Reflections on President Obama’s Visit to Kenya

President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. leader to visit the Republic of Kenya this past weekend. This was a momentous event for the whole country, with much of the population glued to their televisions and smartphones to watch the events unfold.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 25, 2015. (Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Nairobi)

The connection between President Obama and the Kenyan people is deep and well known. Obama’s father was born in the western part of Kenya and moved to the U.S. to study as part of an initiative conceived by the independence leader, Tom Mboya. The Kenyan people have reveled in the fact that a descendant of one of their own has taken the flight back to Kenya on Air Force One.

Sanergy’s story is the inverse of President Obama’s story: we pride ourselves on being a Kenyan company with American roots. Founded in 2011 by five graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we received critical early support from American institutions, including the U.S. government through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID’s belief in Sanergy from the beginning afforded us the opportunity to establish ourselves in Nairobi. Continued support from USAID has enabled Sanergy to scale to a network of over 700 toilets. Four years in, we have a staff numbering 245, of which 93% are Kenyan.

From Obama’s visit, three trends emerged on which we could not agree more with the president – entrepreneurship, the role of women in building a strong economy, and human dignity.

The key event in Obama’s visit to Kenya was opening the Global Entrepreneurship Summit with his counterpart, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. In his opening remarks, President Obama said,

Entrepreneurship creates new jobs and new businesses, new ways to deliver basic services, new ways of seeing the world […] Entrepreneurship means ownership and self-determination, as opposed to simply being dependent on somebody else for your livelihood and your future. Entrepreneurship brings down barriers between communities and cultures and builds bridges that help us take on common challenges together.

Sanergy shares President Obama’s view on the power of entrepreneurship. We think it is one of the most potent ways to meet the needs of low-income communities throughout Africa. It has the potential to empower and build bridges across communities. This is why we do all we can to support the entrepreneurs with whom we work known as Fresh Life Operators, who are earning money – about $1000 per toilet in profit on average each year – to provide for their families’ needs while simultaneously offering a valuable service to their neighbors.

FLO Leah Gachanja is proud to provide her community with hygienic sanitation.

For example, we partner with Kiva to provide interest-free loans to community residents interested in purchasing a Fresh Life Toilet. We offer training courses on everything from book-keeping to customer service and user education. We promote our entrepreneurs both in the community through aspirational marketing and in the local media to help elevate their status in society. We are committed to providing entrepreneurs with the tools and skills they need to succeed.

We also agree with President Obama about the important role women play in the prosperity and well-being of their communities. In his opening remarks, President Obama highlighted the critical role of women:

Women are powerhouse entrepreneurs. The research shows that when women entrepreneurs succeed, they drive economic growth and invest more back into their families and communities.

At the same time, the burden of poor sanitation falls disproportionately on women. It is women that are most frequently called on to nurse children or relatives that are struck down with diarrheal disease. It is women that are at greater risk of sexual assault when they walk at night to use distant pit latrines.

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Co-founder Lindsay Stradley spoke on a panel on social entrepreneurship at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit Youth and Women Day. (Photo credit: Nina Davuluri)

Yet women are leading the fight against poor sanitation. Over 40% of Fresh Life Operators are women, and a majority of the attendants who run the FLTs on a day-to-day basis are women. From a customer perspective, the evolving design of Sanergy’s sanitation systems has been co-created by women, to meet the needs of our customers. Our toilet design is the first of its kind in this regard!

Finally, in an address to the Kenyan people on Sunday, President Obama anchored his remarks on the concept of human dignity. Obama congratulated Kenyans on adopting a constitution in 2010 that enshrines the dignity of every person, “and the right to have that dignity respected and protected.”

This very same constitution assures every person the right “to reasonable standards of sanitation.” The Sanergy model promotes human dignity two-fold: through the economic opportunities created by entrepreneurship, and the everyday dignity of access to hygienic, safe, and affordable sanitation.

The visit by President Obama has highlighted to the world the unbounded spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in Kenya. We’re proud to be part of the story!

This post was authored by Alex Marks of Sanergy’s Policy & Advocacy Team. 

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