Wawira Njiru is going on a three-day meditation retreat. She’s never attended one before, and she’s not sure what to expect.
But if anyone deserves a break from “burnout culture” — a chance to step away from the taxing rigors of work — it’s her. For the past few years, Njiru has been furiously working to feed the schoolchildren of Kenya.
What started as a pipe dream she hatched in college is now becoming a fully fledged reality.
Njiru’s organization Food for Education now serves 10,000 children per day, up from 2,000 children just half a year ago. Her goal of reaching 100,000 children within three years is on pace to be achieved well ahead of schedule.
The activist was awarded the first-ever Global Citizen Prize for Youth Leadership presented by Cisco, awarded at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 on Dec. 2 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The prize came with $250,000 and opportunities to network with philanthropic and strategic leaders around the world. Njiru has since used the funds, connections, and knowledge she gained to exponentially grow her organization, she said.
Food for Education fills a critical gap in Kenya’s education system by ensuring that children are well-fed throughout the school day. By providing affordable, nutritious meals at lunchtime, her organization breaks one of the main drivers of inequality in the classroom — hunger.
And her mission has no bounds. She ultimately wants to eradicate hunger across the continent of Africa.
“Africa is the future,” she told Global Citizen over Skype. “One in 4 people in the world in 2050 are going to be African.
“This is not something that’s nice to do,” she added. “It’s necessary to do.”
I am SO proud that @Food4Education hit our #10KEveryday milestone!— Wawira Njiru (@wawiranjiru) July 8, 2019
Crazy that we started with the dream to serve lunches to 100 kids a day and are now serving 10,000!! 🤯
Check out this video to see how we are #FeedingTheFuture of Kenya 🇰🇪and Africa!
What a wonderful milestone! pic.twitter.com/BamlkLhLnD
How it works
Food for Education has four head chefs and eight assistant chefs working around the clock to prepare enough food for thousands of children.
The kitchen only hires locally and partners with local farmers who supply their crops, which enables community members to earn more income. Right now, the organization has one kitchen, but the team is in the process of building a second space, which will significantly expand their ability to provide meals.
Every week day, the kitchen loads up a truck with vats of cooked rice, beans, grains, legumes, and vegetables. The truck then makes the rounds to 11 different partnering schools in Kenya to deliver lunch by 12:40 p.m. Children at the schools line up to get a nutritious bowl of food that accounts for 40% of their daily nutrients.
The product offered by Njiru’s group is so appealing that they’re adding new schools to the roster seemingly all the time — the only thing that prevents them from serving more schools is their lack of capacity.
The students pay for the meals using smartwatches called Tap2Eat that parents load with money using mobile apps. When a student makes it to the front of the line, the server taps the watch with a scanner and then provides food.
A key part of Njiru’s mission is to make the meals as accessible as possible — that’s why they only cost 15 cents each, a heavily subsidized amount. The meals are so cheap because of international and domestic grants and donations. You can donate to the organization here.
“What we found interesting is that a lot of parents get paid and put up a big lump sum on the watch so they don’t have to think about it,” she said. “They’re saving for their kids nutrition which is something that they hadn’t anticipated.”
This month, we set an ambitious goal to:— Wawira Njiru (@wawiranjiru) June 28, 2019
2X the number of schools from 6 schools to 12
3X the number of students getting lunch each day day from 3000 to 10,000.
We add our last school on Monday and it’s insane we’re actually almost there!#FeedingTheFuture#Tap2Eat#10KEverydaypic.twitter.com/dgAGqIVsIl
As Njiru gains international renown, she’s receiving more institutional support from the government. She now participates in a government program on childhood nutrition.
“We’re helping to set the policy and agenda for nutrition for all kids in primary schools and that’s a big plus for us,” she said.
In Kenya, more than 29% of children in rural areas and 20% in urban areas suffer from malnutrition, which can cause lifelong physical and mental disabilities. More than 23 million Kenyan children struggle with hunger in the classroom and food insecurity affects more than half the population.
Learning becomes difficult on an empty stomach. In fact, hunger affects a student’s ability to concentrate, retain information, stay awake, and stay healthy. The less a student eats, the more likely they are to develop an illness. Years of missed meals can prevent a student from graduating, setting them up for a life of squandered potential and poverty.
The best part of providing meals for Njiru is watching school children rejoice over the food and take an interest in the Tap2Eat technology. She sees vast potential in Kenya’s youth, and wants to unlock it.
As her organization grows, she’s committed to ensuring the quality of the food and the integrity of the supply chain remain the same. But as she pursues her goal of feeding 100,000 children, the hardest part is in the past.
Now that she has scale, anything is possible.
“Moving from 3,000 kids to 10,000 kids is harder than going from 10,000 to 100,000,” she said.