Nurturing Minds, Fueling Futures in Kenya: A Conversation with Wawira Njiru

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Logging lunch with Tap2Eat. Local authorities can subsidize school meals, with parents contributing via mobile money. Logging lunch with Tap2Eat. Local authorities can subsidize school meals, with parents contributing via mobile money.

Food4Education is a non-profit organization, founded in 2012, that began as a school feeding program in the community where its young founder and CEO, Wawira Njiru, grew up in Kenya. Join me, Eisa Gouredou, in my interview with her, as we delve into her work which reinvents the old idea of school feeding with the use of green kitchens, mobile technology, and better nutrition. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: What inspired you to start an NGO?

Answer: First of all, I wanted to respond to something that was happening in my community. I sent my parents to look at schools in the area where I grew up, because at the time I was studying in Australia. And my parents told me the most significant challenge kids were having was fainting because of a lack of food. So, I thought, “As a Kenyan, I got an opportunity to study overseas, so what can I do to give back to my community? Why don’t I bring together people to do something? Instead of complaining, what can I do to help relieve the situation?”—even if back then it was only 25 children.

Food4Education started with just [these] 25 kids. We were giving them lunch every day. I was 20 years old and still a student, so I just raised the money through friends. I started feeding the 25 children with a kitchen I invested the money in. Currently, we provide meals to around 140,000 children every single day across Kenya and are growing to about 400,000 children by January next year.

Q. Can you explain the role nutrition plays in how children do at school?

Nutrition is very important as children need good food in their bellies to ensure they can learn and grow.  At Food for Education, we provide food that contains high proteins for children’s muscles and brains to develop. We also include vegetables in all our meals because we want our children to have nutrients and carotenoids. By being full, they are able to stay in school and learn. That is what teachers report to us. It is much more than a full stomach; they are feeding their minds as well.

Q. The World Bank already funds some school feeding programs. What else can international institutions do to address food security?

I think that the World Bank and other institutions can prioritize school feeding programs across the world. If you look at Africa, we were really left behind in terms of school feeding when you compare us to other continents. Across the US, they have the largest school feeding program in terms of the number of kids who are being reached. Africa has more kids and more people, so from a percentage perspective, it’s really important that we reach more children.

At full capacity, this kitchen can feed 60,000 children a day, using climate-friendly, steam-cooking technology.
At full capacity, this kitchen can feed 60,000 children a day, using climate-friendly, steam-cooking technology.

Institutions like the World Bank can play a role in supporting countries to prioritize school feeding programs. In fact, I attended an event in Washington DC [given] by the World Bank a couple of years ago where they were talking about human capital, and school feeding is a big driver of human capital growth. By investing in that, the continent can grow. A lot of children in the world are in Africa, so it is a really good intervention to bring children to school and enable them to learn.

Q. Your new school meals program aims to provide lunches for over 250,000  primary (elementary) schoolchildren in Nairobi City County every school day. What challenges are you facing as you expand it?

That’s a good question; one of our challenges is the financing required to feed 1 million children. Kenya actually has 10 million children from preschool to primary, so 1 million is about 10% of the children. So, we need to expand to more children. We need to make sure we have the right model, which includes plugging into local supplies and having technology. Food4Education uses technology throughout our entire value chain to streamline the process. Scaling that technology to remote places is one of the challenges that we are thinking about in terms of bringing the best efficiency in the country’s hardest-to-reach areas.

Q. We understand the Tap2Eat wristbands play  a role in making the program run smoothly. Can you tell us how it works?

Tap2Eat wristbands are a technology that allows parents' contributions. One of the challenges we had when we started was that parents were contributing money for school meals. For them, they were very expensive. And so, by lowering the cost of what parents are contributing, you enable more kids to eat the meals.

We lowered the cost of meals that children are getting, and then we also found a way that parents can make what we call “micropayments,” meaning they're not making huge payments that are their day's wage, but very small amounts of money, topped up through mobile money, which is very accessible with almost 100% penetration in Kenya. And they are basically saving up for the [school] meals.

So, each kid gets a wristband. They are available for all children, and once they come to school, they just tap on their devices. This gives parents a very easy, cost-effective way for their children to be able to eat every single day.

Q. The initiative will employ 3,500 people in newly built kitchens. How will this have an impact on local communities?

It will create a lot of jobs and livelihoods that will enable people to take care of their families, especially as the jobs will be created locally, meaning where the kids will be. [That is] the parents of the children are getting an income, as a lot of the jobs will be created for parents. Usually, the cooks are parents, which helps, being able to be locally rooted in the community. It is often their first steady income and the impact is significant. They are able to plan their future, their finances, and their children’s future. So the impact is massive.

Q. Using green energy in the kitchens demonstrates commitment to sustainable practice. How do these eco-friendly measures align with your broader mission?

We pride ourselves for using very low-impact cooking methods. All our kitchens use climate-friendly cooking methods, like eco-briquettes and steam, to make sure our carbon footprint is very low, even though we cook hundreds of thousands of meals every day. Even as we cook all these meals, we’re making the lowest possible impact on the environment because climate change affects the food supply and the families that we are working with. We want to contribute to help reverse some of that and be a pioneer in green school feeding−in Africa and globally.

Q. Can you share any anecdotes that demonstrate the impact of the school meals program, on children, their families, and the wider community?

Yes, there are so many stories. My favorite thing is that these go back to when we started. A lot of the kids we fed have now finished college and some of them are working, and some of them are in their final year of college. So, to have children who now even work with us to feed other children, that’s really something that warms my heart.

We have some working in our kitchens, and some working in our call centers, speaking to parents about any challenges they have. Sometimes kids reach out and tell me that, thanks to the school meals, they are now in their final year of university and how much the school meal changed their lives. These stories are very random and unexpected, and they really make my day.


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