Some people are propelled to success by luck. Circumstances conspire to make others great. For development specialist Mumbi Ndung’u, each of her career milestones has been a product of the sheer force of grit and desire to outdo herself.
She is the chief of growth and operations at Power Learn Project, an impact organisation that provides technology skills to youth in Africa. The project targets to reach one million Africans by 2027. Mumbi has a personal target of 2025.
‘‘Every successful journey begins with something meaningful,’’ she says. Hers began at Ibua Africa, an initiative she started in 2015 to give young entrepreneurs visibility through stories on Twitter and access to investors.
‘‘I discovered there were so many young people running important programmes that did not have impact for different reasons. The idea was to create teams and enterprises that were not only impactful but sustainable as well.’’
If Mumbi takes pride in the successes of Ibua Africa, none surpasses the astonishing accomplishment of Wawira Njiru, the founder of Foof4Education that provides food for schoolchildren –and a recipient of multiple global recognitions.
I am curious about what drives her. Impact, she says with emphasis and a smirk. ‘‘I have never applied for a job in my life. They have always come through networks of people I have worked with. I only share my passion and the value I bring to the table.’’
Power Learn Project was started in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 to ‘‘bridge the gap of technology skills’’ in the market. She notes that while businesses suddenly needed to adapt by going digital, for instance, many of them could not find the right talent. For Mumbi and her team, this was an opportunity for business.
They swung into action. ‘‘We train youth on programming, software development and other smart technologies. They also build [mobile] applications because these are on great demand in Africa for social and e-commerce functions,’’ says Mumbi who now heads a team of 15.
To train a software developer, though, is a painfully costly endeavour, with the whole course offered at about $25,000 (Sh2.95 million). That amount is beyond the reach of most Kenyans.
She explains: ‘‘We give scholarships to our learners and put them in the community to monitor their progress. We also work with partner businesses, both SMEs and big tech corporations such as Microsoft that are in need of these skills.’’
The initiative employs a hybrid system of learning, with virtual and physical sessions through community hangouts. The numbers are staggering. About 3,000 youth from South Africa have applied to participate in the programme in the next intake while Nigeria has 10,000 applicants.
Says she: ‘‘The need is there. The people are there. We only lack programmes that offer people the skills they require. We can demonstrate to the world the value by transforming this continent.’’
The aim? To develop the next generation of wealth creators in Africa. ‘‘Our desire is to make 200,000 African women skilled software developers. This will help to solve our problem of [wealth] inequality.’’
At 22, Mumbi was working as a digital engagement specialist at the World Bank and has served in the United Nations and the Council of Governors as a consultant on children, youth, and women affairs.
‘‘I have been extremely competitive from when I was in school. I like to push myself to excellence.’’ That brilliance, and sociability. ‘‘People often do not expect young people to be good at what they do. Being sociable is a natural skill for me, whether in professional spaces or social ones.’’
These qualities were learned from communication personality Gina Din Kariuki, under who she once worked, she says. ‘‘She told me excellence is a habit [that should be practiced] whether in life or career. This has stuck with me.’’
But it is working with international organisations that shifted her thinking. ‘‘It has broadened my thought process. In the right environment, the human mind is capable of extraordinary things. When you work for multinationals, your productivity is measured by what you do every week.’’
I wonder what else she has learnt from her experiences on the global front. Top of the list of memorable interactions are United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Deloris Jordan, the mother of retired American basketballer Michael Jordan.
‘‘Meeting Guterres made me appreciate what it takes to get to that level. My lunch with Deloris is the best I have ever had.’’
Has luck precipitated her successes? Mumbi is blunt. ‘‘My work at Ibua Africa and on every other level is why I am here. These engagements have given me access to the opportunities I have had so far.’’
On working with clients and different teams, Mumbi notes that kindness unlocks even the iciest of situations. ‘‘Ironically, people do not always expect kindness from others. I have taught my team to regard our clients with kindness. Being kind does not come naturally. It has to be emulated.’’
But to truly flourish in the professional world, she says, one must be deliberate about keeping relationships alive. On integrity she adds: ‘‘It is about seeking clarity of relationships and the agenda. It does not matter where I meet people. I am also firm on my stand.’’
She has previously served as Kenya’s brand ambassador of luxury whisky Martell.
For her, there is no brand representation without conversion. But there is more to the job. ‘‘This assignment allowed me to meet, interact and share ideas with young, ambitious Kenyans who are not always in the limelight. The best networks are created in informal settings.’’
It was a life-changing engagement that allowed Mumbi to ‘‘meet a certain calibre of people that I would otherwise not have met and even opportunities to work with other brands.’’
That travelling is her favourite pastime is hardly unsurprising about Mumbi, who hopes to ‘‘live and work by the beach’’ someday. What is surprising, though, is that she is a deejay, with a diverse playlist featuring hip-hop, Kizomba, Afrobeats and Zouk.
‘‘My audience is very intentional. I play at parties and events of between 15 and 20 people I know closely. I am still growing my confidence to play for larger crowds.’’
Golf, which she plays at Golf Park and at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, allows her to network and to take in the tranquillity of nature. ‘‘It is an interesting and resourceful sport that teaches you patience.’’
Now 30, Mumbi believes she has a lot to offer in her career, notably in public service. ‘‘There is a limited scope of people of what you can do and the people you can impact in the private sector. The public sector allows you to serve many people in a broad scope,’’ she observes.
She adds with a whoop of laughter: ‘‘I hope to be Kenya’s future minister of ICT. Or the deputy president.’’ Why not the president, I ask. Her response is both indirect and meticulous.
‘‘The huge shift to issue-based politics in the country is exciting. I am looking forward to what the future of politics in Kenya holds.’’