Recognition
In 2010, he was awarded the Echoing Green, which is bestowed to the world’s best emerging social entrepreneurs. The same year, he won the Clinton Global Initiative Outstanding Commitment Award.
In 2011, he was awarded with the UN Association of Young Professionals for International Cooperation.

Award.

He became a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum and an African Leader at the Obama Foundation. In 2014, he made it to Forbes 30 under 30 list for top social entrepreneurs and the same year won the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Prize, and People’s Choice Award: Social Entrepreneur, Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship. In 2016, the Hartford University gave him an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters.

In 2018, Shofco received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Award, becoming the youngest ever organization to receive the award. The award is given to non profit organizations that have made remarkable contributions to ease human suffering.

In 2021, the organization received one of the most prestigious recognitions; the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor. In 2022, he became the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year and he was appointed to the USAID Advisory Committee by Administrator Samantha Power.

Previously, he has worked in various positions. This includes at the United Nations International Commission for financing of Global Education opportunities. Additionally he served on the board of directors of Wesleyan University and as chair of the Varkey Foundation Alliance for Girls’ Education.

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