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Kennedy Odede, CEO of Shofco, on football, philanthropy and inequality

27 Sep 2021Vodafone Foundation news

When Kennedy Odede was growing up in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, his mother used to insist on eating meals with the front door open.

“When you get that meal, you really want to eat it,” remembers Kennedy. “And now the other kids are looking at the door and want to come in… and I'm like, ‘No! We haven’t eaten for a long time!’ And my mum says, ‘What are you doing? Go and open the door. You’d better share.’” Kennedy laughs. “The kids came in, and I wasn't very happy with my mum at that moment.”

Now, as co-founder and CEO of grassroots movement Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO),  his mother’s outlook shapes his whole approach to philanthropy. “If you think about my mother's story, and those of other people in poor communities, you ask yourself: who are the real philanthropists?” he says.

Kennedy never imagined that he would become a philanthropist himself. As a child, he thought of NGOs as outsiders, and disliked their intrusion in his community. “I’m struggling in a slum, and there are NGOs coming to save people - but nobody's saving me,” he says. “I see people taking pictures... that was really gross for me.”

The oldest of eight children, Odede experienced extreme poverty, violence, lack of opportunity, and deep gender inequality. “Life became really hard,” he recalls. “I remember police killings - bullets being thrown. Most of my friends were dead, they got shot."

The non-violence principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him to transform his community.

I thought: ‘Dr. King, what would you have done if you were born in Kibera?’ And then I realised, the African American community was so united in the Baptist Church. In Kibera, what's the thing we love? We love football.

“So I bought a football for 20 cents. I thought, if we come together, we can share our stories, and have that feeling of hope. And that’s how it started. Dr. King with a church, Kennedy Odede with a ball.”

Today, SHOFCO drives large-scale transformation in urban slums by providing critical services, community advocacy platforms, and education and leadership development for women and girls. SHOFCO’s vision, ‘building urban promise from urban poverty’, inspires its teams as they serve more than 350,000 urban slum dwellers in 10 slums across three cities in Kenya.

Kennedy has been doing this work for the last 17 years - since 2004.  As the co-founder of SHOFCO, Kennedy has experienced the racial barriers that African founders of civil society organisations face when traying to operate at scale. To help address this issue, Kennedy joined the Research Advisory Board for “Barriers to African Civil Society: Building the Sector’s Capacity and Potential to Scale Up” , a hard-hitting new research report co-commissioned by Vodacom, Safaricom and Vodafone Foundation.

Its findings suggest that the sustainable development of the not-for-profit sector in Africa is being challenged by an imbalance in international investment.

Foreign funding is predominately flowing to donor organisations headquartered in the Northern Hemisphere rather than going directly to the 90% of African civil society organisations (CSOs) that remain dependent on it.

"For so many years, nobody wanted to challenge the system,” Kennedy explains. “But I realised it's high time to talk about this. In philanthropy, when you are just a tiny organisation based in Africa, you don’t have a seat at the table. But we can’t just keep quiet."

Only a portion of philanthropic funding from international aid institutions reaches African CSOs, as it remains trapped within bureaucratic processes and systems. When this aid does reach the African continent, it is usually distributed among locally registered international NGO counterparts, and then allocated to African-led CSOs only for specific projects.  

With these funding limitations, African CSOs are unable to sustain resources and build long-term strategies for lasting social impact. Along with administrative constraints, and negative perceptions about African CSOs, this imbalance in approach to donor funding is preventing African CSOs from being more effective, self-reliant and, of course, helping the communities and citizens they serve. 

The report  provides several recommendations for change, from re-imagining donor-CSO relations, approaches and systems, to creating a balance between core and project funding, and building the sustainability of local CSOs.

If implemented, these changes could help break down a long-standing structure of inequality in philanthropy. “The system is really deep,” Kennedy says. “And we need to dismantle it. I call it decolonising development.

We have to start listening to people, and thinking: what is best for that community? If you come with solutions from London or New York, it won’t work. The ground you walk on is different. We have to invest in local leaders.

For Kennedy, that's what philanthropy is all about: local leaders, like his mother. It's not about the people sitting in the boardroom, but the people who, even when they haven’t eaten for days, will give part of their meal to their hungry neighbour. “My mum taught me that, whatever you're doing, if you don’t feel pain, you're not giving,” Kennedy recalls.

“You have to give until you feel pain. And then you know you are touching life.”

Listen to Kennedy Odede in conversation with Andrew Dunnett, Director of the Vodafone Foundation, on the latest episode of our Roaming podcast.

  • Africa
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Human rights
  • Inclusion
  • Policy
  • SDGs
  • Vodafone Foundation
  • UNGA
  • Social Contract

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