International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Girl power, Kenya style

In many ways, 19-year-old Susan Kayongo is a typical Kenyan teenager. Brought up by her grandmother in Eastleigh, one of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods, she did well in primary school but could not afford to continue her education. Her future looked bleak, like so many young women in her country with little education and work.

But Susan has been fortunate. Last year, she heard from a neighbor about an innovative program launched by the International Rescue Committee called Girls Empowered by Microfranchise—GEM—which aims to rescue teens from poverty by helping them create their own small businesses. GEM prepares them to manage local franchises of well-known East African enterprises such as Darling hair products. 

“The first training earlier this year was in business management and was held at a youth center for two weeks,” Susan recalls. “We had a choice between Kenchic [a poultry processing and fast food chain] or Darling. I knew I wanted to do Darling from the very beginning.… If I had gone on to high school I still would have wanted to be self-employed as a hairdresser.”

Susan partnered with nine other teenagers like herself to open the Downtown Salon. Located in a repurposed freight container left behind in the inner city, the parlor is surprisingly inviting, its white walls decorated with bright posters of trendy cuts. The women sell beauty products and hair extensions as well as style hair.

“If business is very good, then we will see six to seven clients in a day, but some other days we don’t work,” Susan explains. Their clients are all ages. “I have some men, too, who like to have their hair in dreadlocks or highlights.”
Women sit outside the Downtown Salon in Nairobi

Susan and her partners set up the Downtown Salon in a repurposed shipping container left behind in their inner city neighborhood. 

Photo: Sophia Jones Mwangi/IRC

The girls are visited daily by trainers from Darling and mentors from a local IRC partner, Family Health and Options Kenya. “They have been trained in basic business skills and we continue this training with them even after they have opened their businesses,” says Olisa Everlyne, Susan’s mentor, who cautions that these budding entrepreneurs need to keep their expectations real. “When their morale starts to go down, I encourage them by explaining that they can’t start today and expect to make money immediately. Most understand this.”

The lack of economic opportunities for girls is particularly problematic in the vast informal settlements that ring Kenya’s cities, where more than 70 percent live in slums with very limited basic services such as clean water and sanitation. The Kenyan government has identified youth employment as a key priority in its strategy for national development, and businesses such as Darling are eager to participate.

“What I like about GEM is that you are talking to girls, you are really empowering them,” says Tabitha Achieng, vice principal of the Darling Hair Academy. She welcomes the fact that the Darling brand is becoming better known as a result of the program, a win-win situation for everyone. “Their lives are changing,” adds Achieng. “The girls are now responsible and have something to do. As time goes by, the future will be very bright for those who are serious.”

IRC’s GEM program officer Elizabeth Mukami is also hopeful. “This first group has been a learning curve for us,” she explains. “There have been challenges along the way that we didn’t foresee, and showing the impact can take time during the initial phases. But I know that after a year we are going to see a huge difference in these girls and their businesses for the better.”

GEM, funded by the Nike Foundation, plans to enlist two more franchises in the program this coming year, with the goal of reaching 2,400 girls in Kenya alone. The IRC, the only organization in the world that supports microfranchising exclusively for young people in countries recovering from conflict, has similar efforts underway in Sierra Leone, Haiti, Liberia and Egypt.

And Susan? She couldn’t be more ebullient. “I would like to be a well-known hairdresser and achieve my dreams of having a big salon in the city center with my styles in magazines.” She is one of the subjects of a BBC report entitled “Young and Jobless,” due for broadcast globally on November 15.

Learn More

Susan tells her own story in a photo slideshow on the BBC News website. 

Read our update on the GEM project, Susan, and the salon (October 2013)

1 comment


Great feature, keep up the

Great feature, keep up the great work of empowering the youth as they strive to become self reliant through the programme and encourage a saving spirit.