In 2003, a Kenyan community organizer, a US Peace Corps volunteer, and a New York City orthodontist gathered on Rusinga Island—a small and remote island in Nyanza Province on Lake Victoria in Western Kenya.

The suffering they witnessed was immense. Rusinga Island was at the epicenter of Kenya’s AIDS epidemic, and the tiny communities inhabiting the island were being torn to shreds by the disease: four in ten people were infected. Also rampant were diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, typhoid, bilharzia, and cholera—and the community had no access to modern healthcare.

Pollution and poor sanitation exacerbated these threats to public health. Once clear and filled with life, Lake Victoria was under siege by pollution, including the dumping of raw sewage and other toxic chemicals. The community was almost completely dependent on the fast dwindling resources of this dying lake. Not only was it the primary source of water, but it was also the community’s sole economic driver; there were almost no income earning opportunities outside the seasonal fishing industry, and 8 in 10 people were unemployed.

There seemed no end to the devastation. Hungry children foraged for food in piles of trash. Desperate women and girls prostituted themselves to predatory migrant fisherman in exchange for fish, accelerating the already massive spread of HIV/AIDS. The area was almost void of foliage, stripped by a population unable to afford any other form of cooking fuel.

A Comprehensive Model

Looking back on these conditions, we realize just how ambitious our mission “to transform communities suffering from inhumane poverty into places of opportunity and hope” really was. But we were driven by a deep desire to correct the profound injustices we saw, and we set about designing a comprehensive model for community development that could begin to untangle the complex tapestry of problems the community was facing. In consultation with local people, NGOs, and experts working in the region, Kageno developed programs that could provide the community with access to economic opportunities, health care, education, and a cleaner environment.

Building Momentum

A few years later, Rusinga Island was home to a thriving community center that provided access to clean water, health care, Income Generating Activities, and an abundance of other services and programs, including a nursery school and sanitation programs. In short, the model worked. We started to see our mission to transform communities suffering from inhumane poverty into places of opportunity and hope being fulfilled; and as that began to happen, momentum was built. Community members were involved every step of the way, from providing input on their needs to stacking bricks and building roads. By 2010, the Kageno Kenya project had grown largely sustainable, and the programs were turned over to the community who continues to run them today.

Kageno Rwanda

Kageno’s founders worked to spread awareness about the devastation they had witnessed and the remarkable change they had begun to see, he Kageno family grew. New donors and volunteers who shared the desire to correct the profound injustices of poverty came on board.

In 2007 we began replicating the Kenya project in the severely impoverished community of Banda, a small and remote village in southwest Rwanda. Like Rusinga, Banda is home to approximately 5,000 people and is located near a tremendous yet critically threatened natural resource, the Nyungwe Forest National Park.

It is no secret that Rwanda has a tumultuous and tragic recent history. In the spring of 1994, war and genocide killed nearly 1 million citizens and subjected those who survived to unimaginable hardship. Women suffered the most under widespread acts of physical and mental torture and horrifying sexual crimes. While Rwanda is recovering from these events, Banda has been subject to most of the country’s larger problems caused by food insecurity, orphaned children, and the psychological and social consequences of the genocide. Banda had no access to clean drinking water, nutritional food, or any health care facility. In addition, over 90 percent of the population was engaged in subsistence farming. With land growing more and more scarce, new income-earning opportunities for the people of Banda had run out.