Dr. Auma Obama – founder of Kenya’s Sauti Kuu Foundation – tells us why Africa’s youth is a gamechanger for the continent.

Dr. Auma Obama knows exactly what it’s like to be poor. When she was a girl, her family lived in a rural area of Kenya with no running water or electricity. “Even when we moved to the city and things improved for us, we did not always have enough to eat,” she remembers. “And I was often sent home from school due to lack of fees.” 

The difference was, Obama had people who believed in her and who created a platform for her to grow and realize her potential. She is now a noted humanitarian, author, sought-after keynote speaker and – most importantly – founder and director of Kenya’s Sauti Kuu Foundation, an organization that supports children and young people, in particular those from rural communities and urban slums. Her autobiography, “And Then Life Happens,” was published in 2012. “I was able to overcome all hardship and gain the confidence needed to excel and achieve,” she says.

After leaving Kenya to study and work in Germany and the U.K., Obama joined aid organization CARE International before founding Sauti Kuu in 2009. Sauti Kuu isn’t about giving young people aid and handouts, she insists. Instead, the idea is to “find ways and create structures that will help them become self-reliant,” using “locally available resources to improve and secure livelihoods.” 

In the early days of Sauti Kuu (Swahili for “powerful voices”), Obama sat down with 10 school pupils under an old fig tree to discuss life in the countryside in Alego Nyangoma in western Kenya. Now the Foundation has over 450 children and young people taking part in its programs, and has found sponsors for five young people either at university or in vocational training colleges. Since 2014, Sauti Kuu children and young people have been running three income-generating Demonstration Kitchen Gardens and one tree nursery; and 78 Sauti Kuu families have Kitchen Gardens on their homesteads and are able to feed their families from the yield. “Our model presents young people with local solutions for achieving financial stability and livelihood security without being forced to leave their rural communities,” she says. “There is no doubt that lives have been transformed by it.” Her hope now is that the Sauti Kuu approach will spread across Africa and beyond.

To relax, Obama loves to read, dance, take part in sports and spend time with her family and Sauti Kuu children and young people (“I don’t consider the latter work,” she says). If her surname sounds familiar, that’s because her brother is former President Barack Obama, who is one year younger than her. Although he was
born in Hawaii and they didn’t meet until they were in their 20s, they now enjoy a close relationship.

Dr. Obama says she can relate to many of the people empowered by Sauti Kuu. Yet despite her early hardship it seems as though she had her life planned out from a young age. “Not really,” she says. “All I know is that I always felt very strongly that one had to take responsibility for what happened in one’s life. Intuitively I knew from a very young age that my future would depend on what I did. I had the power to shape my destiny. That is what I teach children and young people today: ‘You are your future!’”

Why do you believe that aid is not sustainable?

First of all classic charity/ handouts create dependencies. Furthermore, poverty in the context of development aid is understood as lacking in certain material commodities, based on a Eurocentric view of life. This definition of poverty has had a very negative impact on the humanitarian sector and has led to the stigmatization of a whole continent, i.e. Africa, as poor. Secondly, the term “development aid” is problematic. Development from what to what? In this context, the term is associated very closely with “philanthropy.” And although non-profit organizations will always, to some extent, be dependent on aid, pure philanthropy must be preserved for conflict situations and natural disasters.  

So what needs to be done to enable real long-term change?

It is critical that the term “development aid” is revised to exclude the word “aid.” We must talk of “sustainable economic development.” Only then will any intervention have a lasting sustainable impact. The focus must be on enabling beneficiaries to become financially independent. It is therefore all about economics; training for employability, creating jobs and promoting business opportunities.

Is Africa fulfilling its potential?

The question is too broad. Africa is a continent with 54 countries. Any answer could only be a sweeping statement. All I can say is that there is a lot of potential on the continent. According to the U.N., the continent has the youngest population in the world with a median age of 19.5. We need to tap into that potential, use it to grow and develop our local economies. It is not about improving but about establishing a sound foundation for this very young population.

Could Africa’s youth be the gamechangers the continent needs?

Africa’s youth, as with all youth worldwide, are ­gamechangers However, how impactful and positive that change is depends on the role young people are allowed to play in the development of their communities. Their voices must be taken seriously. We must include them as an integral part of the development process.  

What are some of those challenges?

Firstly, believing that they matter and that their opinion counts; and, secondly, believing that they have the power to change their lives. Young people have to learn that they are responsible for what becomes of them. Sauti Kuu helps them unleash their potential. —  Tony Greenway

Published: September 2017

Images: Photo: Samuel Trümpy/13 Photo