When Wawira Njiru left Kenya to study nutritional sciences in Australia in 2010, she knew she eventually wanted to bring her skills back home. In her town of Ruiru, about three kilometers from Nairobi, life seemed to be getting harder for the average family. Rapid urbanization, along with a population surge, meant that more people were working in factories and living in slums, with no land and little access to food.
The local schools were also in disarray. In 2003, the government had abolished school fees, making it possible for even the poorest children to attend schools. Nearly overnight, 1.3 million children entered the system, overwhelming teachers and administrators and stretching infrastructure like classrooms, supplies, and bathroom facilities beyond capacity.
In talking to teachers, Wawira learned that even though admission fees had been dropped, many of the poorest children were still not attending regularly. One common denominator, according to the teachers: food. Many children, often because of difficult circumstances at home, would leave at lunchtime to work for food money, or steal from the market. Many of the poorest children were dropping out, or failing to move on to the next level, making high school and university more unlikely.
These were the children Wawira wanted to reach – especially those in their early teens, who were most at risk of dropping out. Working with family and friends based in Ruiru, she designed a menu built around local, seasonal foods. Knowing this was probably the only meal most children would eat all day, Wawira learned to ensure these were balanced, nutritious meals consisting of protein sources (often fish, lentils, beans or peanuts), carbohydrate sources (ugali or maize, Kenya’s staple crop), and micronutrient-rich vegetables. She partnered with a local church and constructed a kitchen about five minutes away from school, so the kids could come during lunch time. She was also able to start a pig farm with donated land, the income from which they were able to hire two cooks and purchase fish and meat.
Since Wawira was the sole financer, she knew the program would have to start small. To determine the children who were most in need, they accepted applications, consulted the teachers and school administration, and did home visits. They identified 25 children initially, but soon increased to 40.
Just a year later, the results have been better than Wawira could have imagined. In her words, “We’ve really seen food directly impacting education in the way that it’s improved their concentration in class, their attendance, and their discipline, as well.” When she was back in Kenya earlier this year, she went through the students’ records, and the early signs of impact were clear. All of the kids in the feeding program are now attending school regularly and staying all day. Their marks have improved too, by 20 to 30 points on average, and in many cases, the teachers say their behavior has, as well.
Because she knows food alone won’t get students to high school, Wawira also started a mentorship program that pairs children with students from the local university for tutoring, help on high school applications, and just a general support.
Though Wawira expects her program to scale up in the coming years, in the long-term she knows that demand is more than her small team can handle. They received nearly 300 applications for 40 spots, and they already have requests from other schools. To really make an impact, she hopes that in five years’ time, the programs will be running independently, with schools providing food and her program providing oversight and administrative support.
Her ultimate vision is to create a model that the Kenyan government can adopt. Public schools in Kenya have big tracts of land, but no money to invest in them. Her dream is that the government could support local communities in growing their own food for students. “I wish we could go into every person’s home and make sure that the kids have a really safe environment and an opportunity to have food every day, but we can’t,” she says. “What we can do is make schools, which are central places, safe places where they can access food every time they want, and where they can even grow their own food. That would be a really great thing. ”