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Phyllis Ombonyo changes fortunes for the less fortunate in society

Friday July 20 2018

Yetu Initiative Programme Director Phyllis Engefu Ombonyo on July 12. 2018. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA

Yetu Initiative Programme Director Phyllis Engefu Ombonyo on July 12. 2018. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA 

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Phyllis Engefu Ombonyo is the Director of the Yetu Initiative and the 2016 Power/Water woman of the African Utility Week.

She previously worked as director, Business Development at the National Environment Trust Fund; programme manager at Africa Capacity Alliance and ICT specialist at Oxfam GB in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.

Phyllis’ youthful entrepreneurial ventures included selling second hand clothes and hairdressing. She is passionate about youth empowerment and leadership. To that end, Phyllis sits on the board of her former high school. She is a wife and a mother of two.


What are the three things that stand out for you in your job?

The opportunity to work towards improving the quality of life for the less privileged; we collaborate with civil society organisations to address the most pressing challenges within our communities such as youth unemployment, health and education. My work also comes with the freedom to think creatively; and working with a youthful team makes it delightful.

What would you do differently if you went back to being an undergraduate student?

I would embrace more leadership, speak out and network with my peers more to improve my soft skills. I would volunteer more time on community work.


What would you term as your most rewarding project so far?

The Green Innovations Programme, which gave me an African award in 2016. It made me aware that so much innovation is happening in this country but very little is known. Connecting some of the remotest parts of Africa to the global ICT infrastructure while at Oxfam was also very gratifying.

But I would like to highlight the Yetu Initiative – it has been very heart-warming for me to work with over 40 organisations to conduct local fundraising. More than Sh130 million has been raised to serve marginalised communities.

I also felt fulfilled to have spent my first salary to complete my mother’s rural house; the construction has stalled for many years.


What do you think is important for young people at the start of their careers to know?

Present yourself as teachable, start small and go the extra mile. Get the right skills, not necessarily by investing in more degrees. With the internet, you can teach yourself virtually anything if you are disciplined.

Most importantly, always treat your current job as the interview for your next job. Seek out relevant mentors to guide you as you navigate your career. Often, jobs don’t come through simply applying for them, but through relationships with professionals.


What is the most misunderstood detail about philanthropy?

That philanthropy means a lot of money given by some celebrity; people instantly think Manu Chandaria, Oprah Winfrey or just a big international figure.

Actually, Kenya was ranked as the third most philanthropic country globally and first in Africa in 2017.

A 2016 research we did revealed that 93 per cent of Kenyans are philanthropic. Most of us do not realise that we are all philanthropic – the money we contribute to weddings, funerals, medical etc., is all significant.

We now just need to give more through structured organisations for long-term solutions for development; beyond just emergency situations.

Does the Aga Khan Foundation work with young people? How do they get involved?

Working with the youth remains a key focus for us. Our initiatives include the youth economic empowerment, which involves skills building for employment and entrepreneurship mainly at the Coast and in Northeastern Kenya.

We also promote youth participation in governance at the county level including county planning and budgeting processes. We welcome youth to follow our Twitter handles for updates on how they can be engaged. These are @AKF_EA, @yetuorg and @CSI_EA


For a young person out there trying to secure funding for their projects, what should they streamline?

Before you seek help, you must, through research, deeply understand the problem and demonstrate passion for solving it. At the initial stages, friends and family are likely to be your greatest allies.

Our generation is fortunate to have multiple initiatives targeting the youth e.g. Youth Enterprise Fund, incubation centres and crowdfunding platforms.


How connected to your undergraduate degree is the job that you are doing today?

The first degree prepares you to interact with people and seek your passions. That said, I graduated with a first class in BSc. Computer Science and Engineering from Maseno University and that, coupled with working in the field of IT in my early career, put me in good place to use ICT in my development work.


What do you think you could have done better at the start of your career?

I should have been bold and more outspoken. I used to be afraid to share my views during meetings and then someone else would present exactly what was on my mind, to much applause.

So, to young people out there, overcome the fear within you and speak out because there are no medals for silence. If I made it and Croatia also made it to the finals of the World Cup 2018, then you too can!