Born in Bungoma County in Kenya 37 years ago, Caren Wakoli is the founder and executive director of Emerging Leaders Foundation (ELF), an organisation that trains young leaders to be positive change agents in their communities.
The ELF runs mentorship, coaching and exchange programs for young people between 18 and 35, training them on good governance, ethics and integrity, entrepreneurship and community service, skills and knowledge very necessary at a time when East Africa’s social values are topsy-turvy.
Emerging Leaders Foundation has trained thousands of young people around the country through its programmes in universities, schools, political parties and churches.
As Caren puts it: “I play my small role of mentoring and sharpening young leaders to go change their communities — whether through civil society, politics, government, religious sector or private sector – so that we have a society where all live in dignity.”
Caren was recently recognised as one of the young Africans impacting the sphere of leadership and public life by the 44th president of the USA, Barack Obama during the Mandela Lecture in South Africa in July.
An International Relations graduate of the University of Nairobi, Caren is the Chair of The Youth Congress, and is a board member at YALI East Africa, Impact Africa Industries, Siasa Place and DSW Kenya Chapter.
She has previously served in the Uwezo Fund Oversight Board, Advisory Board of NACADA, National Council member of African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and Nairobi City County Interim Youth Advisory and resource Mobilization Board (as the Chair).
Amiable and pleasant yet possessed of an iron will, Caren believes that the greatest force left untapped in the world today is love.
“If only we would apply just a little bit of love in all we do, society would be better in so many ways. I encourage us, especially leaders, to embrace love for humanity. It goes a long way. It’s the difference maker.”
What’s your off-duty passion?
Mentorship. It is a beautiful coincidence that my work is my deepest passion too. I did mentorship for many years for free and there is nothing as fulfilling as doing what you love and loving what you do. I call it purpose.
When you are on purpose, you are in your element. Challenges may come your way but if you stay focused and persevere, the sun will shine on you again. So I enjoy mentoring and coaching young people to discover their purpose and be the best they can be in life.
I also love talking to people about pursuing their dreams and being the best versions of themselves. Indeed, if I did not believe in the power of dreams, I have no idea where I would be now or what my life would be like.
I used to fear failure till I failed many times and discovered that failure is simply a part of life and is a good thing. Most lessons I have learnt in this life were during moments of failure rather than successes. So I like to share my story, especially with young people, to encourage them to grow.
What would you have been if you had not got into the field you are in today?
A lawyer, because I love justice. Justice is supreme. Without justice, all else is empty and hollow.
What is your personal fashion style?
African. I am fiercely pan-African. I mostly prefer Woodin from Ghana. It is great.
How do you manage your wardrobe?
I just do African prints.
While in East Africa, where are you most likely to spend a Saturday afternoon?
A long walk in Nairobi. Long walks are refreshing.
Describe your best destination yet in East Africa?
Wasini island at the Kenyan Coast.
Do you have a must-visit list?
Zanzibar, I hear it has really beautiful and serene beaches.
What is East Africa’s greatest strength?
Kiswahili, because language is a powerful tool for uniting people. Kiswahili is the most commonly spoken language in the region and that is a big plus in terms of trading, integrating, and learning. East Africa’s culture is also quite rich and diverse.
What is your best collection?
Books! Books are integral to my life, they are my world. Books, like friends, shape who we become. One lesson I can share, is read, read and read some more. Turn the pages of great books and devour them.
I recommend five incredible books: Martin Luther King Jr’s Autobiography; From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, by Lee Kuan Yew, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee, and Unbowed by Prof Wangari Maathai. I have an eclectic collection comprising biographies and self-help books with political, topical, development, entrepreneurship, and other themes.
What’s the most thoughtful gift you have received?
The Constitution of Kenya from former Chief Justice Dr Willy Mutunga. He handed it over and said: “I think this will be useful for you. Read it cover to cover.” I felt challenged to be a better citizen — active and well-informed.
What’s the best gift you’ve given?
A book — The Good Life, by Charles Colson. This book radically changed my life. After reading it many years ago, I decided to buy many copies to share with friends and family.
What book have you read recently?
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.
Which film has impacted you the most?
The Pursuit of Happiness, a biographical drama film based on the life of Chris Gardner.
How do you stay informed in this fast-paced tech lifestyle of today?
I read a lot. Online and offline. I also watch and follow local and international news.
What item is always present in your refrigerator?
Yoghurt! I love it.