A chance visit to a makeshift babycare centre in a Kenyan slum changed Sabrina Natasha Habib’s life. She wasn’t supposed to be working that day but had joined a colleague researching nutrition in the informal settlements.
“Everywhere we went, the women were talking about the need for babycare. I was 25, I didn’t know what they meant, so I asked to see one,” Sabrina says. “I went from bright sunlight to a dark room. The smell was overpowering. I nearly tripped over something on the floor and was horrified to find it was a baby. I was in a room full of silent babies. Some had been sedated with a low-cost sleeping pill, the rest knew not to cry because they wouldn’t get attention,” she explains.
Four years on from that day and Sabrina’s company Kidogo runs two, soon to be three, high-quality early childhood centres and a network of franchised ‘mama-preneurs’ who provide safe and stimulating childcare for less than a US1$ a day.
It’s a model that employs and empowers Kenyan women who make up the majority of the workforce and which has seen Sabrina beat 1,339 global entrants to become the overall winner of the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2017.
We took the chance ask Sabrina to share her awards experience and tell us what’s next for Kidogo.
Why did you enter the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2017?
We entered because we’ve reached the point where we want to scale our business. Unilever is a company that is passionate about its purpose as well its products and its employees. We wanted to learn how to keep our work culture and be sustainable and scalable from an organisation that has done that globally.
What have you enjoyed most about the awards process?
I think just being in Cambridge increased my IQ by a few points, but also meeting and being with seven fellow entrepreneurs also doing brilliant things has been really encouraging. It is good to know there are others that have faced and overcome similar challenges to yours.
The accelerator programme, in the week running up to the pitch, really stretched us. We heard guest speakers, we drilled into business issues such as financials, design and creating prototypes. My brain was tired but full at the end of the week. I also had a Unilever buddy, Vikki Overson, who I’d like to thank. She provided everything from mints to a pre-pitch pep talk. She was an angel on my shoulder.
How will the prize money and mentoring help your business?
We are working on creating a new part of our business which offers employer-supported childcare. In developed countries the benefits of providing childcare to a business’s bottom line are a given. It is equally true in developing countries, but many companies haven’t realised this yet. Affordable, quality childcare allows working parents to focus on their work, improves productivity, reduces absenteeism and improves retention. We’ve got a lot of work to do building the business case and we will use our prize money to test and pilot a model focusing on this area.
I also receive a year’s mentorship, including support from Jane Wurwand, founder of Dermatalogica, who also created a franchise model to empower woman and give them an income. It’s a great fit and that is exciting because not only do I get to grow my business but being mentored by Jane will also help me grow as a leader.
Where will you be in 12 months’ time?
In 12 months’ time I will be 30 years old. There is something about reaching that milestone that feels like I need to really start adulting.
In a year, Kidogo will be the leading provider of affordable and stimulating early childhood care and education in Kenya. We will have more franchised mama-preneurs offering quality care and enjoying the income that comes with that. The stats show that the first three years of a child’s life play a big role in them achieving a high or low income in later life, so Kidogo will also have given more children some fantastic first days. By 2025, we intend to be the largest provider of quality early childhood services in East Africa.
What are your tips for those entering next year's awards?
The first one is from my mom. She always says: “If you find your Why, the How and What will follow.”
The second is to take time to work out the problem – big issues like climate change and food waste are not solved yet because there are lots of different parts of the problem. Entrepreneurs are solutions driven, but my advice is, don’t rush in – listen to the different parties who have experience of the issue, understand what they need and then work on your solution. Equally, that doesn’t mean you should fall victim to analysis paralysis; there is always one part of being an entrepreneur that is a leap of faith.
And last but not least – go for it. It’s a great experience.
Are you driven by a personal sense of purpose?
The baby I tripped over that day could have been me. My parents grew up in Tanzania, and they emigrated to Toronto in the 1970s. I grew up in a great city, got a great education, ate well, had access to great healthcare. I won in life’s lottery.
But I also find it hard to accept the fact that where you were born determines the best that you can be. I want to give every child the chance to have the same start in life that I had – one that is safe and loving, where they are healthy and learning, and I’m proud Kidogo is doing that.
As Unilever's CEO, how would you achieve the Global Goals?
I believe that what you want to achieve beyond making money and products should be intertwined with what you do. Building sustainability and social impact directly into your value chain. And that that should be part of whatever role and part of the business you are in. Whether you are in R&D or a tea picker or an investor, you should be conscious of the difference you are creating through what you do.
But it’s interesting, I’ve now met and spoken to Paul Polman, and the great thing is that he and Unilever are taking those steps – they are on the journey to doing just that.
Image credits: Joop Rubens Photography, Kidogo Early Years