Amani Institute Alumni Stories: Pop-Up Nairobi

May 1, 2015


This is a guest-post by Nicole McMahon, alumni of our first one-month course in Social Entrepreneurship in Nairobi 2013. We were honored to see her idea grow from inception phase to a budding social enterprise in Nairobi. If you are interested in their work, check their website and engage with them on their Facebook page.


 The Passion

When I’m happy I cook to celebrate.

When I’m angry I cook to calm down.

When I’m sad I cook to cheer up.

When I’m stressed I cook to relax. 

Cooking relaxes the mind and the soul, or at least it does for me. When I travel I prefer accommodation with a kitchen, so I can explore the local markets and cook up a feast. I love trying street foods and then attempting to recreate them. An ex-boyfriend would get amused (and sometimes exasperated) by the amount of time I can spend wandering a supermarket in a new place – not with the aim of buying, but just looking at the new or different ingredients.  

The Possibilities

KOTO in Vietnam trains youth in hospitality skills. It started with a sandwich shop and some street boys. Now it is one of the top restaurants. STREAT in Melbourne offers homeless youth an avenue into education and employment through its café locations. Customers at these restaurants go for the great service, perfect coffee and delicious food, but also because they know that just by eating they are positively impacting lives.

The Dream

I have often thought about opening a café. It was the great dream. Thinking about the décor, the menu’s, who the customers would be. Then I moved to Nairobi, and in my first week here I realised this will be my new home for the foreseeable future. And I could start my very own KOTO, or STREAT, or the myriad of other social enterprise cafes. There are so many youth that don’t have the opportunity for higher education, and to excel in hospitality you don’t need it. You just need passion, and to understand the positive influence of cooking.

The First Steps

I enrolled in The Practice of Social Entrepreneurship through Amani Institute. My first experience was a little questionable – I knew this was the first ever class offered by a new education institute. I had been in Kenya 2 months and constantly heard about scams. They wanted me to hand over 40,000 shillings, and didn’t even have a receipt system ready for me. I met the founder, but he was busy on a skype call. We were meeting in the lobby of another business, and there was no signage for this ‘Amani Institute’. I paid the money, waited for a receipt, and hoped I didn’t have my very own story of being scammed.

I turned up to the first day of class, and hurrah… there was really a class! They had ‘jumped’. (And now there really is a whole school, and receipts, and their own lobby area! And another school on another continent!)

I signed up for a couple of reasons: 

The course, in general, was great, it gave us a lot to think about, but what worked out best for me is that my idea of a social enterprise café was chosen as our group project. It was great to have the ideas I’d built in my mind spoken out loud and then challenged and discussed by others. I have so much respect for the other students, and while we haven’t stayed close I will always call them friends and know I can call them to catch up at any time.

The Jump

It took me over a year to jump. Jumping is terrifying. Finding the right way is terrifying. Waiting for conditions to be perfect is impossible. For 12 months I would play with the outlines of a business plan. I would look into funding options. I would look at locations for a café, and talk to people about choosing trainees. But never too seriously because I was scared. I came 6th place in a competition for funding and then I lost momentum. But I always remembered in the back of my mind, one of the Amani staff sitting with me as we looked at funding options asking “Why would it be an NGO? Why would you rely on donors? Why do you need funding? Can you get a loan? Do you want to listen to donors or investors?”

On March 23, 2014 I took over my local lunchtime café on a Sunday and held a Sunday Brunch. Friends volunteered as staff and we raised money for high school scholarships for children in Kibera. 100 people came and we raised 70,000 shillings. Pop-Up Nairobi was born. Over the next 6 months I built a business where capital is only needed 4 days before an event, then reimbursed on the day of the event. No more than $500 was ever needed. As the business expanded youth were brought on board as trainees to work at events and learn new skills. This is now my full-time gig. A lot more needs to be done, there is a lot of trial and error on what works and what doesn’t but now that it is what I do, I’m not scared. I might need funding to take the next step and get a food truck or location, but I have regular customers, I have people that respect the company, and youth that want to learn.

Without having done the course, and having wonderful inspiring classmates I might still be teetering on the edge, too scared to jump.


Are you ready to jump? Apply today to Amani Institute’s Social Innovation Management Program:



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