Dadversation with Alfred Muli


Interviewer (Irene M): IM.

Interviewee (Alfred Muli): AM.

IM. Great. Alfred, before we get into your rambunctious three-and-a-half-year-old, let’s talk about you.

AM. Perfect. I am 34 years old. I was born and raised here in Kenya. And I was born in eastern Kenya and spent the very early life there. But partly grew up in a lot of other places. But I think, I’ve spent most of my time in eastern Kenya, and then central Kenya, in a town called Kiganjo. That’s where I spent most of my primary school education. And that’s simply because I grew up with my brother and his wife. And my brother is a policeman, and he moved to so many other places. The police officers here in Kenya, they cannot stay in one location for long they are transferred to another location. I think that was a blessing for me, because I got to interact with a lot of other cultures and looked at life differently. I would say, I grew up in a typical village initially, and I, obviously was socialized into a lot of the traditional bit about life. And I think also, again, parenting and everything was something you observed growing up. But this moving with my brother and his family to different parts, I could see people doing things differently. And I think that helped me become open minded and got interested in understanding people and understanding different cultures. So, I think that’s really been a key pillar in my life. And I think that’s also the reason I would call myself a feminist. And it’s not quite common here to find men who are feminists. And I think, for me, that’s been the fact that I’ve interacted with a lot of cultures. And I’ve been open minded, to challenge a lot of things and assumptions I grew up seeing or hearing.

Now, in terms of my professional life, my background is initially in public health. So that’s what I did for my undergrad and a master’s in monitoring and evaluation. When I finished school, I worked with the government initially, which again, it’s compulsory for you to do an internship with the government to be able to qualify as a Public Health Officer, which is what I was trained in. But of course, my interaction with the public health system here was– it was not rewarding. And so, I decided to look for work in the non-profit sector where it felt like it was a good fit for me. And I felt like I would make a lot of impact. So, I worked again with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, mostly on water sanitation and hygiene projects. And then in 2014, I moved to WASH United, a German NGO, that again also focuses on water sanitation and hygiene, but also menstrual health and hygiene. And I joined WASH United in 2014 when they were about to launch Menstrual Hygiene Day, which happens on the 28th of May every year. And I became the first national coordinator for my country, so really committing partners to be able to raise awareness around menstrual health and why menstruation really matters. And then in 2017, I left WASH United and moved to the Kenyan coast in Kilifi with another social enterprise that manufactures sanitary pads. They are called Zana Africa. I was there to manage a huge study that was in 140 public primary schools. And then I really enjoyed my work at Zana Africa. But then in 2018, we were expecting Ayn and I aimed to look for a job that is based in Nairobi, where my wife Faustina is based. So, she works with the government. She’s a civil servant. So, she’s kind of tied in Nairobi. So, a lot of-everything has to be done from Nairobi, because the kind of work she does, she can only do it from the headquarters that are based here in Nairobi. So, I left Zana Africa and I went to Ruby Cup, a menstrual cup company.

So then in 2020, the COVID pandemic came, and Ruby Cup had to let go a lot of the team members and I was one of them. So actually, maybe I should just mention that Ruby Cup was an amazing organization to work with, because here in Kenya, we only have 10 days paternity leave. Like for men, you only take 10 days. And after that you go back to work. But Ruby Cup was generous enough, I didn’t go to the field until Ayn was six months. The first few months, I was only working maybe two or three hours in a day, sometimes not. So again, I feel like working for an organization like Ruby cup, gave me enough time to spend time with my daughter, maybe something like– something that most men don’t, are not able to, are not privileged to, because of work and the different policies in different countries. So that I think I should mention that. So, when I left Ruby Cup, I joined USAID on another research project that was looking at menstruation in the workplace. And that study ran until January this year when it came to an end.

But in that period, when you lose a job and you’re in a panic mode, I was applying for so many jobs. And Street Business School was one of them. Interestingly I actually send out a CV that was two years old. I attached the wrong CV. But anyway, I still got the job. So, in December 2020, I started working in Street Business School. And at Street Business School, we do entrepreneurship training for women, mostly. So, we train women to start and grow small businesses. And of course, we have an office in Uganda that we refine a lot of the things but we have also expanded through partners. So, at the moment we work with more than 100 partners spread across 26 countries. And I do mostly monitoring and evaluations. So for this study I manage the impact portfolio for Street Business School. And at the same time, during COVID, I reconnected with some friends of mine, and we started a social enterprise called ‘Unlearn Innovation Hub.’ So really just looking back at our lives and realizing that a lot of the things that hold us back are things we actually learned during early childhood and/or whatever experience you’ve gone through. And the best way to address it is not to learn anything new, but to actually unlearn those things. So that’s really what Unlearn is all about. It’s a platform that allows people to unlearn a lot of socialization that they’ve done. And we just launched on Saturday, which was Menstrual Health Day. So, my team did what is called a Menstrual Road Trip. So, we did a road trip making stopovers in different towns and cities, towns from Nairobi to another city that is 3 hours’ drive called Nakuru. So they were making stopovers and interviewing people and training people and then when they got to Nakuru, they worked with some CBOs [Community-Based Organizations] there to train more than 300 girls and more than 50 boys and men, so on menstruation, of course. So, it was quite interesting. Of course, I didn’t make it, but I have started seeing the videos, and it’s amazing what the team has been able to do.

