Buya Mukonzo Winfred, who was honoured with the Innovation Award at the Zuri Awards Ceremony describes herself as an individual who is passionate about transformative leadership and believes it is the only way in which society can be made better. The Zuri Awards sponsored by Barclays Kenya and Couture Africa celebrates organizations and women who are empowering women in society.
I caught up with her for a brief interview after she won the award.
What is EmpowerHER and when did it start?
EmpowerHER is an initiative that mentors women and girls to become agents of social and economic change. It was founded to challenge women and girls to do more. Since its inception, we have expanded our scope of reach to other counties such as Vihiga and Kisumu where we actively mentor the girl child.
It began in 2014 as Saidia Students Initiative but it rebranded to EmpowerHER Initiative when I became a student leader. I wanted to not only give help to the students but also give them power in various aspects of campus life.
What are some of the programs under EmpowerHER Initiative?
Coffee hour is a forum that addresses gender based violence over a cup of coffee. Participants meet and share ideas on how to prevent and tackle it. We also provide counselling to the victims in partnership with counselling department and the gender institute.
We also provide mentorship to school going girls particularly in the art of public speaking.
We also train the women on campus by equipping them with hands-on entrepreneurial skills such as mat weaving, braiding hair and nail art so that they can have financial independence and make extra income for themselves.
There is also leadership training to groom those who wish to vie for student leadership posts. This we do in partnership with NGOs and the aim is to tremendously increase female representation in the elective student council positions.
The student mums program is a branch of the initiative that acts as a bridge between expectant students, student mothers and the administration. We work towards making sure that they are accommodated and comfortable on campus. We also pushing to provide day care facilities for their children so that they are free to attend their classes. The idea is to enable them to strike a balance between being a student and pursuing their academic and career goals while still maintaining their responsibilities as mothers.
What are some of the challenges your program faces?
The biggest challenge we face is getting funding for some of the programs within the initiative.
Time is also a challenge as it can sometimes get demanding and hectic when you have to balance between the initiative and staying focused on your coursework.
How do you overcome these challenges?
On funding, we rely on donations from well-wishers. Sometimes, when the donor funds run low, my team and I dig into our pockets in order to keep things goings. It’s something we have to do because we are passionate about and we believe in what we are doing.
On the challenge of time, we try as much as possible to avoid scheduling our programs on weekdays and if we have to, we do it after 4pm which is usually when most classes have ended. We also limit the number of programs we run per week so that we don’t get overwhelmed.
I also delegate. I work with a team of eight women who each coordinate a different program.
Who are some of the mentors in your program?
Prof Kipsat-DVC ASA Maseno.
Peter Quest: CEO Inspiration Kenya.
Daniel Owino-Civil servant Kisumu County.
Dr Caren Nyangara- Director Institute of Gender Studies Maseno.
The NGOs are Akili Dada, Barclays Bank Kisumu, Jaber foundation and KEFEADO.
What criteria do you use to select who get to be a mentor in your program?
They need to embody the following values; passion, performance, commitment and the ability to deliver. We usually ask them to apply for these mentorship positions after which we vet them based on the aforementioned values and pick the ones best suited for the initiative.
What do the mentors and NGOs that you partner with do in terms of providing support for your initiative?
They connect us with facilitators for our events, provide branding and refreshments, and help us in securing venues.
The mentors bring on board their expertise and guidance in career and life skills.
Growing up, did you always know that you would make an impactful change in your community or was it something that you came to realized later on in life?
I always knew that I would make a difference in people’s lives. All through from nursery school, I have always been in leadership. I got exposed to many of the challenges that those around me faced and it always moved me to do something. When people trust you enough to confide in your their problems, you cannot just do nothing. You have to act on them and make things better in the best way that you know how. Even if the problem is a classmate of yours always losing a pen, which was always a major issue in primary and nursery school, you have to help because they may seem trivial to you but it’s a big issue to them and it is valid. I am a problem solver and solution giver, it is something so ingrained in me.
What challenge then were you seeking to address when you ran for office in your campus?
I enrolled in campus at the time of the student elections and I noticed that there were very few female contestants. When I asked about it, I was told that that was the trend and that very few women step up and run for office. I decided to campaign for the post of Organising Secretary for the year 2015/2016 in order to challenge my fellow students to do the same and to be testimony that women can do anything and succeed at it even in male dominated fields.
I also wanted to redefine student leadership which had been marred by scandal and corruption over the years. Most elected leaders take up those positions for selfish reasons and make very little impact on the lives of those who elected them. I wanted my change that narrative by ensuring that my term was corruption and scandal free and full of profound impact and to lead with service and integrity.
I am proud to say that it was something I was able to achieve during my term.
Did you face any challenges that were unique to you as a woman running for student leadership?
Yes. There were the general challenges such as intimidations from rival coalitions. The campaigns would sometimes get violent because one party was intolerant of another party’s politics and this even lead to the school being closed down for one month during the student campaigns in 2015. Things got out of hand and sadly, one student lost their life.
As a woman, I was often threatened and asked to back down from running because the male fraternity felt uncomfortable with me challenging the status quo. I would get booed during my rallies and the aggressors would chant my opponent’s name. At one point, I had to go back home when things got too much for me to handle but I came back and put up a spirited fight. I have a strong will and do not back down easily.
What are some of the highs and the lows that you have experienced in your journey with EmpowerHER.
The brain storming sessions are the best. It is always a pleasure hearing other women give creative solutions on how they can improve their lives in campus. Iron sharpens iron and it’s these sessions with like-minded individuals that have helped grow the initiative to where it is today.
Seeing the projects materialize from just ideas to actual things that make an impact on the life of the girl child is also a great pleasure for me.
In the student mums program, it gives me great joy to walk with a student from the time she is pregnant to when she gives birth and watching her baby crawl for the first time. Helping adjust to their new lives as mothers on campus allows them to enjoy these little joys that motherhood brings which they wouldn’t have been able to do because they would be bogged down by trying to find a place to stay or juggling school and motherhood.
The low moments for me would be when we are unable to get venues and have to host official meetings under the shade of trees.
Do you work with other organisations aside from EmpowerHER?
Yes I do. I volunteer in other organisations that have a similar agenda which is empowering the girl child.
How did it feel to win the award?
It was overwhelming and felt great. It was an honour for me. It validated my journey and showed me that your passion can take you anywhere and that the small things that you are doing in your own corner of the world to improve people’s lives will not go unnoticed.
What is a typical day in your life like?
I have an early start at 5am, do my prayers and devotion. After that I read. Based on my the list of activities I have set out to do, I plan my day as per my timetable.
What advice would you give to young people who would also like to make a meaningful impact in their communities but do not know how to start?
Just start, start without money, start without human capital, start without a plan. But start!
Having an idea is enough. The rest will fall into place, the universe always finds a way to work for you and to help you achieve your goal.