Photo coutesy of Jeana King
In the village of Ngomano, Kenya, population 400, lives a teenage girl named Rebecca. Along with her three sisters, Rebecca lives in a room the size of a walk-in closet with walls lined of newspaper. Though the girls are orphaned and have nothing but their little room in the slums, they have honored the promise they made to their dying parents not to turn to prostitution as a means of income. Through the Clay International Secondary School established by Project Education Inc. (PEI) in 2005, Rebecca has been able to attend high school, is now second in her class and has plans to become a physician.
“They had nothing,” Debra Akre, co-founder of PEI, said of Rebecca and her sisters. “They had less than nothing.”
In 2004 Akre was in Kenya for eight months helping establish a business college. Akre’s friend of nearly two decades Jeana King, who was sponsoring a child in Kenya, had set her up with the position after hearing about it through the sponsor agency. In July 2004, Akre returned to Bellingham with a dream to build a secondary school for Kenyan children. She shared this dream with King, who had visited her in Kenya and felt the same way.
“We both just felt a big calling to go back and do more in Kenya,” King said. “Both of us believe that education is the key to get these kids out of their situation.”
So the two women started their own nonprofit, called it Project Education Inc., and in March 2005, just seven months later, the school was up and running in Ngomano. At its inception, the school had 30 students and two teachers. Today, there are more than 100 students, seven teachers, a medical clinic, a science lab, seven classrooms; in October they will graduate their first class.
While most people assume they are educators, that is not the case. King has a background in human resources and business, and Akre has a background in everything from counseling to corporate America to guest lecturing.
“We’re more business people —” King said, hesitating.
“who value education,” Akre finished.
“Right,” King said. “who value education.”
Supporting the school
The school, named after the Clay Family Foundation, which donated a large amount of money to the school, is not structured the way most schools established by Westerners are. The school relies solely on donations from individuals and organizations and the profits from selling Kenyan coffee and bags called Kiondos woven by the village women. Most of the funds have come straight from families in Whatcom County.
“Whatcom County has really significantly changed a village in Kenya,” King said.
For donations received, King and Akre said, they handwrite thank-you notes and lick the envelopes themselves. Though they have some help, PEI is largely a two-woman show. In a storage unit on Meridian, the women store their supplies and work among them, converting the square metal space into an office with two desks. This is where they work and develop ideas for bringing change to Kenya.
“We knew we wanted to do education and we also knew we didn’t want to do it the way it had been done in the past 40-plus years,” Akre said. “If you look at the way things are being done from the West in Kenya, it’s the same as it’s been for the past 40 years. There has not been change.”
Akre and King believed the best structure for the school would be to have it as a partnership with the community. Funding, supplies and a sense of direction would be provided by PEI, but building the campus, tending to the property and hiring staff would be up to the community.
“We believe, strongly, that we are guests in their country,” Akre said. “They have the knowledge to help themselves; we just have to help them facilitate that.”
Most recently, Akre and King have started their own trading company called Tembo Trading. The company is licensed as a social entrepreneurial business. While King and Akre currently get paid a salary for PEI through the Clay Foundation, they hope to have all administrative costs covered through Tembo in the future.
Established in December 2008 and funded solely out of their own pockets, Akre said Tembo is one of the only companies in the U.S. to sell 100 percent Kenyan coffee. The coffee tins, featuring the photo of a student at the Clay school, are sold at The Woods Coffee locations, with more than half the profits going back to Tembo and from there directly to PEI.
“The sole purpose of Tembo Trading Company is to provide funding to these students,” King said.
“We are probably the only company in the United States that gives 100 percent of its profits to a nonprofit,” Akre added.
The money is used to finance the school as well as to provide job opportunities for the community. Someday the women hope to open a chain of coffee stands in the city, hiring graduated students to run them.
Wes Herman, owner of The Woods Coffee, said a lot of people bought the coffee toward the end of the year, sometimes 10 or 20 tins at a time. The Woods Coffee will sell the Tembo Trading Company coffee for as long as they supply it, he said. He feels good that his business is able to positively impact the kids at the school.
“It’s a story that is an amazing story, which allows people to feel connected to something that is being done in a positive way in their world,” Herman said. “One of the side bonuses is that it’s outstanding coffee. It’s one of the highest quality coffees we carry.”
Building trust with Kenyan community and coffee farmers
Akre and King were able to get into the coffee business by establishing strong, trusting relationships with Kenyans who were able to connect them to a nearby coffee farmer. Normally, it is extremely difficult to get to the source of the coffee and takes a long time to establish a solid business relationship. But because of their local connections, the women were able to bypass the normal hoops and get their coffee business off the ground quickly.
“They actually shipped the coffee and we hadn’t paid for it yet.” King said. “That is the trust that we have built.”
Developing strong relationships with the Kenyans was important in order to succeed in building a school that would be sustainable by the locals. When King and Akre first proposed their idea for a school to the community, they were met with skepticism.
“Lots of promises had been made and lots of promises had been broken,” Akre said of other proposals that had been made by Westerners in the past.
But PEI stuck to their word and have slowly seen the trust build in the village. Akre said it takes time for the villagers to take an idea, believe in it and make it their own. For example, she said, when the school first began they introduced the idea of boiling water before use to help kill bacteria. Finally, four years later, the villagers have begun to boil the water they gather from wells and streams.
Photo courtesy of Jeana King
Making a difference
In a village without running water or electricity, being poor takes on a whole new meaning. King said the people of Ngomano have nothing.
“In America if you have nothing it means you have an older car and maybe only one TV,” Akre said. “These kids literally have nothing.”
Derek, a student at the Clay school, has no family of any kind and even his teachers aren’t sure where he stays. He has only two pairs of pants that Akre said are at least 10 sizes too big and he cinches tight to keep them on his small frame. But every day he goes to school and he is determined to get his education.
“Every child at this school has a story — and a really deeply touching story,” King said, tearing up. “They want to succeed so desperately.”
As the mother of a 10-year-old son, Jace, King said she believes it is important that he and others see that anyone can make a difference.
“As a little girl growing up in Montana, who would’ve ever dreamed I’d be working in Africa?” she said. “I think for the average person to know they can make a difference out there in the world is a really important thing.”
Akre said there has not been a single case of AIDS at the school in four years and no children have left to live in the slums. Both are huge signs of success and the women hope they can open more schools in the future to change lives in other villages.
When lecturing, Akre often tells people to picture themselves at age 95, surrounded by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Then, she asks what they want to be able to tell them.
“When I’m 95 and sitting in a rocking chair with my great-grandchildren around I want to tell them that I worked to eliminate ignorance, poverty and AIDS,” she said.