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From crime to fortune: How we did it

By Linah Benyawa | November 2nd 2016
The story of Majengo's thirty thieves. According to Oundo, myths surrounding loans from YEDF are just that. He said were it not for the patience they had, nothing would have materialised. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

One of the busiest buildings in Nairobi’s Majengo slums is a block standing three floors above the ground which faces the famous Gikomba market.

At the front are shops and go-downs loaded with bales of bedding, clothes and an assortment of mannequins. Inside, beeping photocopiers, the sound of papers rolling in and out of printing machines and glaring computer screens tell you how busy it is around there.

On the third floor, there is rapturous laughter from one of the ‘meeting’ rooms. A look inside reveals a room fitted with comfortable black leather sofas that provide a perfect place for friendly banter.

You would imagine this building is owned by one of those slumlords who think, eat, breathe and bleed money. Wrong.

The building is owned by 30 youth who are members of the Uprising Youth Group. These are young men who turned their back on crime to venture into business.

In one of the rooms I meet their chairperson Paul Oundo, flanked by five members. The large room resembles a library, with books on a shelf, tables, benches and two desktop computers.

“We built this room for the sake of Majengo’s school going children. They come here to read and do their school work, there are text books readily available and electricity. This is how we give back to society,” Oundo says.

Narrating their story, Oundo says their rags to fortune story came with more rags than usual.

“We were born into crime. It is what our fathers did. We had seen it feed our families when we were kids and naturally, most of us walked right into the thick of our father’s criminal ways. Robbery became our way of life. Pouncing on people who would visit Gikomba market and sometimes doing the same in the CBD.

We stole anything and everything in the hope that someone would buy it from us. It was not what we wanted to do, but it was how we thought we could survive,” he said.

The life of crime was fraught with many challenges not least among them the constant dance with death as they avoided police swoops and mob justice from the angry public. This caused the 30 childhood friends to re-evaluate their future.

“One day, in 2005, we sat together and had a serious talk among ourselves. Everyone was afraid of getting caught, or getting shot or have a flaming tyre around their neck. It was then we decided to find an alternative way to earn a living and stop engaging in what none of us was proud of doing,” Oundo says.

Two years after they registered their group, some officials from the Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF) toured Majengo slums for a training exercise. It was then the young men learnt they could access funding to put their many ideas into motion.

“We had no idea where to get the money we needed and the YEDF training was a real eye opener. We then applied for our first loan of Sh48,000 and we received the amount three months later,” he says.

With the cash in hand, the group put up two housing structures, which they rented out for Sh2,500 per month. At the end of the year, they paid the loan and applied for another loan — they received Sh100,000 from YEDF.

“We built a public shower in Majengo and installed hot showers. It was an instant hit. With just Sh20, one has access to a clean shower and with our close proximity to Gikomba market, you can tell we get quite a number of customers in that facility,” says the chairman.

Out of this endeavor, the group was able to pay off their loan and applied for another one of Sh200,000. With these finances they bought a car wash machine and a water tank. They were later able to add two more car wash machines which are now operational in different corners of Gikomba area.

“As all our different business grew, we consolidated our profits and saved consistently. We eventually raised enough and started setting up this building. We are now on the second floor but as you can see, the third floor is under construction,” Oundo says.

The group charges rent of Sh20,000 for the smaller shops while go-downs are rented out at Sh70,000. With that type of resource, the youth group now boasts a workforce of 60 employees all drawn from the slum and Oundo says their objective remains to hire more people and also equip them with essential work skills.

“We have computers lying unused in one of the go-downs. We bought them but none of us knows how to use them. We are looking for a tutor who can help us teach young children how to use computers,” he says. Each month, after paying all salaries, bills and paying themselves, the group banks Sh290,000 as profit. They bought a van which serves as a private community van for Majengo area.

What is their secret? According to group member Josephat Karomi — having a plan is what set them apart from other groups.

“We approached YEDF after knowing what we wanted to do and set about implementing it once we had the money. We know Majengo and its problems better than anyone else, and once we decided to take matters into our hands, we had a clear vision,” he says.

Giving an example of the resource centre they have, Karomi says the idea came about after assessing the needs of their community.

“We have grown up here and know getting time to study, the electricity to do so and the money to buy a textbook is very hard. That is why we built this place — whatever we lacked should not be the same thing that stops our younger brothers and sisters from having a better future,” he says.

Their resource centre has text books and revision material for students ranging from class four to form four. They set it up using finances from one of the projects they were undertaking and it was officially opened by Nairobi Deputy Governor Jonathan Mueke in July 2014.

According to Oundo, myths surrounding loans from YEDF are just that. He said were it not for the patience they had, nothing would have materialised.

“We waited for three months to receive our cash, of course there are those who did not wait for that long but we did. Every time we apply, it takes time, but it has always been a fruitful wait,” he said. “We are proud. We are alleviating crime, and unemployment,” he added.

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