How organizing a student-led service group helped an entire community in Kenya
Students for Wema is an organization that supports the Wema Children's Centre in Bukembe, Kenya, which provides orphans with housing and education. Madison Gove, co-founder of Students for Wema, talks to MissionBox about her desire to help children in need, the impact of student activism and supporting social entrepreneurship that will help lift an entire community.
Tell us about Students for Wema and your role there.
Students for Wema is a student group at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) that started in 2011. The organization formed in order to build a well at The Wema Children’s Centre, an orphanage in Kenya, but disbanded shortly after achieving their goal. I entered college in 2013 with a passion for education based non-profit work and sought to become involved with a group that worked with children. My friends and I decided to restart Students for Wema, but this time with a focus on mentorship and helping the students at the Wema Children’s Centre receive all the education benefits that they needed.
What does ‘Wema’ stand for?
Wema is Swahili for goodness. The orphanage was founded in 2008 by a native to Bukembe, Kenya, named Teresa Wati. She was a teacher in the area and saw a lot of children who did not have homes due to political violence, as well as fallout from the AIDS epidemic. Teresa and her husband opened their home and started the orphanage, which now houses 256 students. Teresa is also the headmaster of the adjoined Highway Academy, which educates all Wema children and another 200 students from the region.
Tell me more about the Highway Academy.
Highway is a large school with 450 students. The school services the village of Bukembe, Kenya, which has 5,000 residents, as well as the nearby Bungoma region. In Kenya, students have to pay at least $500 in fees and supplies to attend school, which keeps many from graduating high school. Teresa and the non-profit Wema Children’s, Inc., work with The School Fund to cover these fees for Wema students at Highway. However, the demand for services at both Wema and Highway is staggering and is hard to cover from donations alone. Teresa wanted to create a sustainable venture at Wema to help fund these fees and support expansion of services.
Fundraising is a critical component of projects like these. How did you make funding happen?
After six months of fundraising for school fees and other educational supplies, Students for Wema quickly realized that the school needed a source of earned income. Market research conducted by Teresa revealed that the only source of bread for the village was about eight miles away, along the Mombasa-Kampala highway, a known route for sex trafficking. If Teresa and her team opened a bakery, it could service the entire village of 5,000 with fresh bread, be a sustainable source of revenue and give some of the Wema graduates who are not attending college the change to learn business skills while earning an income.
Our group pledged to invest $45,000 into the bakery’s construction. We raised about $1,000 through our own entrepreneurial efforts over a couple of years (including bake sales, concerts, talent shows and a lemonade stand), but became frustrated with the slow pace of progress and started to seek other methods of funding. We joined the student group Texas Enactus in 2015 and raised another $1,500 from their national competition. Our luck started to change when we partnered with a local pastor who was generous to give $20,000. His donation encouraged us to keep seeking individual donations and applying for grants. In February of 2018, we were fortunate to receive a $2,500 grant from The Henry E. Niles Foundation. We are continuing to seek the remaining $20,000 from donations, grants and possibly an impact investment.
We are excited to see pictures of the constructed bakery come through from Teresa and look forward to the first employees’ training. After the bakery is complete, we will work with Teresa and her team to develop business management and entrepreneurship curriculum for all students at Wema. We want to empower all students with the skills to start their own ventures upon their graduation. We will also create marketing, accounting and finance lessons for the employees based on what we learned in our own classes.
Your group is in the U.S. and you're sending funds to Kenya. How have you managed feedback and updates of the project?
We definitely heard concerns surrounding fund transfers from people who were interested in helping us. Teresa and her team deserve the upmost trust. However, transfers must go through several checkpoints on the way in that may be vulnerable to corruption, and there are multiple short term needs at Wema that might override the more long term plan for a bakery. To counter these worries, we researched the transfer process and consulted with Wells Fargo, helped Teresa create a budget and business plan, and sent funding in sections. Teresa then sent pictures of wire receipts, purchase receipts and of the bakery’s progress that we could then send back to donors.
So you co-founded Students for Wema and were the director for three years. How did you get involved with Enactus?
While at a dinner with our largest donor, a friend of his suggested that I see if UT Austin had an Enactus program. After learning that the program did indeed exist on campus, I met with Dennis Passovoy, the faculty advisor to Texas Enactus. Dennis explained to my team that Enactus fosters social entrepreneurship among college students across the world. I figured that [our goals] fit in with the social entrepreneurship category pretty well. Dennis, and the current president of Enactus at the time, Justin Sofia, invited the Wema Bakery to be one of the Texas Enactus projects.
We were fortunate to compete in the Enactus USA national competition, and placed third in the quarterfinals that year. Students for Wema still operates as a separate student chapter, but also folds into Texas Enactus.
You graduated in May of 2017. What are you doing now?
I was accepted into The LBJ School of Public Affairs and I’m wrapping up my first year. I am enjoying learning about the interactions of business, government, and society through the lens of policy development and community engagement. I have spent the last year getting hands on experience in public-private partnerships through what the school calls a PRP, or Policy Research Project. My team is working with several area non-profits, businesses, and the City of Austin to develop a co-located senior clinic and day center in East Austin for low income residents. This project, along with courses in Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Evaluation, have supported my plans to work in the social business space post-graduation. My goal is to one day start my own education based social venture or to run an education based program for a large corporation.
I currently work for The Social Innovation Initiative (SII) at The McCombs School of Business as a Graduate Assistant. The SII launched last semester as a center meant to support UT students and community members with an interest in social entrepreneurship, impact investing, and corporate social innovation. I support director Dr. Meeta Kothare in strategic program planning, communications and fundraising. Through this work, I have broadened my understanding of social impact techniques and explored local career opportunities in the field. I am proud to be serving hundreds of students across campus with a shared passion for social change.
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As of 4/22/2018, The Wema Bakery is fully constructed and is only lacking funding for ovens and larger equipment. Madison's team raised $1,200 in individual donations around Christmas, and applied for and received a grant from The Henry E. Niles Foundation in February for $2,500. The group continues to search for funding to complete the project.