Suzanne Semenye, co-founder and director, at The Grass Company
Tell us a little about yourself
I am a wife and mother. I have been married for six years and have a three-year-old son.
I studied at the University of Nairobi, with a focus on communication and sociology — something I never thought I would study.
That was mainly because I wanted to be a pilot, which never happened. But on the flip side, I ended up marrying one.
I was chuffed to find that I was nauseous flying in the cockpit so I guess it’s just as well that I didn’t end up flying.
How did you hear about the YALI fellowship?
I heard about the Mandela Washington Fellowship through a friend, who asked me to share the information with young people who work with our agency.
She encouraged me to apply as well, and I actually qualified. The application was done online, and the shortlisting was done in Washington.
What was your reaction on being selected?
When the embassy notified me that I was selected, I felt humbled, honoured, surprised and elated because there were more 50,000 applicants and I was among those chosen.
The opportunity was in God’s timing as I was looking for the next frontier in my career and personal development.
You got to meet the US President among other important people…
Meeting President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Michelle Obama were definitely the high points in the programme.
I sat at the very front row when Michelle Obama spoke to us about facilitating education for girls in Africa.
She is a warm person who clearly loves advocating for change. She was so genuine and relatable. To the chagrin of her security detail, she went around hugging the fellows; I received a motherly hug from her.
I was in awe that such a powerful woman could be so accessible. She is really unlike a lot of powerful figures you would meet.
What stood out most during your stay there?
Two things impressed me. First, the calibre of young leaders in Africa is astounding!
Young people are doing great things against all odds: rescuing girls from FGM, generating alternative sources of energy, changing the economy of a village.
The level of confidence and willingness to sacrifice to make a change was inspiring. The second thing that impressed me was the warm reception.
You are a co-partner at The Grass Company, tell us more about it?
A few months after getting married, a good friend approached me to partner with him in founding The Grass Company, a consumer collaboration agency based in Nairobi.
I was scared witless but with my husband’s blessing, I took the chance and jumped in. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Being in business is not as glamorous as people imagine because the challenges are immense and often overwhelming.
The rewards are equally rewarding and now The Grass Company has been in this market for six years and we are only getting better!
In the next couple of months, I would like to engage with the young women (and men) in entrepreneurship to teach them what I learnt during my fellowship and inspire them to achieve their goals.
I am creating an online mentorship platform to allow diverse linkages among women where they can share and learn from each other.
I will also leverage on my newly acquired African network of friends to expand my business within the continent.
One maxim I learnt is that your dreams should scare you – that way, even if you achieve 10 per cent, you have achieved a whole lot!
Mshila Sio, Director and founder of Agua Inc.
Zuqka: How did you hear about the Young African Leaders Initiative (now Mandela Washington) fellowship?
Mshila: A friend sent me an email. She thought I would be perfect for the programme, based on the work I do in the water sector. I simply sent in my application a few days before the deadline. I was determined to be involved and knew a few very qualified friends who were applying so I was very thorough.
Tell us what the fellowship is about?
It is the flagship programme of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, in which a class of 500 was selected as a representation of the extraordinary promise of young people’s ideas and potential on the continent. They selected current and emerging young Africans in three areas, namely business and entrepreneurship, civil leadership and public management.
How did you feel when you were chosen as a fellow?
I was ecstatic, as you’ would expect since it provided an incredible opportunity for our organisation, Agua Inc., and for me as well although initially, I didn’t realise how incredibly competitive the selection was. I was very humbled when the state department told us that 50,000 Africans had applied for the programme.
What was your experience there?
The simplest way to put it is life transforming. I was with 25 other fellows representing 19 countries under the “business and entrepreneurship” track at Dartmouth College.
Dartmouth is an Ivy League institute and they took the programme very seriously, meaning we spent all our time with the best of their faculty members going through an executive training schedule. It was an academic endurance race.
We had several opportunities to visit businesses in the region, learning and absorbing best practice and we got to participate in numerous community activities. It seemed like we never stopped. Even our leisure time was crazy, from hikes to camping to high-ropes courses.
How do you hope to apply what you learnt here?
I left thinking that every Kenyan should have an opportunity to go through what I had just experienced.
So, apart from applying those teachings in my business and daily life, I will also be working with the Global Peace Foundation in their Leap Hub programme to duplicate what we learnt and applying it in Kenyan high schools with the aim of mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs.
I will be joining other Leap Hub champions such as Dr Manu Chandaria and Mr Heshan de Silva.
You met the Obamas; tell us a bit about that experience?
It was out of this world. President Obama had a very candid discussion with us at the summit about Africa’s future and the roles Americans hope to play. We also had a say about how we want this relationship to move forward over the next few decades.
