In 2007, while at the Polish Embassy in Kenya, I met Salaton – a charismatic, unschooled Maasai tribal Chief and a social entrepreneur. Dressed in traditional –shukas (red plaid blankets), in which he kept two mobile phones, Salaton ran a tourism social enterprise supporting widows and girls rescued from Feminine Genital Mutilation (FGM). He dreamed of opening a private school for low-income tribal families. Such a school would not only give education to unschooled Maasai children, but also prevent girls from FGM. “Kenyan law against mutilation is completely unenforceable in the bush. Hundreds of girls bleed to death, others die later during child delivery. The only way to save them is chartering a local, boarding school, as such schools, unlike the bush, are protected by the Kenyan law,” he explained to me.
Inspired, I spent the following year fundraising and building partnerships with the Polish government, Simba Friends Foundation and international NGOs. Finally, in 2008, with US$150,000 in funding and 20 volunteers, I moved to Salaton’s village in southern Kenya to construct a school for 600 Maasai children.
Living in the Kenyan bush
Challenges were many: non-existent basic infrastructure, delays in contractors’ work, and corrupt local authorities. We discovered the hardship of living in the bush – the whole team lived in traditional Maasai huts without access to running water and electricity and survived two malaria bouts. I had to negotiate with a tribal board, whose members traditionally disregarded women as partners.
But within 6 months and with an extraordinary team of 20 Simba Friends volunteers, 20 Maasai widows, and around 60 Kenyan workers, we built two buildings: a school for 600 children and a dorm for Female Genital Mutilation rescuees,
The cow that belongs to us all
The Maji Moto school offers innovative approach to education based on hands-on learning, practical skills development and an in-depth understanding of the local community. For example, as many Maasai boys are required to herd cattle during the day, the school offers evening classes to accommodate boys’ schedule. It also offers a rescue center and a nurse for girls already affected by FGM. For younger girls, the school requires parents to sign an agreement, allowing daughters be under school’s guardianship until graduation. The school also tailored its curricula to the needs of local population and existing opportunities in tourism industry.
The school’s innovative model attracted donors, NGOs, and media attention. The project was featured in the New York Times. Additional funding allowed for its expansion – starting a tree nursery, brining international volunteers, offering evening classes for widows and opening a second eco-tourism camp. But most importantly, the school managed to slowly change the mindset of local community by convincing skeptical Maasai parents to send their children to school.
After all, the school is called Enkiteng Lepa, which translates in the Maa language into “The cow that belongs to us all”, as cows are the most sacred and valuable part of Maasai culture.
My biggest inspiration in Kenya came from observing the power that technology had on my Massai friends. I’ve met Negiti – 18-year-old widow who would traditionally be left alone in the bush and die. In 2008, Negiti opened a solar-powered mobile charging center. Later she used Kiva, the online crowdfunding platform, to finance her jewelry business. Today she has income and is respected by all men in the community.
I wanted to know more and to understand the best ways to scale such social innovations. Hence, in 2011 I joined the World Bank, where I spent my last five years focusing on scaling pro-poor private sector business models innovations in healthcare, education and energy in Africa and South Asia. I was also honored to be part of the team launching the first World Bank Innovation Lab and the the WB Design Thinking internal accelerator, which resulted in innovation components in over $300M investment programs.
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