Interview with Dr. Auma Obama, Head of the Sauti Kuu Foundation
Dr. Auma Obama leads Sauti Kuu, a foundation that empowers young people in Kenya. Interviewed by THE VOICE, she shares her perspective on the critical role of the private sector in women’s empowerment and development.
Dr. Auma Obama (AO): Oh! What’s there to tell…what would you like to know? I am Kenyan. I am a woman. I work with children and young people, very, very passionately. I love what I do. I also focus a lot on communities and families, and in particular mothers who are the nurturers and the immediate caregivers for their children. I help them find sustainable ways to take care of themselves and for their families financially. I tell them ‘You are your future!’. This is at the core of the work that we do. Support can only be sustainable if it enables people to take their lives into their own hands.
AO: The decision came from looking back at my own life and realizing that I was able to get to where I am thanks to people and structures supporting me, valuing me and celebrating me. Because I had these platforms and support, I now feel that I can also give it forward. And my surname makes this easier for me. ‘Obama’ opens doors and gives me the possibility to give a voice to many, who otherwise wouldn’t be heard.
My foundation is called Sauti Kuu, which means ‘powerful voices’ in Kiswahili (spoken in East Africa). We support, value and celebrate young people. We show them they are important and have a powerful voice that they can use to participate in making decisions about their own lives.
AO: The statement ‘Poverty is no excuse’ is about challenging the very definition of poverty. Living in a hut with no running water or electricity does not mean you’re poor. In Scandinavia, people pay a lot of money to stay in very rustic cabins in the boondocks with minimal amenities!
We challenge our beneficiaries to question the notion of poverty and to realize that maybe they’re not so poor after all. ‘Use what you have to get what you need, not what you want’ that’s what we tell the young people we work with, both in Kenya and in Germany. They find that they have a lot of resources that they could use to improve their lives. They just in most cases don’t realize this. Or they don’t value those resources, or they lack the know-how to use them to their advantage. That is where we, the Sauti Kuu Foundation come in.
When they say ‘I’m poor’, we show them that with a changed mindset and outlook on life, that may not need to necessarily be the case. And that is why poverty is not an excuse!
AO: One of the unique challenges is that often as a girl or a woman, your role is, pre-defined by others. This can limit your possibilities with regards to doing things and/or making your own decisions. From my own experience growing up in Kenya, I was exposed to a very patriarchal culture that had a very distinct idea of how girls were perceived and should behave, defining them with little room for self-expression. If you tried to go against the status quo, you were reminded that it was not the thing to do because you were a girl.
If takes a very strong woman to say ‘no, I’m going to live my life as I want and be successful’ without losing the connections to and respect from the men in her community. And keeping that connection is very important. I don’t believe in this approach of focusing only on women, you have to include the men. In the programs we run in rural communities, the women are the ones who come to the meetings, and seem to be very much at the forefront. But if you go to their farms, you realize that men are very involved and often have the last word when it comes to making decisions. We need to make that link and get the men to give women more visibility for the work they do and their contribution to the well-being of the family. On the other hand, women’s voices must be heard more and their contribution celebrated.
AO: I think Cocoa Life’s focus on communities is a good approach. This is what we need to imprint a sense of pride in communities. You do a good job at involving the women and that’s very important also for the girls who are growing up and need these strong female role models.
I however caution on too much focus on women and girls to the detriment of their relationship to the men and boys in their communities. It is tempting to promote women and girls because they seem and are in most cases more reliable when it comes to caring for the family. Nonetheless maintaining the right balance in your inclusion of women and men in your program is very important for its success and most importantly sustainability. Leaving men and boys feeling left out is definitely not the solution.
AO: The private sector plays a huge role in sustainable economic development. The distinction is important, it’s about economic development. What communities need is to become a conscious part of the economic value chain. It’s about creating jobs, and economic growth. The private sector knows best what that means. It’s a language they understand well.
The focus for the humanitarian sector can’t just be on social development, it must include a business perspective. The communities have a product to sell, what they need is a seat at the table and a strong voice to negotiate for themselves. We welcome companies to work with us to share their know-how and help communities better market their product.
It goes without saying that companies needs to be involved and companies shouldn’t shy away from using a business language to talk about their involvement. Every party should be clear and honest about what’s in it for them.
AO: This is what I tell everyone who is interested in the humanitarian sector: follow your money. Be curious, inform yourself. If you donate money, go find out what it’s used for. You will learn a lot and enrich your own outlook on life. And get interested in what you’re company is doing. Seek out information on Cocoa Life and what’s happening to the people in the cocoa communities.
And for those who work in the program directly, one piece of advice: listen. Talk to the people and listen to their feedback.