In June this year, Douglas Mwangi received a prestigious award from Her Majesty The Queen of the United Kingdom for his contribution in reducing poverty and illiteracy in his community and beyond
Harriet James @PeopleDailyKE
For many people, even for heads of states, the chance of meeting the Queen at her Buckingham Palace is a rare experience that most of them only dream of. But for 28-year-old Douglas Mwangi, his work in the slums of Mathare has ushered him to mingle with the great.
“I was expecting her to just hand me the award ,but she went ahead and asked a few questions about my project. I was nervous and couldn’t imagine that I was talking to the queen. It’s a moment that I will never forget,” says Douglas.
Popularly known as Mzelo, Douglas was amongst the 53 young leaders across countries in the Commonwealth selected to receive their prestigious awards from Her Majesty The Queen in London for their instrumental roles in their communities.
Born and raised in Mathare slum, one of the largest informal settlements in Nairobi, Douglas did not have an easy life. The youngest in a family of eight, his parents struggled to find fees to take him to school.
Being sent home for school fees was the order of the day as far as his life was concerned. “At one point I stayed home for an entire term because I did not have text books,” he narrates.
Like any other informal settlement in the world, the slum was characterised by lack of job opportunities for the youth, which led them to engage in societal vices such as violence, mugging, drug abuse, commercial sex work as well as youth gangs.
He completed his primary school education at Mathare 4A Primary School in the year 2003 and the poverty at home drove him to join a gang and engage in crime like many of his peers. A close shave with death at 14 made him change his mind to quit the gang life. “Guys were flushing out thieves and killing them together with those who were known to promote crime. Luckily, I escaped by a whisker,” Douglas says.
He learnt how to shave people and secured employment in one of the barbershops in the slums. After working for two years, he managed to raise enough cash to go back to Ndururuno Secondary School in Mathare in 2009.
After high school, His eyes were opened to the possibilities that the mobile phone could give him and consequently, signed up for online classes and earned a diploma in web development.
Oasis Mathare is born
In 2012, he joined Digital Opportunity Trust as a community leader and field facilitator where he trained to assist young people access digital literacy and entrepreneurship skills for sustainable livelihoods. As he narrates, meeting other participants who began their businesses or projects from nothing inspired him to start small and work on his idea.
“The idea for Oasis Mathare was borne while I was working as a youth leader with Digital Opportunity Trust Kenya (DOT Kenya). As a youth leader, I was helping marginalised youths gain access to 21st century digital skills and learn how to start or scale their businesses,” he says.
However, he didn’t know where to start, and he believed that he required a lot of resources for the social innovation project that he had in mind. The fear was challenged after he trained a young man who, thereafter, began a business without capital.
“Most of us are held back by the monetary resources required to run a social impact project, and we forget that an idea is a seed in itself. It is not always about having a deep pocket to change lives. As long as you have the community support and their best interests at heart, you will succeed.
In 2013, Douglas founded Oasis Community Centre, the first digital community hub in Mathare slum, Mabatini ward. The centre offers entrepreneurial and IT skills to hundreds of unemployed young people including teenage mothers. With a few computers donated by his friends, wirelesses Internet, and a quiet room, Douglas began his journey. “Oasis means hope in Mathare.
The name came out naturally. I experienced the power of ICT during my internship with DOT Kenya realised that given the opportunity and access, the youth in the slum areas have a great potential to utilise ICT to improve their lives and those around them,” says Douglas.
They began with seven children and also teenage mothers who didn’t know where to take their children brought them there to learn. The numbers began growing each day and space and resources became a challenge.
The Canadian visit
“To expand the unit we needed cash. We were lucky that the project earned us money and we were able to raise Sh250, 000, which helped us buy cement and materials for building.”
His work was so notable that the High Commissioner to Canada, Darren Schemer, came to pay him a visit. Although they didn’t get monetary assistance because of lack of proper structures in the organisation, they received mentoring and network.
Last year, however, they received a major setback when they were kicked out from the place they had called home for five years by a private developer.
“This small parcel of land was donated to us by the community and we have since managed to set up a semi-permanent structure, which is small compared to the number of students we have been receiving,” he says.
Even with the challenges, last year, following a competitive process involving thousands of applicants, Douglas was selected to receive the Young Leaders Award by Her Majesty in Buckingham Palace. The 2018 Queen’s Young Leaders are finding solutions to global issues such as climate change, food scarcity, gender-based violence, mental health, and access to education.
On top of meeting celebrities such as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and His wife Meghan Markle, renowned footballer David Beckham, among others, the Award winners also attended workshops at the University of Cambridge and visited projects that are changing lives of vulnerable people in the UK.
“I didn’t expect a regret call neither did I expect to be amongst the winners when I received the invitation email. Runners-up don’t get to go to London and meet the queen. So I was happy to learn that I had been selected for the award,” he says.
Being a Queens’ Young Leader has opened many opportunities for him, not only in Kenya, but around the world. He has been able to gain access to bespoke mentorship and training at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education. Moreover, Douglas has been able to learn from other young leaders and have a mentor for guidance.
Douglas seeks to mentor other young people to take over the organisation after him. In the past six years, over 1,400 young men and women have benefited from Oasis’s ICT and entrepreneurship trainings.