The summit in Washington DC was an exchange of ideas and goals from both sides.
It is time we started trading with them on an equal footing and we have to recognise our value for that to happen and approach the table in a different way; not through aid or as lesser nations.
I got to shake Obama’s hand, which was quite a privilege.
Two days later, we got to listen to Michelle Obama and she was beyond inspiring.
I was left standing in the hall for a few minutes just absorbing her energy after she left. She is the magic in that relationship.
Simply an outstanding and powerful woman and for me, she was the highlight of the summit.
What impressed you most about this particular experience?
The people. I can tell you about several people whom I would gladly follow into the jungle because they inspire the socks off me.
I was so impressed by what people are doing in the continent, and most with very little or no government support.
Our government has offered more support to young people than other governments through youth funds and similar programmes, but it still has no idea what we are capable of and can learn a few things from us.
Americans can learn a lot from Africans too, but the one thing I realised they do extremely well and gain from is the active support of young people’s ideas.
They provide a platform for young people to be heard and to be active in their development. In Africa, we play with 1/3 of the team on the field, with young people — who comprise the vast majority of the population — and women, sidelined to a large extent.
And that is letting us down. I will work with other Kenyan fellows to change that.
Tell us a bit about your social and educational background?
I was born and raised in Nairobi. I grew up in Utalii, Ruaraka, where my dad was a lecturer. My mother taught Kiswahili at Msongari.
My parents later got into various businesses and I would say it has been an interesting learning experience for all of us.
I studied at St Mary’s School, Nairobi, for most of my life. The school had a very active extra-curriculum programme and I got involved in everything, from rugby to musicals.
What did you study in college and did you always know what you wanted to do?
I graduated with a Bachelor of Marketing degree from in Australia and later a Masters in professional accounting, but my career has taken a very different direction now. I didn’t always know what I wanted to do but I kept an open mind and was willing to take a risk when I came across something that roused a passion in me.
I left a comfortable set-up and country to start from zero and it has been my favourite adventure so far.
You co-founded Agua Inc; tell us a bit about it?
Agua Inc. Kenya is a bio-technology company.
We offer innovative wastewater treatment and water purification technology and consulting.
Our technology offers world-leading results using no chemicals, little to no energy and at a significantly lower cost than conventional methods.
We use plant-based biotechnology to purify water from numerous sources, making our technology extremely viable for Kenya and Africa.
I founded the company with my partners who are based in Colorado, US, and Spain. We design, install and maintain advanced water purification and wastewater treatment systems.
You were also one of the lucky few to receive a $25,000 (Sh2.2 million) grant; tell us about that?
The grants were only given to 36 people with the best ideas, so once again it was highly competitive.
They selected based on originality and potential impact on the continent and being in the water sector, we have can have incredible positive impact in the country.
On the day the winners were announced, emails were sent to everyone telling them whether they had won or not.
But hours after some had received the news, a few of us were still in the dark. We were in one of our leadership classes when someone suggested that we check our spam mail and there it was.
I was over the moon, to say the least. So along with nine other winners from Dartmouth, we started celebrating in class. Needless to say, that marked the end of the class.
What are your future plans?
Well, I have seen the light in terms of the potential for social change in our region and although I have several business ideas, my focus is primarily on Agua Inc. Water management is a huge challenge for us. Not everyone has access to safe water and waste water is a burden for most people.
Current technologies are dependent on expensive chemicals and/or high-energy consumption, but that is no longer necessary.
We have a brilliant solution to these challenges that can be implemented now at low cost and very sustainably.
We are using the grant to implement a project with Kenyatta University that will begin later this year and will serve as a showcase for the whole of East Africa.
Once that is done, we will involve all stakeholders in the water sector because I believe we can revolutionise how water and waste water is managed in this country. We will keep learning, innovating and inspiring young people to develop their ideas because that is the key to economic prosperity, social change and growth for Kenya.
WHAT I LEARNT AT DARTMOUTH
I have always thought that young Africans have the most outstanding ideas and energy, and this programme was an affirmation of that. I was constantly inspired. I’ll break down our Dartmouth experience into three sections:
1. Design thinking: We spent two weeks at Thayer Engineering School, where we learnt a process that can be applied to almost any sector or industry to solve problems through designing systems or products based on the problem. This was probably the most valuable section of the academic learning.
2. Ideas to success: We then spent four weeks at Tuck Business School learning how to transform an idea into a successful business and tool for social change.
3. Leadership: Throughout the six weeks we trained in leadership, with visits by some of the best trainers the country had to offer.