Track Athlete Funnels Startup’s Proceeds to Kenyan Villageby Kimberly Marselas ’00 | photo by John T. Consoli
Kikanae Punyua’s father wanted him to be a doctor, but that path to success would have taken too long for the middle-distance runner from Kenya.
Instead, Punyua ’15 declared himself an economics major, founded a socially minded business and began preparing his Maasai village for modern medicine.
“When I was growing up, I saw so many challenges and I wanted to do something, but I had no means,” says Punyua, one of 10 children in his family who shared a mud hut in the largely rural Narok District, about two hours west of Nairobi.
During high school, Punyua was chosen as one of 20 Kenyans to participate in an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. After a year in Howard County, Md., he was hooked on America—despite an initial dislike for pizza and some adjustment to a much less communal culture.
Punyua, known as “Kika,” hadn’t run in Kenya but found sports a good way to make friends here. His first competitive season earned the attention of college recruiters, including Maryland track Coach Andrew Valmon.
An anonymous donor paved the way for Punyua to complete his senior year at Glenelg Day School, where he captured the 2010 state title in the 3,200-meter event.
It was at Glenelg that Punyua first envisioned the Osiligi Clinic, a facility that will start providing maternity care and health education to people in his village later this year. Though he raised about $5,000 for the venture through a high school project, the building and a sustainable funding plan have come to life since Punyua entered Maryland.
Nearly $20,000 in private donations helped complete construction of the clinic, and Punyua is now securing furnishings and medical equipment. He and his family are also working with the Kenyan government to secure staff that can provide pre-natal and delivery services, as well as educate and partner with the local midwives.
Punyua also wants women in his tribe to have opportunities beyond motherhood, so last year, he launched Rafiki Beads and Trips, which sells handmade beaded wares like bracelets and dog collars and promotes “voluntourism.” As the business grows, he plans to split proceeds between the female Maasai crafters and the clinic. Initially, about six employees were paid by the piece; he hoped to offer work to as many as 30 women during the 2014 holiday rush.
“My goal was to empower women,” says Punyua. “Now they have a skill that provides an income.”
Punyua is juggling it all—even shipping out products to online customers—while completing his degree and pursuing full-time corporate work.
He’ll also be back on the track this spring, competing in distance events. Choosing to stay at Maryland after the elimination of cross-country made Punyua a leader on the smaller, younger track team, Valmon says. The coach calls him a great example of what scholar athletes can do if they have a vision and support.
“If he’s started something, you know he’s going to finish it,” says Valmon. “He’s the kind of kid you want on your team.”
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