Changing The Face Of Learning In Kenya: Inspired [Spaces:Students]

As a son of the continent, Fred Ndavi firmly believes that it is important to give back. His work tugs at a lifelong passion of his – helping to reform the Kenyan educational system, as the founder of Inspire [Spaces: Students], a nonprofit organization that works at the local level to restore schools in innovative ways. The message of the organization is simple, but poignant — Local dreams with exponential reach. The courage to seek change. For more about the story behind the organization, read on in Building Social.

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Tell us a little bit about your background and your educational experience growing up in Kenya?
I grew up in a small town in Kenya called Kibwevi. My mother ran a small bookstore and supplied books to the primary and secondary schools in the area. I spent a lot of time hanging around the bookstore when I was not in school. I attended Kibwevi primary school, where at the time, there were a little over three hundred students. Right after primary school, I attended a private Catholic boarding high school which was about eight hours away from Kibwevi.  My time in high school was a life changing experience because this was where I learned a lot about life and where I was shaped into the man that I am today. It was an all boys’ high school that provided a strong “character forming” environment; it was hard, but I absolutely enjoyed it.

How would you describe the educational system in Kenya?
The educational system in Kenya is actually called “8-4-4”. This represents eight years of primary school, four years of high school and four years of university. Primary school education in Kenya only became free in 2003. At the time I attended primary school, and long before then, the costs related to primary school education placed a limit on school attendance. When primary school education became free, there was an increase in enrollment of up to 96% of school aged children in primary school. While this was the ideal situation, it led to overcrowding and put a strain on resources. Secondary schools are still not free, and so the transition rate between primary school and high school is relatively low; about one out of four children will transition on to secondary school. The main drivers of this of course, are the costs associated with attendance as well as the fact that there are a fewer number of secondary schools when compared to the total number of primary schools in Kenya.  At the university level, students are able to receive government grants to attend school, but these students are required to be in top tier of academic performance. Private universities do exist, but they are typically very expensive. On a much broader scale though, there has been an increase in the number of universities and subsequently an increase in the opportunities available for students to receive formal education at the tertiary level.

You attended a private secondary school; how would you describe your experience compared to others who were not afforded this opportunity?
Part of being in a private school meant that you were among a slightly fewer number of students and you were put through discipline and rigor. The expectations that were placed on me as a student were high; couple that with the fact that there was also a strong religious influence. We had chapel every day, each week on Fridays and we were absolutely required to attend church on Sundays. I was provided with one on one attention from my teachers in the classroom and I was pushed to excel. Now, this is not to say that all private schools in Kenya are better than public schools. The minimal standard requirement for admission into secondary school is a national examination, that largely determines who goes to secondary school and where. Top performing students would typically attend government schools that were determined to be the crème de la crème of the national school system. The next tier of students would typically attend what we call “probation schools”, which are great schools particularly in the South region of the country, and the third tier of students would attend the district or regional schools, and these were also good schools. The competition between the private and government schools was steep, but students from top government schools were on a par with students from private schools and could hold their own in any conversation.

What led you to start Inspire [Spaces: Students]?
A large part of my goal is to address the inequities that currently exist in access to quality education, particular for school age students that live in smaller communities who may not be able to attend school due to overcapacity. There is also a need to assist primary school age students who desire to attend high school, but are unable to afford it. My passion is to try and help increase capacity in terms of space for children to attend school, and our desire is to help local communities build extra classrooms. We also have a desire to provide scholarships for underprivileged children; this is a large population of individuals because we are talking about children in communities whose families live on less than US$2 a day. For this population of school age students, going to school is a luxury that they cannot afford.

Advocacy plays a strong role in our mission. We want to advocate for certain reforms within the education system in Kenya; we want to see the government allocate more funding to education, build more schools, and maintain the current schools in existence. We also want to encourage private partnerships between investors and local governments in bringing this agenda forward.

At the end of the day, this initiative is about a call to response. It is important that we rally the next generation of Kenyans and Africans who have been privileged to attend amazing institutions around the world. If we are not able to give back and collectively invest in public institutions, then we are missing out on an opportunity to impact our country in such a significant way.

Who makes up your team?
We have two teams in the United States and in Kenya. I was part of a youth ministry with college students and so my team comprises of young people pursuing different fields from business to medicine, young professionals who are just starting out in their careers and older professionals who have come to realize that they need to be part of our initiative, and who are ready to give back. Many of our team members in Kenya are also former students from Kibwezi [where I grew up]. I also have a very diverse board of directors from the United States and Kenya who are experts in their various fields and who are able to contribute to the organization’s mission.

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How often do you go back to Kenya to work on Inspire [Spaces : Students]?
I go back two to three times a year.

Why is the need for Inspire [Spaces : Students] so great at this time?
I think we are strongly able to leverage resources. Kenya is one of the most fortunate countries on the continent with resources and people who are interested in making meaningful contributions. On a more global scale though, as part of the “Africa Rising” rhetoric, we are looking at a continent where economies are changing and there is a desire for leadership that is able to go beyond the status quo. The absolute need for organizations like Inspire [Spaces : Students] is for us to invest in the individuals who are going to shape Africa in the long run. We know education is the most critical tool in the development of any community; if we have more children in schools who care about investing in their future, we will begin to change the current dialogue. Inspire [Spaces: Students] comes at a time when we are starting to see the growth of the middle class and the continent becoming the focus of the world in terms of economic growth. On the flip side of this however, we see a lot of communities who are being excluded from this growth, out of education. There is a need to change this and now is the time.

The name of your organization Inspire [Spaces : Students], where does it come from?
There are so many times that I have visited Kenya and other countries in Africa and there have been moments when I felt a desire to share my story with young students in schools. For individuals who were raised in certain communities and have grown up to accomplish alot, their stories will definitely inspire the younger generation to pursue something great in life. The idea behind our name is that if we tell our stories of success and struggle to encourage children, no matter where they are in life, we are playing a major role in helping them pursue their dreams. I noticed that whenever I spoke at the schools I was invited to, the students were extremely motivated by my story, but it’s also hard to push people to be their best selves when they don’t have the resources to enable this type of growth. Our name aptly reflects our mission; we want to motivate through not only our words, but our actions.

How do you hope your organization can impact Kenya beyond the classroom?
Having worked with young students for so long, my greatest passion is to engage the Kenyan Diaspora in the United States and around the world to give back to their communities. Beyond the classroom, the hope is that relevant stakeholders at all levels of government begin to play a leading role in critically investing in education.

I also want to make sure that we continue to increase the value of the Kenyan educational system on the continent and around the world. I came to the United States to commence my college education knowing fully well that if I had started my coursework in Kenya and then moved to the United States, I wouldn’t have been able to transfer these classes over, and would have started all over again. Kenyans know that we have a good and rigorous system that pushes us to learn, which is why you will hardly find a Kenyan in the Diaspora who is not excelling; we do very well for ourselves. I think that we can go a step further and raise the profile of our institutions internationally so that they receive the type of recognition befitting of schools that produce the type of individuals that we are.

How can people be a part of Inspire [Spaces : Students]?
We would definitely like to have people come on board and work alongside us in fulfilling our mission. Interested individuals may visit our website. We would like to partner with organizations to raise funding and join us on a trip to Kenya to visit our communities and understand what the issues are at the very basic level.

Image: Courtesy Fred Ndavi

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