Skip to main content

School of Social Work teams up with Carolina for Kibera to help Africa’s poor

For 10 years, Carolina for Kibera (CFK), an international nonprofit affiliated with UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives, has worked closely with individuals, children and families in Nairobi, Kenya, to improve their access to healthcare, education and employment. This summer, UNC faculty from the School of Social Work will team up with the humanitarian organization to explore how to help Kibera’s youth increase their financial stability.

Gina Chowa, an assistant professor at the School, will direct the joint venture, which will focus on using the programs and services that CFK already operates to assist young people in building assets. Founded by a UNC student and Kenyans in 2001, CFK oversees a youth sports program, a medical clinic, a reproductive health and women’s rights center, and a waste management program in Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum.


Gina Chowa, Ph.D.

With the asset development project, UNC researchers hope to determine whether helping Kibera’s youth accumulate wealth—such as savings, livestock, household goods and home and land ownership—will further strengthen their long-term security. Such a project unites CFK and the School “for a common purpose and harnesses our strengths,” said Leann Bankoski, CFK’s executive director.

“CFK is rooted in the community of Kibera with a mission to develop leaders and alleviate poverty by equipping the community with tools to catalyze change from within,” Bankoski said. “Working alongside the School of Social Work, I truly believe that we can deepen and improve our work in the community by translating the academic mission and research discoveries of the School to actionable, sustainable change.”

Studies have shown that without assets, individuals and families think less optimistically about their futures, said Chowa, whose primary research focuses on building youth capital in developing countries. Families also lack a needed buffer during difficult times, such as when a parent becomes sick or loses a job. Such challenges are pronounced in Kibera, where parents raise their children on an average of $1.25 a day, Chowa explained.

“Given the crushing poverty they experience, these families must sacrifice things like school fees and doctor’s visits that impact their children’s health, education and overall well-being,” she said. “Without adequate resources, youth who call Kibera, ‘home,’ are left with little hope for their future.”


Anna Scheyett, Ph.D.

However, programs that incorporate economic empowerment with youth development initiatives have shown promise, Chowa said. For example, in a 2010 co-authored study, Chowa found that young adults in Uganda who received “culturally tailored financial education, microenterprise training, HIV/AIDS prevention and management training, and 1-to-1 savings matches had greater financial assets, total wealth and net worth” compared to those who did not participate in the study.

CFK could employ similar strategies and tools to assist Kibera’s youth, but UNC researchers say they first must learn more about the barriers that young people face in accumulating such capital. Chowa will travel to Kibera in June to begin exploring these challenges. Anna Scheyett, the School’s associate dean for academic affairs, is assisting with the study and will help with qualitative analyses of interviews with youth, parents, family members, CFK staff, financial institutions and others.
“We need to start where they are,” Chowa said. “So we’re not going there to introduce something (new) but to find out what they need and build on that and enhance their capacity within their programs.”


Kibera is a large slum in Nairobi, Kenya

The partnership comes on the heels of the recent release of a memoir by CFK co-founder and UNC alumnus, Rye Barcott, and the recent opening of an art exhibit at UNC to help celebrate CFK’s 10th anniversary. Barcott began a national tour in late March to promote his book, “It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace” (Bloomsbury). The exhibit, “Living Kibera,” explores themes of work, play, home and dreams through works created by Kibera’s residents. The display in the FedEx Global Education Center, at the corner of Pittsboro and McCauley streets, runs through July 15.

The partnership—also one of the firsts with a UNC graduate school—is a natural fit for the School of Social Work, Scheyett added.

“The mission and vision of Carolina for Kibera are so in accord with those of social work. The program is about empowerment and community and tapping into strengths of vulnerable and disenfranchised people,” she said. “The collaboration is a perfect match, and truly exciting.”

Chowa and Scheyett also hope the collaboration will lead to other cooperative research and training opportunities in Kenya, including student and faculty exchanges with non-governmental agencies and the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University. The faculty members hope to start some of those discussions during the June trip.

“If we can exchange with other social workers across the world, then we can learn from them, and they can learn from us,” Chowa said.

By Susan White