06.17.134:45 AM ET

Giving Kenya’s Girls the Eco-Friendly Means to Succeed

Livelyhoods, the brainchild of two 26-year-old activists, takes Kenya’s youth off the streets and transforms them into eco-friendly entrepreneurs.

In a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where an attractive daily salary clocks in at $2, a group of two-dozen 18- to 25-year-olds in crisp blue polo shirts peddle their wares. At one point, many of them sold scavenged scraps of plastic or metal on the streets. Some sold drugs. Now, they sell clean cookstoves, solar lamps, sanitary products, and LED lamps. They work as iSmart sales agents for Livelyhoods, an eight-time award-winning organization run by a pair of 26-year-old women pushing a business model of job creation and sustainable products. On average, their sales associates make $75 a month, but of the 80 young adults who’ve passed through the program—many of them single parents and first-time job holders—a number have already been promoted to managerial positions.

“We are selling products that aren’t currently available within slum communities and have a really big impact,” says executive director Maria Springer, who, along with co-founder and COO Tania Laden, founded the business almost two years ago. The pair run the store along with a team of four former sales agents and a steady flow of fellows coming from America’s top schools. And they’re getting ready to open the second store after a successful, and slightly unusual, fundraiser raised them more than enough cash to do so.

Springer, a veteran of three fundraising campaigns, wanted to do something different this time around—focusing on humor rather than pity. So she gathered a group of comedian friends for dinner and got to talking about the “more than a Band-Aid solution” ethos Livelyhoods endorses. Springer, a self-described class clown, decided to “take it to a very literal level.” She covered her face in 25 band-aids, pledging to peel off one for each $1,000 raised.

“At first I thought this is going to be really super-fun, but people didn't realize it was a joke and thought something was wrong with me,” she says. But it worked. As Springer grocery shopped, went out to dinner, and even traveled to Morocco, she spread the word about her organization, and people were receptive. “I've never been handed cash on the street like I was when I was wearing Band-Aids,” she says, laughing.

A saleswoman on her way to sell the stove. (Sam Nuttmann)

By June 3, the Indiegogo campaign had raised $27,074. Two days earlier, the Band-Aids had all been taken off. They’re already prepping the new storefront in Kangemi, a slum with 150,000 residents, and it should be fully operational within a month.

The products come from local suppliers in Nairobi, Springer says, with the sales agents getting a 15 to 20 percent commission on the retail sale price. Ten percent of that goes into employee savings accounts—a decision the group came to as a whole. A little more expensive than other less-impactful versions, they aren’t a “walk-by” sell, Springer admits. Each sales agent is provided with a consignment of goods, a uniform, and two weeks of training. For youth in the slums, it’s not as lucrative as dealing drugs, but they’ll trade that in for the steady income and more security, Springer has found. And the talented force they’ve put together has shown customers the long-term benefits of these products. “I didn’t expect the market to be so strong,” Springer says.

A close-up of the clean-burning stove. (Sam Nuttmann)

The idea for Livelyhoods began in the summer of 2010, when Springer, who had been working in Kenya with other organizations, wanted to invest in the youth she saw struggling to survive, with a 68 percent employment rate. “What they wanted more than anything was an opportunity to actualize their potential,” she says. Springer contacted Laden, who had been working for Morgan Stanley, and invited her to do a three-month volunteer stint with another organization. During that time they conceived of Livelyhoods, and the first store was open for business in July 2011. A year later, the business was profitable.

The women have known each other since their middle-school rivalry ended in an all-out fight at a school concert. “She was a cheerleader, and I was the social activist,” Springer remembers. They were close friends from that point on. Now Laden lives in Kenya, 15 minutes from the first store, and Springer splits her time between there and Los Angeles.

Two stores will, admittedly, be a tougher workload, but Springer and Laden have their sights set on the whole of Nairobi. They’re gearing to up their workforce from 25 to 100 in the next year, and a few years out, expect to employ 1,000 entrepreneurial youth who prefer self-sustainability to Band-Aids.