When Yale graduate student Eddy Gicheru Oketch was growing up in rural Kenya, he witnessed the tribal violence that erupted in his country following disputed elections. He observed that low-income youth were especially likely to be drawn into the chaos. That’s when he came up with his big idea: economic empowerment will bring peace.
In response, Gicheru Oketch founded Peace for Africa and Economic Development (PAD), which began as a tiny organization with just three volunteers. That was in 2008, when Gicheru Oketch was still in high school.
Eight years later, the nonprofit organization has grown to 11 full-time staff members plus an advisory board, supported by a range of individual donors, corporations and family foundations. Now called Ongoza (a Swahili word meaning “lead”), the Nairobi-based organization offers customized business development training and access to zero-percent or low interest financing to fledgling businesses.
Ongoza targets youth groups with a social mission aimed at improving the communities where they are based. These “clients” are typically young people aged 18-35; some have a college education, but can’t find work. They usually come from low-income areas across the country.
As part of its two-year curriculum, Ongoza brings in sector-specific experts and builds on the existing strengths of youth group members. For example, a youth group may have in-depth knowledge about an agricultural product, but lacks the business skills to bring it to market. The end goal is to assist these youth groups to master their business skills and transition into a more corporate culture.
Ongoza works with financial partners and investors to offer financial support for several years while a business gets off the ground. This is a different approach from most microloans, which require repayment in the short term. In the African continent, he explains, there is a strong culture of repaying loans at any cost—even if it means the business fails. Ongoza helps the businesses it supports to scale up over time until they become profitable. One of Ongoza’s strategic goals is to bring the financing completely in-house.
In May 2016, Oketch will complete his MA in Global Affairs at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Before coming to Yale, Gicheru Oketch earned his BA degree in political science and African studies at Trinity College, Hartford. He has continued working remotely for his nonprofit—often 35 to 40 hours per week—while completing his undergraduate and graduate studies.
This past summer, two of his Jackson classmates, Liz Verado MA ’16 and Tom Berry MA ’16, joined Gicheru Oketch in Kenya to intern with Ongoza. Together, they helped train seven new businesses.
Gicheru Oketch appreciates that he can count so many practitioners among his classmates and teachers, from former Peace Corps volunteers and enlisted military personnel to government policy-makers.
“Jackson has helped me bridge the gap between the global and the grassroots,” he said.
After Yale, Gicheru Oketch will return to Kenya to devote his full energy toward building the organization.