Kennedy Odede remembers seeing how life’s odds were stacked against him while growing up in Kibera, Kenya’s largest urban slum, nestled within the capital city of Nairobi. “Sometimes, it’s all about where you were born,” he says. In his teenage years, Odede says he lost friends to mob violence, police killings, and suicide. But when there was no food at home, he also recalls that his neighbors ensured he still had something to eat. “That love I saw in my community back then, it keeps me going even now,” Odede says.
Today, the 38-year-old is the founder and CEO of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), one of the largest grassroots organizations in Africa. The nonprofit aims to improve living conditions in Kenya’s slums through a gamut of community-led programs that range from free schooling and support for small businesses to increasing access to clean water, the internet, and improving public health.
SHOFCO serves nearly 2.4 million people across the country today—something its ebullient founder couldn’t have imagined back when he started the group in Kibera in 2004. “If I’m being honest, the idea of starting an NGO and doing proposal writing was not fun,” Odede confesses. But unlike international aid organizations, which Odede says often “parachute in” to the developing world with foreign funds and a top-down approach to help solve problems, SHOFCO is different. “It’s a grassroots movement,” he says. “It’s the idea that we are a community, that we know our problems and our challenges, and that we can help ourselves.”
One of SHOFCO’s earliest and most successful programs is the Kibera School for Girls, a tuition-free institution launched in 2009 that serves just over 350 girls from kindergarten to eighth grade. The school was one of the first in a wave of new schools started during a decade of ambitious education reforms in Kenya. Now among the top 10 public schools in Nairobi, its students are consistently top-performers in the country’s national exams. It also has delivered a 100% transition rate to secondary education, with graduates going on to attend high schools in Kenya and the U.S.—a meaningful achievement in a country where less than 20% of girls between age 15 and 19 complete high school. For Odede, the evidence speaks for itself: “More and more girls are going to school in Kibera today. That was our dream, to change their mindset through education. Because education is freedom.”
SHOFCO is also driving change in other areas, including unemployment—a significant problem that affects young Kenyans disproportionately. In 2019, its employability training program tutored over 650 young people, strengthening their skills in resume building, interview and job-finding techniques, and understanding workers’ rights. In September, it launched an ambitious five-year program to enroll 20,000 young people in its Technical and Educational Vocation Training program and to provide business training and grants to nearly 50,000 women.
Odede’s accomplishments are plenty—he’s been named a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum, an Obama Foundation Africa Leader, a USAID Advisory Board member, and the winner of the Mohammed Ali Humanitarian Award, in addition to co-writing a New York Times bestselling memoir—but he isn’t done yet.
Though he’s become a global ambassador of sorts, Odede is still trying to find a balance between maintaining the pace that has made SHOFCO a success and staying connected with his community. “I’m working, working, working, but now, I’m not able to teach in a classroom or visit a clinic like before,” he says. Still, he knows his work is contributing to a larger effort. “I’m the engine that keeps this thing fired up, but the impact is felt down on the ground,” he says.
This profile is published as a part of TIME’s TIME100 Impact Awards initiative, which recognizes leaders from across the world who are driving change in their communities. The next TIME100 Impact Awards ceremony will be held on Nov. 17 in Kigali, Rwanda.