Wawira Njiru is the founder and executive director of Food for Education (Photo: iStock)

Wawira Njiru is one of the few Kenyans who have been featured on a billboard in Times Square in New York. She got the coveted spot when became one of 10 Elevate Prize winners announced on February 6, beating over 1,000 applicants from 92 countries.

In doing so, she became the recipient of Sh48 million in funding, alongside tailored support services to amplify her impact on a global scale.

She is the founder and executive director of Food for Education, an organization aimed at eradicating childhood hunger in Africa, one hot and nutritious meal at a time.

She started the feeding program when she was only 21, starting with 25 children in 2012. Today they are feeding over 300,000 children every day, and have employed 3,000 people.

Food For Education operates 53 semi-centralized kitchens, 15 decentralized kitchens and 18 centralized kitchens. The initiative has served over 32 million meals to date.

All this, at only 33.

.

Keep Reading

Her work has garnered her numerous other accolades, including the 2022 Global Icon Award by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the 2021 Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum, and the 2021 United Nations Kenya Person of the Year.

Food For Education is also the implementing partner of Nairobi County’s school feeding programme, Dishi na County, launched in August 2023 and currently feeding 184,000 learners in 106 schools, to feed 250,000 learners in 235 schools when 8 additional kitchens that are under construction are completed in May 2024.

Wawira developed a soft spot for children going without food when she was just a child herself. Growing up in Ruiru, she watched her parents struggle to build a home.

As many Kenyans do, they had moved into it once it was just walls and a roof and continued to build it slowly while living inside it, without a cement floor, plastered walls, running water or a toilet inside the house.

And yet in their neighbourhood, some would have called them the privileged ones as their house was made of stone while some lived in houses made of mabati (tin).

“I would think, ‘Yes, we don’t have a floor, but we are not as badly off as some people who were struggling’,” says Wawira.

“Because I was a child, those were my friends, the ones I would play with. That experience defined me because I understood that there are always levels to things.”

When the family got electricity, they bought a fridge. Her mum would freeze githeri in bulk and keep it in the fridge.

Soon, she realised that sometimes when would go off to have lunch, her friends would stay hungry. So one day she went and took her mum’s frozen githeri and gave it to her friends.

 “I felt like you can’t be eating while someone else is hungry and you are so close to them,” she says.

That planted the seed that would grow into a forest today, although she did not know it then. When she studied nutrition in university, this wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.

She wanted to do a degree in health, which could have been pharmacy, nutrition, medicine, nursing and so on.

“Why I chose nutrition because I wanted a career where I would interface with people. I felt like in medicine and nursing I would interface with people but encounter a lot of sadness. With nutrition, people would come, I would give them advice and they would feel better. They would be energized,” she says.

Her parents, who worked in the health sector, have been her biggest influence, so she grew up understanding the power of health, but this was a different aspect of health where food would be a way to nourish and heal people.

Through them, she also understood the power of education.

“My dad grew up in rural poverty, while my mum grew up in urban poverty in a slum called Soweto near Kahawa West. Different types of poverty, but they both were able to change their lives because they got education opportunities through things like scholarships and individuals helping them finish school,” she says.

Seeing how transformational education had been in their lives made her understand that if you provide education opportunities, then the sky is the limit.

It was not lost on her that her parents were products of such opportunities, without which would have grown up in the same environment they had.

With education being such a key aspect of their lives, when she got the opportunity to study in Australia, they took out a loan to finance her education for the first two semesters, but she had to work to fund the rest herself.  

“It was one of my most defining moments because I was so excited to go to Australia. It was in 2010 and I was only 19, and I did not realize how hard you have to work to pay school fees, I also had to pay rent, transport, sustain myself and all that.

“So I would work three to four jobs at a go to be able to do that. That taught me the value of hard work, and how to balance many things amidst many demands. It was a good training ground and I had to grow up fast,” she says.

She was successful, attaining a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Food Science from the University of South Australia.

During her studies, she learnt about the impact of poor nutrition on children and the correlation between school attendance and performance.

This watered the seeds that had been sown all through her life, and she began Food For Education before she had even finished her degree when she hosted a fundraising dinner with 80 guests, charging $20 per plate.

With the money raised, she set up a makeshift kitchen in Ruiru Primary School initially targeting 25 children, a number that has since ballooned to 300,000 today.

Food For Education has come up with many innovations to accomplish this massive feat, including Tap2Eat, a digital mobile platform that uses cutting-edge FinTech to enable public primary school children to access nutritious food for education.

Through this innovation, parents pay for subsidized school lunches using mobile money. The amount is credited to a virtual wallet linked to an “NFC-technology-enabled smart wristband, which students use to then ‘tap to eat’ in under 5 seconds.

Coming up with Tap2Eat has been one of the breakthroughs for the organization.

“To give parents that ownership, they contribute a small amount through M-Pesa. Before that, we would take cash, and it was very bulky and tough to manage. So making it cashless and making it easy continues to make it a memorable moment because it has enabled us to scale and it has ensured that the children can consistently get nutritious meals, and the parents can contribute because no parent doesn’t want to contribute to feeding their child,” says Wawira.

The organization buys and distributes tons of food every day across the country, so other innovations that have made the process seamless have been in warehousing, and dashboards that help in distribution and the logistical chain.

They have a network of over 40 trucks that distribute food across the country and about 100 well-fitted motorbikes that distribute food in rural areas.

All that makes sure that the food gets to the children hot and in good quality that the children can enjoy, helping them stay in school and learn. The organization plans to be feeding 1 million children by 2027 and so far, it has been a challenging but worthwhile journey.

“To be able to change people’s lives, to create the jobs that we’ve created and also to impact kids and families has been very meaningful. To get messages from the children we started with and are now doing well reaching out saying, ‘Hey, I remember what you did in my life,’ that feels good,” says Wawira.