By Nikhil Srivastava, Kenya Ambassador Volunteer
It’s not every day you meet an individual who is a student of math, computer science, and theology; a men’s clothing entrepreneur; a social activist and community organizer; and an aspiring self-help author!
This morning I met Stephen Mungai, a 25-year-old student and business owner from Juja who has used two Zidisha loans to grow a clothing store. Stephen is also a social activist and the founder of “Dream Vision,” a group of like-minded Juja citizens who provide food and counseling for underserved members of their community. Stephen is a true social entrepreneur: one who considers his business a tool primarily for social uplift rather than personal advancement.
I met Stephen in the town of Juja which lies 40km northeast of Nairobi, along the major highway connecting Nairobi with the industrial town of Thika. Juja is home to the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) where Stephen is completing his studies in mathematics and computer science.
Two years ago, Stephen began a small business by buying men’s clothing downtown and selling the apparel to university students via “door-to-door hawking” at dorms and hostels. Starting with just $200, Stephen established a loyal group of customers and expanded the business until he was able to rent a storefront on the main street outside the JKUAT campus.
Two years and two Zidisha loans later, “Elite Boutique” now employs three people and carries a large selection of shoes, suits, jackets, scarves, pants, and women’s accessories. Stephen bought an automatic sewing machine with his second Zidisha loan that allowed him to expand into tailoring services, as well as a large fridge that stocks drinks and snacks.
Stephen keeps his stall open until 10pm most nights to accommodate his main customers: university students and employees. Although the quiet summer season from May to August can be challenging for financial planning and loan repayment, demand has been strong recently and Stephen is confident in sustaining and expanding his business with additional Zidisha loans.
After talking with Stephen for only a few minutes, it becomes evident that his passion and responsibility extend beyond the walls of his clothing store to the community around him. Stephen insists on walking me around the streets of Juja, particularly through an area of dilapidated tenements and stores along a winding dirt lane called Gashororo Road. As we pass through the low-income neighborhood, Stephen points out telltale signs of community alcohol and drug abuse and child neglect: broken vodka and beer bottles amid piles of trash and young children working or idling instead of attending school.
Stephen tells me anecdotes of various community involvement projects: just yesterday, when he worked with officials to confiscate and burn illicitly brewed alcohol; last week, when he provided meals for needy children. Digging further, I come to learn that Stephen is the organizing member of “Dream Vision,” a community group that provides counseling for victims of substance abuse, mentorship for children without schools and homes, and free lunches and dinners for the poor. Dream Vision, though small, is entirely self-funded; as Stephen insists, “charity begins with you”. Dream Vision works with church officials, community organizations, and the town government to advocate and organize events for societal improvement.
Stephen’s passion for social work is informed by a powerful world view shaped by a difficult childhood and religious upbringing. Stephen is a devout Christian who practices at a local church and actually has a diploma in theology. He grew up in a poor and rural town near the Aberdares mountains in western Kenya, raised by a single mother who went through a divorce when Stephen was very young. Stephen never knew his father but is incredibly grateful to his mother, who not only sent him and his siblings to high school by taking a series of odd jobs but also sold the family’s small farm plot to pay for his university fees. Stephen has forged a strong philosophy of self-actualization from his past challenges; he speaks often of the conscious decision he made to leave a life of hardship by succeeding in business. Stephens considers it a responsibility to help others in his community make similar, self-motivating choices through counseling and mentorship.
Stephen also introduced me to some of the many Zidisha members that he has invited onto the platform. He trains and counsels his fellow borrowers and advocates for their loan applications as strongly as his own; when they succeed, he argues, they can create jobs for the unemployed and help support the local community.
In fact, Stephen is writing a book to share his advice and mentorship with those he doesn’t have the time or resources to reach. In the back room of his clothing store, he showed me a frayed notebook containing the hand-written manuscript. The near-finished book is called “Change the History,” and it stresses the power of choice and self-determination in overcoming life’s challenges. Full of quotes from the Bible – “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7) – and from authors like Paolo Coelho, it contains sections on dark themes of poverty, drug abuse, and suicide, as well as positive inspirational guidance. Stephen is confident he will publish the book one day, despite the considerable cost, and he plans to dedicate it to his mother.
I asked Stephen what else he might do if he achieved financial security, and he immediately replied that he would enter politics as a social activist. Unlike many of his colleagues, who gravitate toward Nairobi after graduation where job opportunities are better, Stephen has no desire to leave the Juja area. He is well-versed in the local town governance and finances, and full of ideas for how the Constituency Development Fund (a Kenyan poverty-alleviation initiative) could be better used to improve his neighborhood.
Thank you for introducing me to your business and your community, Stephen. I wish you the best of luck with your business and I know you have an amazing future ahead of you!