IM. Before we talk about Ayn, I have a few more follow up questions on your personal experience. So, you’ve worked– you call yourself a feminist, which is amazing, in Kenya. So two questions to that. How common is it to find men feminists in Kenya? And second, a lot of your work has been around menstrual hygiene through different initiatives there with Ruby Cup and Zana Africa. What enticed you or what was your initial interest to engage in menstrual health work for your community?

AM. So it stems way back. So, I forgot to mention that I lost my mom when I was maybe four years. So, I was brought up by my grandmother and my elder brother also got married as a result when he was very young, so that the wife could take care of us because we were left when we were really young, especially myself, the sister I follow and the brother who my sister follows. So, for that reason, I grew up really being supported a lot by women, or maybe rather, my early childhood was shaped by women, that’s what I would say. So, I’ve always had interest in women issues since I was a young kid. But also, my brother says that I’ve always gone against the grid. Like I always asked questions that most people don’t ask when I was a kid, so I’ve always been a curious kid. So maybe that will be the foundation but how I got into the menstrual space was when I was working with the Kenya Medical Research Institute. Like I said, I was working mostly on WASH projects. There came an opportunity, my supervisor got an opportunity to write a grant for a huge project here in Kenya, and the donor wanted us to integrate menstrual health into the WASH portfolio. And I went on the internet to search for papers and evidence because of course, when you are doing a grant, you have to show the need and show the evidence that is out there and there was not much. And that was in 2013. Actually, it was in 2013 and there was not much evidence out there about menstrual health. And it was still and it’s still a taboo topic, quite a stigmatized topic here. And so that’s how I got interested and actually it was during that time when I was doing that small literature review, I came across Wash United because they were the first few people to talk about menstruation and started doing programming on menstrual health. And through that grant, I got interested and started seeing how menstrual health can be integrated in so many other sectors. And I think that’s how I found my niche that I’ve been working in that space for quite some time since then.

IM. Great. How many of your colleagues are men? And how many of your colleagues are women? I’m just curious.

AM. So when I was working purely on menstrual health– at WASH United Kenya for the full time staff, I was the only man. Again, for Zana Africa, the technical staff, I was also the only man. So basically, in anywhere I’ve worked and so long as it’s a menstrual project for the technical positions I’m the only man, but maybe in the accounts team, you will find a man and even not many really like… At Ruby Cup, I think we were only two men, for example. At Zana, we had a few men, maybe three or four. But in most of the spaces I’ve worked in, you’d find I’m the only man in an office full of ladies. But I’m really used to it. I think, growing up with women around me, my nieces, also my sister. So, I think I’m used to it. And I think the work I’ve been doing around women issues, of course, highlighted the fact that– and some of the troubles or some of the challenges is really as a result of men not being involved or not even knowing what’s happening. So, I think with Unlearn Innovation Hub one of the things we want to do, and we’ve already started doing is really making an engagement. Now, that I’ve been on the other side, that way I understand the women issues and how men can be supportive. I’m doing a lot of that, in the current projects I’m involved in. Also, to answer your question, we don’t have very many male feminists and even those who are feminists, they probably don’t know they are, like they just doing it… Because here feminism is again a stigmatized topic or space. Most people think feminists are people who hate men. Or who are anti-family. So, it’s still most people still don’t understand what feminism is actually.

IM. Okay, I understand. So from your experience running the Unlearn Innovation Hub, I know it’s fairly new, and you guys are just getting your feet wet. How easy is– or how difficult is it to unlearn socialized patterns that have been imbedded for generations?

AM. It’s very difficult. It’s easier to learn than to unlearn. Because I mean, and especially with something you grew up seeing or believing, it’s very difficult to undo that as an adult, because let’s say, you are 30 years. For the last 30 years this has been your way of doing things, has been your belief. So, to change that takes a lot of guts and courage. And, again, you also need a lot of support. So, I think, for me, for my partner, but also my colleagues at Unlearn Innovation Hub, but also where I work, because of course a lot of the work, most people work in the development sector here are people who in a way they have unlearned a lot of things. Because of course, the NGOs here tend to focus on areas or needs that are really evidence-based. So, there is a need for sure. And people who subscribe to such are people who have already in a way started their unlearning journey, on that healing journey in a way. So that has really helped that I am surrounded by people with the same mindset.

