In the heart of East Africa, a revolution is brewing on the football pitch.
In a country where men's football has traditionally dominated the headlines, Kenya's women's football is emerging as an alternative force.
The growth of women's football in Kenya has been nothing short of remarkable, and at the forefront of this transformation is the national women's football team, Harambee Starlets.
One of the most striking indicators of this growth is the increasing number of Kenyan women footballers plying their trade abroad.
A decade ago, the idea of Kenyan women playing professional football overseas seemed like a distant dream.
Today, however, around 18 Kenyan women find themselves donning foreign jerseys, living out the dreams they once harbored on the dusty pitches of Nairobi.
Remarkably, five of them have chosen to compete in the Tanzania Women's Premier League, while the rest have spread their wings across Europe and Asia.
The icing on the cake is that the above number was sampled from the current Starlets quad that played Cameroon’s Indomitable Lionesses last Friday in the 2024 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. The list grows longer and longer.
Kenya lost 1-0 to Cameroon during the first leg match and they are set to host them in the return leg today from 3pm, at Nyayo Stadium.
Esse Akida, who won the MVP award with FC PAOK Thessaloniki of Greece earlier in the year, leads the foreign contingent.
The 30-year-old veteran striker is a beacon of inspiration and motivation to rising stars including Jentrix Shikangwa, who plays for Beijing Jingtan FC in China.
Cynthia Shilwatso is another star on the rise. Shilwatso is one of Kenya’s raw talents currently bulldozing the Ukrainian Women's Premier League.
The 24-year-old signed for FC Kryvbas Women this year in May and she has helped the team to second place in the standings with 13 points after five matches in the 2023-2024 season.
The three-time Kenyan Women Premier League champion with Vihiga Queens (2017, 2018 and 2019) first made her move to Europe in 2020 after attracting Spanish suitors EDF Logrono B.
Starlets shot stopper Annedy Kundu is Harambee Starlets' first-choice goalkeeper and plays in one of the top European Leagues.
The 25-year-old joined Cypriot Division One side Lakatamia FC on a three-year deal in January 2020. However, in September 2022, she transferred to AEL Champions on a two-year deal. Today, she plays for Ness Atromitos FC in Greece.
Other players include Dorcas Shikobe (Sirines of Grevena), Vivian Nasaka (Hakkarigucuspor), Marjolene Nekesa (SK Slavia Praha), Mercyline Anyango (JFK Panthers), Mwanalima Adam (Hakkarigucuspor), Tereza Engesha (Hyundai Steel R.A.), and Violet Nanjala (Amlf Laayoune).
The Tanzanian squad has Ruth Ingosi (Simba Queens), Caroline Rufa (Simba Queens), Wincate Kaari (Yanga Princess), Vivian Corazone (Simba Queens) Topista Situma (Fountain Gates Princess), and Elizabeth Wambui (Simba Queens).
The story of these fearless women transcends borders, not only highlighting their individual achievements but also shedding light on the incredible potential that women's football possesses in Kenya.
To fully appreciate the significance of these players' overseas ventures, one must first understand the challenging landscape of women's football in Kenya.
The Football Kenya Federation Women’s Premier League, which serves as the backbone of women's football in the country, has long been plagued by financial difficulties and inadequate infrastructure. In contrast to the thriving men's league, the women's league has been overlooked, underfunded, and often marginalised.
Despite the dire circumstances, these Kenyan queens have defied the odds, showcasing extraordinary talent and determination that has captured the attention of top European clubs. The question then arises: what sets them apart, and why are they attracting interest from the world's footballing elite?
One word encapsulates the spirit of Kenya's women's football: resilience. These athletes have had to overcome numerous obstacles on their journey to success, from financial constraints to societal stereotypes. Yet, their unwavering dedication to the sport has propelled them forward.
The Harambee Starlets have been instrumental in this transformation. After years of playing second fiddle to their male counterparts, Harambee Stars, when it comes to players joining paid ranks abroad, the Starlets are now making their mark on the international stage.
In recent months, Harambee Starlets' players have dominated the headlines with their moves abroad. It is a testament to their talent and determination that they are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
These signings have been more than just individual accomplishments; they symbolise a paradigm shift in women's football in Kenya.
For years, women's football struggled to attract sponsorship, media attention, and support from fans. Now, it seems like the tide is turning, and the world is starting to notice the game.
So, what is it that makes these Kenyan women footballers so appealing to top European clubs? Talent. The players' technical skills, tactical acumen, and physical prowess have all contributed to their success. But it goes beyond that.
The hunger and determination exhibited by these women are palpable. They have persevered through adversity, tirelessly honing their craft in a country where the odds were often stacked against them. Their stories are inspiring, serving as a beacon of hope for aspiring female footballers across Kenya.
While the current success of Kenyan women's football is cause for celebration, it is essential to recognise that there is still much work to be done. The Football Kenya Federation Women’s Premier League requires substantial investment to provide better facilities, coaching, and opportunities for young talent.
As more Kenyan women footballers find their way to top European and Asian clubs, the world will continue to witness the rise of the Harambee Starlets.
Goalkeepers: Annedy Kundu (Ness Atromitos FC), Caroline Rufa (Simba Queens)
Defenders: Dorcas Shikobe (Sirines of Grevena), Enez Mango (Farul Constanta), Wincate Kaari (Yanga Princess), Ruth Ingosi (Simba Queens), Vivian Nasaka (Hakkarigucuspor)
Midfielders: Cynthia Shilwatso (FC Kryvbas Women), Vivian Corazone (Simba Queens), Marjolene Nekesa (SK Slavia Praha), and Mercyline Anyango (JFK Panthers).
Forwards: Jentrix Shikangwa (Beijing Jingtan FC), Topista Situma (Fountain Gates Princess), Elizabeth Wambui (Simba Queens), Mwanalima Adam (Hakkarigucuspor), Esse Akida (FC PAOK), Tereza Engesha (Hyundai Steel R.A.), Violet Nanjala (Amlf Laayoune)