Charity Wanjiku inspires young women to speak out and make their contribution to the world.
“The hopeless continent” read the cover headline of The Economist’s May 13, 2000, edition, making the point that Africa is regularly associated with drought, floods, disease, hunger, and corruption. “These are accurate,” says Charity Wanjiku, in Helsinki to address the audience at the Women in Tech Forum 2019. “But they are only half the story. There is a positive narrative, as well.”
Wanjiku’s Africa is Nairobi, Kenya. Nairobi, meaning “cool waters” from the Maasai language, is a diverse metropolitan area of over six million. It is the only city in the world with a game reserve, where traffic is occasionally disrupted by a giraffe or lion. Kenya is home to beautiful sandy beaches, as well as Eliud Kipchoge, who in October in 2019 became the first to complete a marathon in under two hours.
Kenya is also home to Strauss Energy, the firm Wanjiku created with her brother, Tony Nyagah. Strauss Energy’s showcase product is a two-in-one roofing tile. “It powers your home, but also roofs it,” says Wanjiku, noting that the tile alleviates the double work of installing both a roof and a solar panel. It also serves to raise living standards by creating passive income for homeowners who sell electricity back to the grid. This all makes sense in Kenya, which enjoys sunshine ten months of the year.
But beyond that, Strauss’ rooftile is a vehicle for social change, bringing electricity to people who have never experienced it. According to The Independent, more than 640 million people, two-thirds of the African continent’s population, do not have access to electricity. Wanjiku estimates that as many as half of Kenya is without electricity.
“A poor person will not care about climate change, but we can’t fix what’s wrong in the world without everyone’s participation” she says. “It’s Maslow’s hierarchy. Once a person’s basic needs are met, if we teach them to make an honest living, then they’ll start worrying about the environment.”
If the poor of the world are a necessary but untapped resource for change, then so are the women of the world. “Women number roughly half the planet’s population,” says Wanjiku, “and if we don’t use them it’s like we’re playing with only half the team.”
If climate change is the greatest problem of our time, then societal structures which keep women from addressing the problem must be eliminated. Wanjiku has plenty of personal experience with these structures. Before university, she was told not to study architecture, since it was a subject for boys. “Just to prove them wrong I said I'd be the first girl." There were five other women in her class of 2006.
"Africa is a patriarchal culture where women traditionally sit at a separate table from the men,” she says. “But we’re trying to teach our children things can be different. Sometimes you have to be at peace and humble yourself. But, when the situation calls for you to speak out, you must. Be firm about what you want, but learn to say it in a gentle way so as not to ruffle feathers.”
While taking a place at the table is a phrase used figuratively in most cultures, Wanjiku exhorts African women to literally do so. “So how do you take it? Nobody will invite you. You just have to show up. And if they invite you they may ask you to serve them tea, but I’m like ‘hell no!’ Speak up. Say what you want. Or you’ll be disgruntled and live your life disappointed.”
Wanjiku has been named one of the 40 most influential women in Kenya, and in 2018 Forbes included her in the World's Top 50 Women in Tech. She is a sought-after speaker on the international stage, and yet seems surprised by the attention. “How’d you find me?” she asked the crowd, only half in jest, on the Helsinki stage.
She says that she still stands in front of a mirror to psych herself up for difficult meetings. “I have a conversation with myself, rehearsing all the possible questions.”
Whether it’s an African- or an international stage, she shares her philosophy for life, which is built around Africa’s three-stone cooking culture. (Three-stone cooking is meant to conserve wood, and places the pot very close to the fire to limit the waste of heat.) “What are your three stones?” she asks. “Mine are God, family, and self-care. These are what light up my life, and I challenge you to find your three stones. If you do that, everything else will align itself.”
If we’re to change the world, we won’t do it with only half the population. “Women are naturally wired to incubate, develop, grow, and multiply. We’re constantly building something: friendships, careers, relationships, you name it. An empowered woman changes her environment. Whatever you give us, we give it life, multiply it, and give it back to you.”
Pictures: Scott Diel, Strauss Energy
When potential investors call on Charity Wanjiku and Tony Nyagah, the founders of Strauss Energy, they often ask to meet Mr. Strauss. But they’re looking at him. Because Mr. Nyagah is Mr. Strauss.
Nyagah means ostrich in the Bantu Kikuyu language, and ostrich is strauss in German. Why the German name? “Because Tony once took a German course,” laughs Wanjiku.