IM. Okay, I understand. So I guess it’s one person inspiring the next and the next, and the next, and the next.

AM. Yes. And then you go to a conference, or you go to the TV and you talk about menstruation, and they’re like, so even men can talk about it and deep down, they’re just someone who is always frustrated by the system, and they just don’t know where to begin. But when they start seeing you talking about these issues, then they’re also able to start speaking up.

IM. Precisely. Exactly it kind of takes like a pioneer like Alfred to pave the road and then along the road, you kind of get other people jumping in.

AM. Yes. And you see the moment you start doing it, you also now get connected to other people who are doing it. So of course, I’m not the only man addressing the issue. We have a lot of men in the space now, like we’re working in that space. We have men who are also pioneering, not really pioneering, but like advocating for a better world for everyone. So, it’s a growing movement, I would say.

IM. Okay, great. So there’s definitely momentum being built in the right direction.

AM. Yes.

IM. Let’s talk about Ayn, tell me everything you want to tell me about Ayn who is three and a half years old. That’s all I know, for the moment, but I want to know more.

AM. So Ayn was born on the 23rd of December in 2018. Now, interesting bit, my birthday is on the 22nd of December. Ayn was the 23rd, and Faustina, the mom is on the 24th. So, we have three days of birthdays at home. So, Ayn was born on the 23rd, but the labor pain started on the 22nd. So, there was that chance that she might be born on the same day as myself. We’d share a birthday. And then it extended to the 23rd and for sure, she was going to be in between myself and my wife. It was challenging. I think one bit people don’t talk about is that childbirth is not all fun and fairy tale like people tend to portray it. It’s a challenging period especially for the woman. And for the man, again, you’re also anxious, because of maternal death for example. Here in Kenya, also coming from the public perspective, you always also know that anything can go wrong. So, you are anxious, and you’re also there, like, it’s very painful to see your partner in pain and all that. So that bit is challenging, but then when the baby is born, it’s all smiles and we are all happy about it. So, I was there in the delivery room, and I also supported with cutting the cord. And I heard I think I was the second one. No, I was the first one to hold her and then give the mum. No, it was, it was great once she was born. And from day one, she’s always been inspirational. So, I grew up thinking that as a parent and that was quite challenging for me, because I wasn’t sure whether I’m already mature enough, old enough to be a parent. Or I didn’t know whether I had really the capacity to be a good dad. So, I thought it was a lot of work and it is, it is. But I also think parents tend to put a lot of responsibility on themselves. Yet, with my journey, I think I’m learning more from Ayn than she is learning from me. I think that’s an interesting discovery I’ve made, found, is that kids, they tend to teach you a lot and it’s the basics like courtesy, basics like respect, basics like saying thank you, appreciating and living in the moment. Like, Ayn will spot every car that is passing. She will spot every bird, she will spot the beautiful colors that as an adult you might not. And it’s probably because as an adult, you’re preoccupied with so many things and all that. But for them, they are living the moment.

They will roll in the sand. We don’t do that. She will want to play with water and everything. Like those things in retrospect or now when I observe is like these are probably the things that we should be doing. But somehow when you become an adult, you are restricted, like there are things you can’t do, you shouldn’t do, you could do. But for the kids, they are living the moment. So, for me that’s been huge. And I think while I’ve already unlearned the pitch where you want to place a lot of expectations on your kid. You want them to be the top performers and all those things. It’s really come naturally for her. She shines in everything she does, whether it’s at school, whether it’s just any activity. She does things excellently. So, again, that’s something I’ve really learned from her. Of course, you want to be protective. But we also let her to be an explorer to do everything she wants to do. And again, we’ve also really read a lot about trauma so that you, again, don’t want to pass the same trauma to the kids. And I think, I usually say, of course, for someone who comes from a country that was initially colonized, we adopted a lot of the colonial system that, of course, don’t serve us anymore. But as a result, it’s a trigger and it’s also a trauma point. The fact that your country was colonized, but also just going back to slavery and all that, it’s something if you look at the tree, you have to be very intentional to understand how did that affect my previous generation? And how has that been transferred to us? And of course, as a country, we’ve also had coup. The coup, the time in 1982, I think, and how did that impact the society or the generation at the time. We’ve also had drought and those crises that have been there like, the economic, what do you call it? The economic recession, how did that impact people? And how can that again be- that fear or how can that be transferred to the kid? So, we also are very intentional with our own healing and making sure that we don’t transfer any negative trauma to the kid. So, of course, from what I’ve been reading, there is definitely some spillover that is going to happen. But of course, what you want to do is that you make sure you enable her to be resilient enough, you enable her to appreciate herself. And just be herself in the midst of all these things that are happening in the world. Just to make sure she takes her own path because I think sometimes we might have some predetermined path. And I mean, you didn’t play a role in that path. But you are told to follow a certain path. You want your kids to have their own path. And not what you as a parent, you always think should be the things. So that’s something we’ve really tried with her. Like she does gymnastics, she likes things that have like adrenaline rush like those things that most people growing up would be taught girls shouldn’t do that. But for us, we let her do those things. We don’t restrict her to things or to social norms or gender roles that initially, we grew up thinking that there are things women should do or things men should do. So, we let- we also lead by example. You’ll find me in the kitchen cooking. You’ll find me cleaning the house, like we do those things, all of us. So that she knows that there is never anything that is only for girls to do or for boys to do.

