A new resource center in Jua Kali, Kenya is using the community to maximize its impact and create sustainable change. It is working with government and school officials to provide free, life-enrichment services not previously available to locals.
Although Kenya boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, 36.1% of Kenyans live below the national poverty line, according to the latest report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. The Leo Project targets Kenyans aiming to empower marginalized communities.
But how does one accurately identify what a community needs to empower itself and create sustainable change? The team at The Leo Project has come up with a simple solution: just ask. By working with community leaders, schools and locals, The Leo Project has created a model of community-driven, positive social change centered on the idea that Kenyans know best what Kenyans need to create sustainable change.
The Leo Project
Jessica Danforth, executive director of The Leo Project, founded the organization in honor of her best friend Caitlin O’Hara who died of cystic fibrosis in 2016. The mission of the project is to move beyond the limits of a traditional classroom. Moreover, it intends to provide supportive services and create opportunities not traditionally available to vulnerable populations in Nanyuki, Kenya.
Schooling in Kenya is highly focused on students passing two standardized examinations that determine whether they can progress to the next level of education. As such, formal classroom settings tend to only offer subjects or activities pertaining to standardized exams. To address this issue, The Leo Project partnered with two local primary schools to teach students computer skills, digital literacy, coding, music and art. It also worked to provide them with tutoring, a library, counseling and mindfulness services.
“I think part of the reason that we opened the project is to open kids’ eyes to different opportunities that there are available for them,” Danforth said in an interview with The Borgen Project.
Danforth explained that children in Kenya often want to become lawyers, doctors or accountants because they do not have exposure to the alternatives. Part of the mission of The Leo Project is to give them exposure to opportunities in fields such as graphic design, art, coding or therapy.
Creating Sustainable Change Through Community Participation
Since the resource center’s opening in January 2020, The Leo Project’s mission and services have evolved based on conversations with community leaders and members, resting on the idea that Kenyans know what Kenyans need. The Leo Project uses these conversations to both confirm that Kenyans need the services it plans to offer and to discover new areas to dive into.
During pre-opening meetings, heads of schools expressed the need for literacy classes, because parents would come to them unable to read their child’s report card, Danforth said. The Leo Project’s numeracy and literacy classes emerged from this conversation.
Mental Health Services
According to government statistics, around 11.5 million Kenyans have suffered from a mental illness at least once in their lives, but cultural stigmas surrounding mental health prevent people from seeking help and create a lack of qualified professionals who can provide treatment. In Kenya, there are only 88 psychiatrists and 427 psychiatrist nurses trained in the mental health field. As a result, when Danforth and the team approached community leaders and heads of schools about the mental health services they planned to offer, leaders jumped at the idea.
Engaging the Community
“Spending time with the community and actually getting them very involved and hiring people from the local community and not trying to impart our beliefs or our views as an American, I think, is really important,” Danforth said.
Additionally, Danforth explained that the fact that The Leo Project is not a school or government entity has allowed it the freedom to pilot programs, react to real-time feedback and adapt as necessary without the hindrance of bureaucratic red tape.
“We’re hoping that The Leo Project becomes a place where the community can sort of unite as a whole,” Danforth said, “and we’re hoping to educate as many people as possible.” To reach more people, Danforth hopes to replicate this model across Kenya with the first step being to conduct more fieldwork and data analysis in other communities to better understand their needs, noting that every community is different.
The Leo Project currently partners with the Africa Yoga Project, Daraja Academy, Flying Kites and Education for All Children is looking to expand its partner base. The creation of sustainable change in a community is a large-scale project. The more people and partners working on a project, the broader the knowledge-base that shapes that change and the more effective it becomes. As a result, the goal is to partner with as many organizations as possible and, by doing so, make The Leo Project more sustainable in the long run, Danforth said.
The COVID-19 Shift
The Leo Project is located just outside Nanyuki, Kenya and was serving around 4,000 beneficiaries until the coronavirus pandemic hit. Despite having closed its doors in March 2020, The Leo Project has transitioned to providing relief services to its community and those farther away.
Other educational organizations in Kenya have made a similar shift in activities in response to the pandemic. Danforth and The Leo Project team have been in contact with partner organizations to discuss both strategies for aid and best practices in this new environment, applying the project’s pre-pandemic model of communication to ensure a positive impact and basing pandemic-time services on community need.
Danforth explained to The Borgen Project that people had issues getting incorrect information about COVID-19 in Kenya from social media platforms. In an effort to combat this, The Leo Project created an online learning platform where Kenyans can access factual information about the virus. Through this platform, the center has also continued its adult literacy and numeracy, financial literacy and computer classes.
How The Leo Project Inspires Other NGOs
The organization has had a number of other NGOs reach out about using the model for their own projects post-COVID-19, Danforth said. With the help of chiefs, community leaders, government officials and locals, The Leo Project has been distributing two-month supplies of food to the most vulnerable families in the surrounding communities. As of Aug. 18, 2020, The Leo Project reached over 1,000 families and plans to continue this until January 2021 when Kenya has scheduled the reopening of schools.
When the pandemic hit, The Leo Project also hired local women to make masks for distribution and built hand-washing stations throughout Jua Kali and in surrounding communities.
The organization’s model of community participation to create sustainable change has driven its efforts during the pandemic, as it has worked with local leaders, community members and partner organizations to aid Kenyans through the crisis.
– Olivia du Bois
Photo: Jessica Danforth of The Leo Project