Supporting Low-Income Entrepreneurs in Nairobi

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How Amelia Phillips Brought her Big Idea to Kenya

By Emily Denny

When Amelia Hopkins Phillips, executive director of SOMO, graduated from UC Berkeley in 2016, her plan was to move to Nairobi, Kenya for six months and then return home. Yet three and a half years later, she’s still there.

One of the catalysts for Phillips’ extended stay was the Big Ideas Contest. In 2015, she won first place for SOMO, which identifies, trains, funds, and mentors entrepreneurs looking to drive social change by building enterprises in their own low-income urban communities. Her idea–motivated by previous work with an educational nonprofits which, she said, “exposed her to a lot of unsustainability in the NGO culture in Nairobi ”–was to come up with an idea that could last.

Phillips was also influenced by what she saw at Cal. While majoring in International Studies, she said she constantly noticed the number of resources accessible to her friends and classmates who wanted to start their own businesses in the Bay Area. She questioned why these same resources weren’t accessible in the low-income communities of Kenya.

For that reason, Amelia and her co-founder, George Rzepecki, built Somo to provide training and tools to help low-income Nairobi entrepreneurs build businesses that could change their communities from within. SOMO, which is the root of a Swahili word meaning “lesson,” argues that “we all have lessons to learn from each other and by investing in the right people, we help break the cycle of poverty and help bring long-term stability to urban slum areas.”

Over the past five years, SOMO has grown from a proposal submitted to the Big Ideas Contest to a viable nonprofit, which receives close to 2,000 applications annually from entrepreneurs looking to launch their business ideas. Every year applicants who are accepted undergo a 12-week bootcamp, in which they learn business startup skills and receive funding for their business ideas. Last year 79 participants underwent these bootcamps, and this year there will be a least 170 participants looking to launch their business ideas. So far SOMO helped launch 58 businesses, partnering with them for two years through their acceleration program, that have served up to 140,000 customers and created 258 jobs.

“While Nairobi is a very entrepreneurial place, the lower-income communities are cut off from the resources to launch businesses,” said Phillips, “We at SOMO want to provide the resources that aren’t usually accessible in low-income, urban areas to entrepreneurs who want to start socially-focused business ideas.”

SOMO works within multiple communities in Nairobi and recently expanded to Kisumu in Western Kenya.

“A lot of people who we work with have been told their entire lives that their businesses can’t grow past a certain point,” Phillips said. “We give the hard skills they need to run a business, sure. But more than that, we provide confidence that allows them to grow as people and create lasting impact in their communities.”

When Hilda and Diana, a mother-daughter team, attended their first entrepreneur training class with SOMO, they wouldn’t speak up in class.

“The mother did not speak English and the daughter was only 19 years old and super shy,” said Phillips.

Since the training, not only have Hilda and Diana successfully launched the reusable diaper company, Hidaya Diapers in Korogocho, they also have pitched their business to large audiences and most recently were featured on a national TV station, on NTV Kenya.

“These are two women who would barely speak to me when I first met them. Now they are the two most confident women that I know,” said Phillips.

Phillips aims to help businesses become sustainable, adding “even if SOMO is no longer working with our entrepreneurs in a hands-on way, or even if SOMO closes down tomorrow, the supported businesses and the impact they are creating will last beyond us.” Currently all besides one of the businesses the organization has invested in have been cash-flow positive within 8 months of starting.

One such example of thriving business is Verics, a hydroponics enterprise that received training and funding from SOMO in 2016. Hydroponics is a farming method that doesn’t use soil, and can produce higher yields of crops, requiring less water and decreasing the chance for pollution to contaminate crops. Verics now has now set up 13 small farms across settlements in Nairobi.

Similarly, Hidaya Diapers is providing sustainable and higher income work by employing single mothers in low-income areas. The company aims to improve the health and hygiene of young children and decrease environmental impacts by eliminating waste.

All of SOMO’s 23 person (and growing) team, with the exception of Phillips and one other are Kenyan; and more than half of her team are from the areas SOMO works within. In addition, four of SOMO’s team members are past entrepreneurs who went through SOMO’s training program. “Having our entrepreneurs as team members is really important because they understand our program better than anyone,” said Philips. “We involve the community with everything we do. We are apart of it, not separated from it.”

Recently, SOMO expanded to Kisumu, and Phillips expects to keep expanding.

“Our plan is to expand to Mombasa, a city on Kenya’s eastern coast, and then the goal in the next few years is to go international with our program,” said Phillips, mentioning SOMO’s incipient partnerships with similar organizations in India and Mexico.