Mentoring Nairobi's shantytown entrepreneurs

In a muggy classroom in the sprawling Nairobi slum of Mathare, Reanna Sidhu scans the expectant faces in front of her. Through the windows behind them, a sea of low tin roofs stretches into the distance. She takes a deep breath. In that moment, Reanna transforms from student to instructor. Her brief? Help shape better lives.


In July 2015, Reanna Sidhu and seven other UBC Sauder student volunteers arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. They had four weeks to help aspiring entrepreneurs from the country’s poorest areas create viable business plans through UBC Sauder's Social Entrepreneurship program (SSE).

Some of the Kenyan participants already owned a business; others had a germ of an idea. All wanted to improve the quality of life for themselves, their families—and their communities.

That’s no small ask. Mathare and Kibera, the second SSE location in Nairobi, are two vast urban slums. Their residents live in some of the most deprived conditions in the world.

Kenya Infographic


What could a group of relatively inexperienced students teach people running businesses in such challenging circumstances?

Sidhu faced other challenges. Although she has worked as a volunteer teacher with children, teaching a group of adults about business is a whole other ball game.

“I was afraid of change. I did not like getting outside my comfort level,” says Sidhu. “Going to Kenya meant adapting to a completely different culture. And the thought of teaching business skills to adults with businesses was also daunting.”


Before going to Kenya, Sidhu had just finished her second year as a BCom student at UBC Sauder. With an interest in HR and marketing, and a passion for teaching, her career aims were taking shape.

Those interests reflect her personality and her love of getting to know and working with different people.

Community is also important to Sidhu, and she has volunteered in schools, hospitals and community centres. She is passionate about maintaining a healthy lifestyle and is a keen team sports player.

In early 2015, it’s fair to say that Sidhu was comfortable with where she was and where she was going. Or so she thought.

When she heard about the UBC Sauder Social Entrepreneurship program, she immediately saw the potential to do something completely different.

“I saw it as a chance to gain first-hand teaching experience, forge meaningful relationships in Kenya - and face up to my fear of change,” she says.


Before the trip, Sidhu and the other student volunteers prepared thoroughly.

“SSE is not ‘volun-tourism,’” she says. “It’s a serious, student-led program that aims to make a lasting difference. We wanted to put ourselves in the shoes of the participants and be sensitive of the stereotypes of volunteers going into a developing country.”

Despite researching the location, Sidhu was astonished by the contrasts between Mathare and downtown Nairobi.

“Instead of tall buildings and paved roads, people run their businesses through small kiosks lining dirt roads,” she recalls. With extremely high unemployment rates, especially among young adults, entrepreneurship is a way for people to lift themselves out of poverty.

In fact, research shows that more people in Nairobi’s slums are self-employed than employed by others.

Employment Infographic

One example is “tin roof farming.” By turning their house roofs into vegetable gardens and selling produce from a kiosk, enterprising Mathare residents boost the community’s food supply - and their own financial situation. It’s a classic example of social entrepreneurship in action.

Mathare’s “kiosk economy” was reflected in the SSE participants’ businesses. From cooks and dressmakers to food kiosk owners and greenhouse farmers, the businesses - both pre-existing and planned—catered to a variety of community needs.

“Their business ideas connect the community and have a broader impact than just improving their own life,” says Sidhu, who also found the teaching experience itself something of an eye-opener.

“On the first day of class the participants expected to just sit and listen,” she says. “We wanted to make it more collaborative, so we changed the working space. Eventually, everyone ended up working in groups and learning from each other.

“By the end, it was great to see participants so eager to take their ideas and and apply them to their businesses using their new knowledge.”

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Every SSE-Kenya participant also ended the program with a new business plan. Over the four weeks, several new business ideas had taken shape and existing businesses had pivoted.

“We learned to respond to the specific needs of the participants,” says Sidhu. “For example, one candle-maker had very low sales. We looked over where he was going wrong and helped him change his approach.”

Sidhu, too, changed. Previously afraid of straying too far outside her comfort zone, she threw herself into new experiences when not teaching.

As well as the safaris and visits to an elephant orphanage and giraffe sanctuary, she made a point of frequenting the local markets and coffee shops. She learned some Swahili and made lasting friendships with SSE program participants who still get in touch for Skype chats.

Sidhu’s teaching and ‘soft’ business skills also improved.

“I discovered how learning can be made better by being interactive,” she says. “I also learned to think on my feet and adapt to a new setting very fast.”

The overall experience opened Sidhu’s eyes to how business knowledge can drive real change as well as improved profits.

“The participants all wanted to lift themselves, their families and their local communities out of poverty,” she says. “Helping them on the path to achieving this, and creating lasting impact through teaching business skills was very rewarding.”

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Lives Changed

The lunch provider

Dorcas Njoici Gachege had previously run a firewood business when she joined SSE. Now she owns a successful food services stall in a prime Mathare location offering lunch to over 300 customers a week. She employs 10 people, paying them a fair wage and providing them with lunch. Her dream is to establish an eat-in restaurant in Mathare.

The serial entrepreneur

Andre Wapula Rannzi developed a business plan for his shoe boutique business through SSE. He then used the same process to establish another two enterprises - a small farming operation and a business leasing his own motorbike. He embraced the concept of diversification presented in the program and plans to start more businesses.

The crepe seller

Oluoch Benard Ochieng (Benney) abandoned his original idea for a business selling chips because there was too much competition. Instead he started Benney Sweet Crepes, selling crepes on street corners and to existing shops. He uses the skills acquired through the program to constantly research and develop new products.

Survey on Past Kenyan Participants

SSE-Kenya 2016-Annual Report

SSE-Kenya 2017 Annual Report