After graduating from Harvard, Megan White Mukuria moved to Kenya and began working with street girls. When she learned that 800,000 Kenyan girls miss school due to a lack of sanitary pads and health education, she founded ZanaAfrica. The mission of ZanaAfrica is to distribute affordable, eco-friendly sanitary pads, along with health education, to empower Kenyan girls to graduate from school and break the cycle of poverty.
Through funding from The Nike Foundation, ZanaAfrica recently launched EmpowerNet Clubs: an after-school program that provides adolescent girls with tools, mentorship and a safe space to discuss important issues that help keep them in school. ZanaAfrica has recently received grants from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create the sanitary pads; manufacturing will launch in 2014.
Megan has been an award-winning social entrepreneur in Kenya for over a decade, having launched numerous businesses in Kenya to benefit at-risk youth. Megan was the youngest Rotary President in Kenya, and a semi-finalist in the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year for Africa Award. She is also a founder of the Harvard Club of Kenya and a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow.
One word that describes you? Tenacious and joyful – but that’s more than one!
In your own words, what do you do? I’ve been a social entrepreneur since before that term became so ubiquitous. But that doesn’t really capture the essence of what I do. I help break cycles of poverty for girls through a really simple, sustainable solution. My organization, ZanaAfrica, aims to make eco-responsible sanitary pads to keep girls in school and women at work, and ultimately, to deliver supportive health education. This idea came from being a “mom” to a few hundred former street children and listening to them. I believe the best way to solve poverty-related issues is by bringing the best of business and non-profit sectors together to create sustainable, replicable, self-funded solutions. My goal through ZanaAfrica is to break cycles of poverty for millions of women while also healing the planet.
Who is your greatest influence in your career/life? I think we are each a composite of the people who have influenced us: I am only who I am today because of the incredible people who have given me a better perspective of myself and the world. I became a Christian in college at Harvard, and my life is a journey to actualize that call to love radically through action. I read a lot, and some people whose writings have shaped me include: Frederick Douglass, Howard Thurman, N.T. Wright, Gustavo Gutierrez Jeffrey Hollender, and Paulo Coelho.
Which is your favourite part of your job? Seeing girls ten years after I met them now as young women who are making their dreams come true. I met all of my field staff when they were at-risk eight-year olds. Now they are high school graduates, on their way to college. I live for watching people who are overlooked by society realize their own innate, untapped potential, and then improve their lives as they bring others along with them.
I get so angry about the negative stereotypes perpetuated about Africa – the way its history has been erased by the West. I seek to do my bit to help reframe Africa to “my” people – largely Americans and Europeans – by speaking about phenomenal African women through history up to today. This is one of the best parts of my job. I think I have a unique opportunity – as a Westerner who is proud to be American and who has lived in Kenya for over a decade – who can bridge both worlds.
Which is the part that you enjoy the least? Accounting! But I love spreadsheets, and I love ensuring we are accountable for every penny that we spend. You just have to do what you have to do until you can hire someone to do it better than you can!
What is your greatest achievement? Assembling an incredible team of women to help realize this plan to make sanitary pads. Our CTO is a Kenyan polymer material scientist, our Research Associate a bioengineer; they amaze me every day as they figure out how to make pads. Our finance guru is one of the brightest people I know, and our Creative Director also amazes me. Our field team members are beautiful to watch as they run our EmpowerNet Clubs in schools and facilitate so flawlessly. They are amazing role models to over 100 girls that we serve every week. I love that we are all women – not that we don’t appreciate men, but perhaps it’s my all-girls upbringing that just makes me gravitate towards incredibly talented women.
Also, being a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow was an incredible honor and has helped to accelerate our work. But I hope my greatest achievements are yet to come!
What was your Plan B? I never had one. I’ve listened to my heart, and taken it one step at a time, and am exactly where I’m supposed to be.
What is your most prized possession? My journal collection. I’ve journaled nearly every day since 1996 and it’s an amazing record of my memories, mistakes, adventures, lessons learned, prayers and dreams. This goes hand-in-hand with my collection of photographs and videos.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given? There are two pieces of advice that immediately come to mind. One came from my mentor Denise in High School – “the easiest words to say are ‘I don’t know’ – because once you know, you are responsible to do something.” And I’ve always resonated with Howard Thurman’s quote: Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Please complete the sentence… I could not live without… my husband, Dr. Mukuria Mwangi, who is my soul mate and my oracle, my best friend and my #1 cheerleader. He is out of the box like I am – a therapist, an artist and actor, a social entrepreneur working with the last indigenous forest-dwelling community in East Africa and starting honey sales and a healing center. We’ve both lived in a number of different worlds, and understand one another so well. He keeps me sane and helps me not take myself too seriously.
Favourite restaurant? In which city? Spring Garden in Nairobi – I’m convinced it’s the best Chinese food in East Africa. We love to order take-out and watch a movie for some good downtime. I think by now all we need to do is say our name and they know what we want!
In New York, I love Pio Pio, an amazing, affordable Peruvian restaurant and a great place to have long, relaxed conversations over great food with good friends. But I would also say nothing tastes as good as a meal served with love, and the best food is often with friends at someone’s home.
What is your personal luxury? I love when my husband takes me to the Alliance Francaise to see a play written by a Kenyan, or to listen to some incredible African musician. There are over 2,000 languages spoken in Africa and as many cultures, so it is inspiring to get a glimpse into another way of seeing, and expressing, life.
What steps do you take to make your life more positive? I think my work is all about trying to make my life more positive — to build a better world so girls can solve tomorrow’s challenges. But starting an organization is always overwhelming, with never enough funding or manpower, and it can be hard to juggle all the demands. I stay focused on the big picture of why I’m doing what I’m doing and the impact it will have. I usually find that focus by lying in the grass in the garden or after a really great yoga session.
I also give lots of hugs, especially to the many girls who call me “Mum” – and it’s my policy to not let go before the other person does; this not only helps the other person, but refreshes me as well!