Thank you Buya for accepting to share your story! As an introduction, can you please tell us about yourself, your background, and what brought you to create Empower HER?
My name is Buya Mukonzo Winfred. Some people call me BMW. I am 26 years old, born and raised in Western Kenya. I did my undergrad in public health, and I am currently in the final semester of my master’s in public health in epidemiology. Empower HER started as a school initiative while I was at Maseno University. I saw the challenges that pregnant women were going through while in school, and I decided to create a solution to help them.
Could you take us through these challenges that led to the birth of Empower HER?
It is a tradition for all girls as they join campus for their parents to sit down with them to have ‘the talk’. They tell you to be careful, but what they are saying to you is: “Do not get pregnant while in school.” My parents had ‘the talk’ with me when I joined campus in 2013. While I did not get pregnant, a friend of mine did, and I saw firsthand the challenges she went through. There were no daycare centers around school, and she could not afford to hire a babysitter. Sometimes she would feed the baby, leave him sleeping, and then rush to class. One day, as she was in class, the baby had started crawling, hit a flask of hot porridge, and got burnt. The baby cried for hours with no one to help him. Luckily the baby survived, but the situation made me so angry, and I decided to do something to help my friend and other young women in school in her situation. One Sunday evening, I gathered all the young girls with babies in school, and we sat on the grass and talked about the challenges they go through. Together we co-created solutions to help. We decided to create a rotational peer-to-peer daycare service since they all had different timetables.
What happened afterward, after you left Maseno?
In 2017 as I was leaving Maseno, the university asked me to mentor other people to ensure continuity of the initiative. I did that, and as I was doing that for Maseno, I realized that this was a problem that cuts across different universities. We created such initiatives for other universities in the Western region. Here is where I registered Empower HER and joined an incubation program to learn the foundation of setting up and running a business.
What problems are you solving for the women in Western Kenya?
After we registered the business, I realized that we could do more to help women in the region. Other than the initiatives that we were doing in the universities, we launched a program called Economic Empowerment to train women running SME businesses. We teach them financial literacy, bookkeeping, saving, etc. We also have another program called Education for women and girls where we provide scholarships for them to pursue their high school education. We did this for four years until last year when we partnered with African Leadership University to give scholarship programs in their campuses in Mauritius and Kigali for these young women.
For the sake of anyone who wants to start a social enterprise today, could you tell us how you remain sustainable?
I look at sustainability from different angles. There is the financial aspect, you need money to run your business. For us, 80% of our income comes from grants. However, we did not get our first grant until 4 years in operations. So we got creative in identifying funding sources. For example, when we ran programs in the universities we relied on the money from the student welfare and other resources that we could get such as the university boardrooms so we never paid for office space. If I need a guest to speak at an event, I take advantage of the lecturer pool. We also rely on corporate partnerships such as banks. The women we work with are a great target market for the banks because most of them do not have bank accounts.
According to you, and from what you see with Empower Her, what are the three main success factors to become a successful social entrepreneur and make a positive change?
- You need to have a vision and trickle down that vision to the people who work for you so that they can feel it and enjoy it as they bring the vision to life.
- Have a team that is empathetic especially if you are working in communities. If your staff is rude and can not relate with the people then this will derail your work.
- Research is very important. Having an idea is one thing but it’s important to research the problem that you are trying to solve. Talk to the people to whom you want to bring the solution. This will help you create solutions that are relevant to them.
- Be clear on who you are bringing to the team and what they are coming to do even if it’s a volunteer. Do not hire your friends unless they are qualified and committed to your vision.
What is your ambition for _ Empower Her in the coming 3 years?
My vision for Empower HER is to penetrate more into the grassroots level in Western Kenya. I do not want to run a program in big towns such as Kakamega county and then say we have made an impact. I want us to go into the villages and reach that young girl who can not come into town. I want every young woman to feel the impact of Empower HER, even those living in the villages.
Do you have a final message, for entrepreneurs who wonder whether creating a social business is a viable career track?
Do plenty of research on the problems in the society that you want to impact and let that guide you. Surround yourself with business mentors or people who have done this before for advice. Know when to let go. If an idea does not work after some time, move on. Lastly, believe in yourself and your vision.