IM. How many of your peers think the same and practice the same as what you just said?

AM. I would say 20%.

IM. Okay.

AM. But what has been improving from not just my friends, but also when you walk around the malls. Of course, being a researcher, myself, and being a person who works in the community, I’m also very observant of what people are doing around. So, when you go to the malls or even to the clinics, you will find also men accompanying their partners to the clinic. But of course, growing up, it was only women who would take the kids to the clinic. And if it’s in the malls, it’s only the women carrying their babies, but here you also find men carrying the babies. Even when you see on social media or find men interacting with their kids. So, I think while it’s very few who are like doing it, but there is progressively a lot of men trying to be present. That’s what I would say. A lot of men are trying to be present in the lives of their children. But of course, there are those who do it for social media. So, you might not know whether they actually do it at home, or they’re only doing it because they’re in the mall or because they are posting something on social media which is again something we haven’t done for ourselves that we haven’t posted on social media yet. It’s only like family who know, family and close friends who know her in person and we take photos of her but we haven’t yet like posted her face on social media yet. It’s there. I mean, people, I think now there is some progress. I feel like there is some progress in how men have been intentionally present in the lives of their kids.

IM. Okay. And do you think that’s because it’s just a different generation? Is it because more women are entering the workforce? Is it because perhaps, now that we live in a globalized world, there’s just so much information coming to us from everywhere? So, what do you think is driving that shift in Kenya? I know, it’s many factors, but just your opinion about which factors or mechanisms are leading that progress?

AM. I would say yes. There is a lot of information out there and actually for free. And I really credit social media, for example, because you look at social media, and you see men playing with their kids, and you don’t play with your kid, you’ll ask yourself, why is that? And it’s cute, like, it’s cute to play with your kid, you would want to do it as well. So if people can be influenced on other things, of course, social media is not the best of places. But if social media can be used positively, it can also have positive impact. So, the fact that there is a lot of information, there is a lot of role models out there doing it, then men would want to associate with it. I think it helps to be able to see other men who are similar to you, or who are like you doing it, then you’ll be like, people of my generation, people from my country, from my culture are doing it, why not?

IM. Alfred, I don’t want to take up too much of your time. But I want to just ask a few questions about the Street Business School, which I think is, it’s a brilliant name.

AM. It’s been amazing what we do at Street Business School. I think, for me, it’s been amazing to just see how women can be confident because I think the bottom line is usually confidence. Like the reason you don’t start a business is because you don’t believe in yourself, you don’t trust yourself. Of course, people will talk about capital and those other things, but so long as you as an individual, you have a skill that you can sell. You don’t necessarily need a lot of money, or even money to start. For example, I have the experience to talk about women issues and address women issues. I just need to go to Facebook and start a page or YouTube and start a page for example. That’s an example. But what’s been transformational for me is seeing how women have grown in confidence since joining the program, and how women have been able to transform their lives with very small incomes. I also see it here in my house, like if I get a consulting gig that I had not planned for, the ideas I have about how I would spend that money is not the same as what my wife has. Like, if you give that money to my wife, she’ll make better use of the money than I would. She will think 10 years from now, she’ll think about the family.

