Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

Harambee: Coming Together to Meet the Moment

Tabitha Olang — Former Senior Associate, Power & Climate, The Rockefeller Foundation

Eliud Mburu, 19, a high school freshman who lives in the outskirts of Nairobi in a single-parent household, is the primary caregiver for his two sisters in grade school, including one with special needs. Normally during weekends and school holidays, Eliud takes on manual labor jobs to feed his siblings. But Covid-19 restrictions on movement and the general economic slowdown have made finding work difficult. Recently, Eliud was unable to find work for almost three weeks, straining the family’s resources.

His sisters are enrolled in the school meal program managed by Food4Education, which provides nutritious meals to 10,000 school children daily. Meal costs are subsidized by donors, so families pay the equivalent of 15 cents per meal through their mobile phones. The children are then given wristbands equipped with a Tap 2Eat digital platform to access the meals.

These subsidized lunches encourage children to attend school and while enabling them to eat regular nutritious meals. However, this lifeline vanished when schools shuttered in response to Covid-19.

Food for Education staff distributing food to parents. Wawira the founder on the extreme right.

A recent Food4Education survey of their beneficiaries showed that almost 80 percent of households had lost their regular incomes. Ever-tightening family budgets have put the children and their families at grave risk of hunger, malnutrition, and the long-term consequences of undernourishment.

Wawira Njiru, Food4Education’s founder, started her organization eight years ago by providing meals to 25 vulnerable children. Faced with the pandemic, she was determined to find a way to continue feeding children. She says, “We developed a plan, and kept adapting it as we learned.”

Food4Education is meeting the moment by changing its business model. Their team identified central distribution points in communities and began providing food baskets worth $20 to the students’ families. A food basket contains 10 kilograms of maize meal, 5 kilograms of rice and 5 kilograms of beans – enough to feed an average household of five for a month.  To date, 1,700,000 meals have been distributed since March to 25,000 beneficiaries.

For Eliud, this food basket has been a lifeline. After a period of unemployment, he found a job as a water vendor, and because of the food basket, his earnings can be used to pay his family’s rent.

Wawira describes visiting the home of one student to deliver food. “I have known Bridget since her first day of school in nursery, and now she is in the third year of primary school,” Wawira says. “In school they are all in uniform, so it is difficult to see the realities of their home environment.” Visiting Bridget’s home, Wawira discovered that her mother had lost her manual labor job due to the pandemic.  The money that the family saves thanks to Food4Education’s food donations allows them to meet other basic costs for items such as utilities.

Parents in the school feeding program are verified with the Tap2Eat technology

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Nairobi-based team was inspired by the work of and the Kenyan culture of harambee, a Kiswahili word that means everyone coming together to support each other. So the Nairobi staff members pooled our resources to support those in our community that have been adversely affected by the pandemic and economic slowdown. So far the team has helped feed almost 400 families during this challenging moment.

There is no greater satisfaction and sense of purpose than knowing that we are serving our communities. We are privileged to work for a foundation whose mission is to improve the well-being of humanity. And yet we also know we have a responsibility beyond our work, as citizens, to ensure that we are supporting initiatives that improve the lives of those within our community.

Beyond this emergency support, the Nairobi-based team will also support Food4Education in subsidizing nearly 40,000 meals, once schools reopen and school feeding programs resume.

Rockefeller Foundation Team at a Food Distribution