She grips the handle on the makeshift door so it doesn’t make a sound as it closes. She’s lucky, her house actually has a makeshift door. At 5 in the morning in the slums of Nairobi, even the insects are silent. Out on the empty street, shuffling between the bent tin shacks and rust-coloured tents, the 10-year-old girl marches forward. As she dodges between the stretches of trash and ditches along her path, the only sound is the steady cadence of her footsteps. Tiny clouds of dust under her feet remind her of what’s at stake.

Everything.

Peninah Nthenya Musyim remembers that first day, walking to school. Each step was one more towards escaping an impoverished life in the Mathare Valley slums outside of Nairobi, Kenya. She drew on the only resources her 10-year-old self could afford: her resolve and resourcefulness.

“Imagine three days without a meal, and you’re not sure if you’re going to get to eat on the fourth day,” she recalls. “I survived. Not because I was so strong. But because at 10 years old, I started dreaming big.” What did she dream of?

“Three meals a day,” Peninah says.

But Peninah was hungry for more than food. How would it feel to sleep in a proper bed rather than a sleeping mat on the floor? To have indoor plumbing? A safe space and a room of one’s own? She had an appetite for a better way of life for herself, for her family, and for all of the women in her village.

A single voice illuminated a possible path to prosperity: her local priest. When you go to school, you get nice clothes, food and a bicycle – that’s what he said. Peninah listened and made a decision; one that changed everything.

“I decided my feet should take me to the next step. So I walked. Ten miles every day in the morning. That was my path to school. Three hours one way,” she says, remembering how her desire helped her to overcome her fear. “Sometimes in the days when we didn’t have food, it was so harsh on me,” she recalls in a measured tone. “When my strength was going down, and I felt I could not move, I started dreaming of a nice car. Riding a bicycle. A place without … ” her voice trails off, “harshness.”

When I meet Peninah, her broad smile conceals her lifetime of struggle. The dim light of her past is replaced with a vibrant, inner light that shines through her eyes. It’s impossible not to be inspired by her story of how those small footsteps led to big results. Today, she is living her dreams working as a lawyer, wearing nice clothes and driving her own car. “And eating three meals a day,” she says with a grin. But something, she tells me, is missing.

Internet access impacts on educational opportunities for children
Internet access impacts on educational opportunities for children.
Image: UNICEF

“Women and girls in the slums, they need more," she says, reflecting on her own experience.

As a 10-year-old girl, she struggled to leave her village. Now, as an adult, she was determined to save it. She wanted to turn her success into a sustainable future for all the women and young girls who dreamed of a better life. Her experience told her there was one thing that would open the door to a better future:

Access.

Economic prosperity – that safe space that Peninah fought so hard to find – begins with access. The realization in the middle of the pandemic is that access doesn’t require a 10-mile walk. It can be as simple as internet access – to tools and training to open new doors. As leaders, what can we do for the capable people around the world who need access and don’t have it? Can we share in Peninah’s vision: to provide access to those who struggle to survive, who deserve better? Understanding the kind of access that’s needed is the first step in escaping poverty.

Unlocking new capabilities begins with prioritized investment in three critical access points:

Education: According to a new UNICEF study, at least a third of the world’s schoolchildren have been unable to access remote learning during school closure. Globally, 72% of schoolchildren unable to access remote learning live in their country’s poorest households. Online learning is only available to those who can afford to access it. With just two more years of schooling, 60 million people would be lifted out of poverty.

Entrepreneurship: Investing in entrepreneurial programmes is the kind of education that hungry students really need. What if a single classroom created 25 entrepreneurs every year? What would that mean to sustainability, economic prosperity and financial independence? Insights into entrepreneurship can help create the kind of safe space that disadvantaged economies need. Because teaching people how to create opportunity might just be the most valuable lesson of all.

Engagement: Without the ability to engage with entrepreneurial education, that opportunity is lost. Driving engagement starts when we invest in the tools that make a 10-mile walk unnecessary. Educational programmes, especially those being offered during this global pandemic, must be built around engagement. Creating programmes that instruct and inspire is half the battle: What about providing the tools to the students, so that engagement can happen? It's a question of infrastructure on the ends, not just in the middle. We must invest to enable entrepreneurial engagement, so that technology is literally in the hands of those who need it most.

The power of access to education, entrepreneurship and engagement is evident in Peninah’s results. Each year, her not-for profit, Safe Spaces Nairobi, provides 1,200 girls with access to gain the skills they need to escape violence, hunger and exclusion in a safe environment.

Through her organization, she’s transformed her village in powerful ways, such as improving graduation rates. Before Safe Spaces, three out of 10 girls attended school. Now eight out of 10 girls finish school each year. She has also decreased teenage pregnancy rates: before Safe Spaces seven out of 10 girls became pregnant as teenagers. That’s down to one out of 10.

Peninah continues to deploy the strategy she knows creates results: no matter how big the goal, just take the first step. The journey begins when you close the door behind you.

“Safe Spaces gives girls a direction. Once they see the goal, they start walking. Once they start walking, they are on their feet,” Peninah says.

Jobs

What is the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit?

The World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit brings together leaders from business, government, civil society, media and the broader public to shape a new agenda for growth, jobs, skills and equity.

The four-day virtual event, being held on 20-23 October 2020, comes as the world seeks a way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has further disrupted the world of work after years of growing income inequality, concerns about tech-driven job displacement, and rising societal discord.

The Summit will develop new frameworks, shape innovative solutions and accelerate action on four thematic pillars: Economic Growth, Revival and Transformation; Work, Wages and Job Creation; Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning; and Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice.

Access is what we all need in order to thrive. To change. To find safety and new opportunities. Investing in education, entrepreneurship and engagement is the path out of poverty. Perhaps, in Kenya, India or Guatemala, a 10-year-old girl is wondering about how she can find that path. Will you help her to take the next step?