And I see that across also with, with a program at Street Business School, how women start small, and they grow big. And they create empires out of very small businesses, and that has huge impact on not just their lives, but also that of their children and that of their family. So, I think, importantly, is the fact that for Street Business School, we are very big on data, like evidence generation. We want to make decisions based on data we collect. We want to use data to make decisions. And we also use data to see our impact. So that’s been great to see happening at Street Business School and the use of technology. For example, data collection being done on a mobile phone and being pushed to a cloud-based system, and you can see your impact in real time. But for me, the biggest one is just usually that huge change in income, where from a recent randomized control trial, which from an evaluation perspective, is the gold standard for evaluation, we’ve seen women’s income for their businesses nearly double after one year. So that’s amazing to see. But of course, the impact stories from the communities, how lives have changed for those women, but also for their communities is also huge. It’s huge and quite rewarding to see. I think one of my favorite one is that my colleagues in Uganda, and I’ve also seen it here in Kenya in many other parts I’ve gone is where they train a woman, and she starts a small business on the street, they go back after two years, and the entire street is full of businesses. So just how that one woman inspired so many other people to start businesses is also huge and good for the local economy, of course, and for the livelihoods of so many people, within the family of that woman, but also without the family of that woman. Yes, so of course, it’s quite rewarding to do the kind of work I do for Street Business School. Especially for me, because I get to interact with them the bene… No, I don’t like to call them beneficiaries, but what traditional NGOs would call beneficiaries. For us, we actually call them coaches. So, because we believe there is something we are learning from them, and there is something they’re learning from us. So, what people call beneficiaries, for us, they are coaches, we call them coaches, and they call us coaches. And so now that you know that, for me, interacting with the coaches, and the people in those communities is quite rewarding to see the transformation in their lives. And of course, because I interact with the data, I’m always impressed to see the different numbers like the increase in income, or the number of businesses they are growing and how that is impacting their lives. For me, that’s quite rewarding.

IM. I think your kind of motto in life… I mean, it’s amazing how you call the beneficiaries coaches, because even though technically, Street Business School are the coaches, and say the women are the students, but you learn from each other. You’re all coaches. And which then also kind of talking about spilling over it spills over with your relationship with your relationship with Ayn where she’s almost like your coach as well.

AM. Yes, she is.

IM. All these coaches coaching each other.

AM. We definitely do. So it’s really like, you’d be surprised because if you’ve not interacted with those coaches, you’d imagine because you’re giving them the business skills and everything that you’re actually teaching them. But when you now go to coach them, they will tell you about how they came up with those business ideas. And it’s huge like they will also tell you how they’re doing bookkeeping for example. Bookkeeping is a complex concept for most people. Even for us, like tracking our personal expenses can be challenging, but these women, some of whom have not necessarily gone to school, they’re doing it perfectly and they are very creative around it. So for me, just the creativity that exists in these communities is amazing. And just how they make the right business decisions. I am imagining in a corporate world before you can even decide to change location of your business or change the name of your business or just rebrand, it takes a lot of time. But these women identify an opportunity, and they run with it. And it’s successful. So those dynamics and how the turnaround time, and how well thought out their ideas are is just amazing. You would think from an outside perspective that this is someone with an MBA. To be able to make such a decision. So for me, I see MBA kinds of decisions being made by women in the rural areas, in the informal settlements, and some of them who have never been to school, and it’s just amazing to see.

IM. Well, they’ve gained their MBAs from Street Business School then.

AM. But also from their communities, because we also want to see our coaches as the experts, and they are the experts of their communities. Even me when I come to your village– even with my public health perspective, I am not a better public health practitioner than you are, who lives in that community. So, it’s the same way I want to also apply at Street Business School, even though we’ve developed this curriculum, and we’ve done this work for many years. We actually don’t deliver the curriculum ourselves. So, we actually use social franchising as a model. So, we have coaches. We train coaches who are from those communities, to be able to recruit members and train them. So, we all need to support them, but we don’t do the training in those countries. Because many times it will be done in their local language. Many times it will be done under a tree. So it’s really customized or contextualized to fit the different contexts. And that’s why, for example, our partners are addressing 16 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. So, we have someone doing something on healthcare, and they are using Street Business School to amplify their impact. We have people who are doing farming, and they are using Street Business School to amplify their impact. So it’s quite applicable in many contexts. But of course, it’s also because of the amazing team that Street Business School as an organization has but also the leadership and the culture of the organization. That makes it very easy for us to work with other partners.

IM. It’s what you said. The locals are the experts. And I think that’s also the model that Ruby Cup follows as well. As an outsider, you can present yourself as an expert and share what you know, but at the end of the day, it’s the local communities who live the day to day who are able to tell you what their needs are.

AM. Exactly.

IM: And it just it gives me so much hope and people like yourself, who are coaches and experts and also just the drivers of progress in your community. We definitely need more people like yourself. Alfred, we’ll be in touch. Thank you so much. Have a great week ahead. Please keep up the amazing work that you’re doing.


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