The Somo Project: Learning Lessons in Kibera

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Blum Center News

In the summer of 2012, UC Berkeley undergraduate Amelia Hopkins Phillips traveled to the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya to teach at a grade school. Over the next three years, the Development Studies student found herself yearning to return to the informal settlement, where 250,000 residents live in less than one square mile and lack basic services and infrastructure such as education, healthcare, and clean water.

Like many Kibera visitors, Phillips was disturbed by the high level of poverty she saw. But she found herself attracted to the place, because she encountered several people who were remarkably inspiring and entrepreneurial. On her second visit in 2013, Phillips met Joshwa Tambo, a Kibera native who grew up in a family of seven and, like most of his neighbors, struggled to make ends meet. Tambo attended the University of Nairobi and majored in development. After graduating, he started an organization called the Kibera Community Empowerment Organization, or KCEO, which sells products made from recycled materials and uses the proceeds for educational sponsorships.

To Phillips, Tambo epitomized the self-help spirit that she feels is Kibera’s best bet for social and economic mobility and is often overlooked by development programs and foreign NGOS. And the more she got to know Kibera, the more against-all-odds entrepreneurs she met—people like Rita Omukhango, who improves childhood nutrition by growing and selling indigenous vegetables to Kibera schools, and Joseph Odero and Stanley Kagunza, who teach computer skills to local residents. Phillips saw that what these entrepreneurs lacked was not ideas or energy, but investment capital.

So in 2014, she, Tambo, and George Rzepecki, a young San Francisco venture capitalist, applied for and won a Big Ideas@Berkeley award of $10,000. The funding allowed them to start The Somo Project, whose mission is to identify, train, fund, and mentor people looking to drive social change by building enterprises in their own low-income urban communities. In its first year, The Somo Project—”somo” means “to learn lessons” in Swahili—has provided $8,177 to support Tambo, Omukhango, Odero, and Kagunza and three other Kibera businesses as well as spent $5,210 to set up a co-working facility.

“The funding provided by Big Ideas allowed us to invest in a co-working facility for our entrepreneurs and the capital goods needed for them to start up their businesses,” said Phillips. “For example, we purchased a wagon and a pull cart for Rita to deliver her produce to schools as well as the computers needed for Stanley to start teaching programming skills to youth in Kibera.”

In July 2016, the Somo Project intends to launch a new class of entrepreneurs. One of its focus areas is to identify high potential women and youth, populations that, Phillips said, are often overlooked and for whom business opportunities are scarce.

“We call our organization The Somo Project because we believe that talent is widely distributed, and visionary entrepreneurs exist in informal settlements around the world,” said Phillips. “Right now, their lessons and learnings are often overlooked in development initiatives, but we hope that soon will not be the case.”