CIEE Study Abroad alumna Ruby Au traveled from the University of Southern California to Cape Town, South Africa in 2015 to pursue her interests in social enterprise and environmental issues. The semester abroad studying and working in a Western Cape township inspired her to keep traveling and solving problems. Ruby now lives in Nairobi, Kenya and operates a social enterprise that she co-founded. The organization, Lumen, is a market survey company that enables information gathering in rural communities while providing data and computer literacy to children. We interviewed Ruby to learn more about Lumen and her study abroad experience with CIEE.
How did your study abroad experience spark your interest in social enterprise?
During my time in Cape Town, I had an opportunity to intern at Langa Quarter, a social enterprise precinct in Langa, the Western Cape’s oldest apartheid-era black township. The idea was to economically develop the area by providing business training to residents, who would then open up their homes as a homestay experience for visitors. With the preservation of culture in mind, it was a way to improve Langa’s neighborhoods by working with the residents rather than gentrifying the area. Prior to working at Langa Quarter, I had already been interested in social enterprise. Working in Langa solidified that interest, and helped shape my decision to move to Kenya later on.
When did the idea of Lumen come to life?
I don’t know that there was ever an “aha” moment for Lumen. Rather, it was a series of one thing leading to another, and continuous decisions to keep going down the proverbial rabbit hole. We started by identifying a need and asking people how we could help meet that need. When our first idea didn’t work, we would try to make that idea better. For example, this whole process started as a research investigation into the need for solar lamps. We later discovered that people weren’t asking for access to solar lamps, they were really asking for access to computers, and so on. (See below for Lumen’s story)
Prior to starting Lumen, I had worked on a case challenge for Acumen, an impact investing group, about Kidogo, a Nairobi-based social enterprise that provides early childhood care services. Having had the opportunity to work on the case and meet Kidogo’s founder, I had a degree of academic familiarity about the social enterprise scene in Kenya. When I chose to visit in person in February 2016, it quickly became apparent to me that Nairobi is, in many senses, the capital of the social enterprise world. Adding on the perks of amazing people and the personal connections that I had made there, Kenya made a lot of sense.
What tips or advice do you have for other study abroad returnees to take their experience and turn it into a career?
Act while you are inspired and trust your gut. The period after you return from studying abroad is incredibly valuable because that’s often when inspiration and passion are at its strongest; you’re fresh from new experiences that expand your horizon of what you think is possible. Wait too long and it’s easy to forget that feeling and fall back into comfortable routines. Don’t let that happen!
Ruby Au traveled to Nairobi, Kenya in February 2016 to conduct independent research. Along the way, she met Rick Kiilu, a Kenyan who had grown up in a rural community in eastern Kenya. While offering to help Ruby with her research, Rick encouraged Ruby to re-direct her attention to rural Kenya, which lacked the attention and philanthropic activity centered around urban informal settlements.
After graduating college, Ruby moved to Kenya and began traveling to rural communities around the country with Rick. It was during these travels that the need for computer education in rural communities and the lack of access to it became apparent. “We know the world is becoming digital,” one community member told Rick, “and we don’t want to be left behind.”
Although over 70% of Kenya’s population lives in rural communities, these areas are by and large cut off from the digital revolution sweeping the urban centers of the country. In order to access a computer, many rural families are forced to send their children to classes in city centers that are hours away, and unaffordable for most. The question remained, “for rural communities already struggling to meet basic living expenses, what could be done to create a financially sustainable and scalable model for providing computer education?” From this question emerged the idea for Lumen.
Co-founded by Ruby and Rick, Lumen is a social enterprise that integrates data collection with computer education to bridge the information gap in rural Kenya. Lumen provides market research services for development organizations by training students to collect data about their communities. At the same time, Lumen establishes computer labs where its students work with the data they collect, allowing them to master project-based computer skills while also learning to analyze and think critically about issues in their communities.
After concluding a successful pilot program in December 2016, Lumen is now crowdfunding to set up their first permanent “Lumen Labs" in Muhuru Bay and Mtito Andei, Kenya. You can help support the venture by donating to their campaign or visit their website to learn more. You can also follow Lumen on Facebook!