Lessons From A Founder

AT A RECENT EVENT DUBBED “FIRE SIDE CHAT WITH A FOUNDER” B LAB STAFF GOT TO SIT AT THE FEET OF A FASCINATING YOUNG WOMAN WHO IS DOING PHENOMENAL WORK AROUND FEEDING VULNERABLE CHILDREN FROM THE PROCEEDS OF HER FOOD DELIVERY BUSINESS.

Wawira Njiru is just 26 years old but has the poise and wisdom of a much older person and lives out life with more purpose than many of her peers. She is the founder and Program Director of Food 4 Education. A non-profit founded in 2012 whileshe was still undertaking her degree work in Australia. It is an organization that provides a lunch meal in the Nairobi public-school system to vulnerable children who would otherwise go hungry. The initiative has seen marked improvement in the children’s school attendance and performance. The organization started out in Ruiru, Kenya and continues to operate in the same locale. Meals are prepared at a central kitchen and bussed out to four primary/elementary schools within the same area.

Food 4 Education was initially supported by well- wishers, friends and family but has since graduated and is also largely funded by proceeds from a food delivery business founded by Wawira. The food delivery business is in the Kilimani area of Nairobi and is called Double Portion. It morphed from a similar service tried out as an experiment with professionals in the Ruiru area in a bid to supplement funding options for the children’s lunch program.

Listening to this brilliant and compassionate woman was both intriguing and educative. She spoke about her start in this work stemming from her concern from an early age for her hungry playmates. She would raid her mother’s freezer to find food to take back to the playground for friends whom she noticed never went home when she was called to have lunch. Officially though, this work commenced when she volunteered with World Vision in Australia and encountered philanthropic individuals who were happy to contribute towards her idea even in its infancy. She remembers pitching her idea to them during a dinner of burned ‘pilau’ and other potluck dishes when she was still in Adelaide.

I would raid my mother’s freezer to find food to take back to the playground for friends whom I noticed never went home when I was called to have lunch. Wawira spoke about varied challenges in managing a start-up and the importance of a support system as exemplified by how her parents were in the forefront of running things as she concluded her studies. She recalls taking over the management of the initiative once she re-located back to Kenya and the challenges of working at a job she hated for income as she set up systems for the central kitchen. During that initial period, the challenge was on figuring out how to run the lunch program to the point where it would pay her and other staff. Additional challenges around systems set up added to the financial burden of the program pushing her to utilize social media for funding beyond her personal networks. She has found the social media space to be both daunting and effective with the ability to quickly gain momentum and crowd funding but not without the hurdles of trolls and a few others who opportunistically seek to ride the wave.

Wawira says Twitter has been a learning curve that was very helpful for fund raising but not without heavy involvement and follow through. She reiterates that the strategy was very successful once she realized her limitations in using the platform and recruited her friends with greater skills to help push the Food 4 Education campaign. Earlier on before the campaign she had approached some media houses to tell the story of Food 4 Education but was generally turned down and shunned. Interestingly the story changed during and after the Twitter campaign and several of the same media companies came knocking and were eager to have her on all their shows. Wawira says that it has been the same trend even with funders. She shared how at one time a funding organization can be completely uninterested or trying to get her to change the approach used in the lunch time program. The same funders generally come calling after a year or so and ready to assist even when her content, focus and core practices remain the same.

In addition to diversifying her fundraising strategies Wawira gives credit to mentors who have been instrumental in keeping her grounded and focused through the hurdles of managing the lunch program and the delivery business. She currently has formal and informal mentors who advise and coach her through various business management challenges and encourages everyone to seek out sound mentorship especially if aspiring to be in business.

Wawira cautioned on being selective in one’s mentor selection to ascertain that mentorship is useful in value addition even in the context one operates in.

Further on, it was insightful to hear her recruitment struggles especially with older men who sometimes can be biased against her because of gender and age. She also mentioned challenges in running an initiative in one location and a business in the other and has had to train staff who are very responsible and can manage things even without her physical presence. Further on, quality control and food pricing seem to be ongoing challenges that affect customer uptake on the food delivery side of things and the even in the lunch program. She mentioned not being able to find maize meal lately and seeing the cost of food significantly rising during the drought season in Kenya.

Generally, the lunch program has been very successful and is looking to scale especially as the World Food Program plans to pull out of supplementing meals in schools across the country in the next 2 years. The discussion ended with Wawira visioning the next level of hurdles with scaling the lunch program beyond Ruiru into other parts of the country. To mitigate this hurdle, she has planned a trip to India where the model of central kitchens has been tested and scaled across a large population. She is a founder on a mission to feed more school children in Kenya for greater school performance. The obstacles along the way will not deter her from reaching her goal of feeding 1 Million children each lunch period and she plans to move on to other things when Food 4 Education gets to that mark.

All proceeds from the Double Portion Restaurant go towards Food 4 Education. Please consider ordering food delivery in support of the initiative by going here. Read more on the lunch program at this site.

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