The story about how it all began - How Lonny Chen co-founded Kinara for Youth Evolution
Lonny Chen was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada. After studying computer engineering in Vancouver, he worked in California for 10 years testing computer chips. Currently he’s the Board Chairperson for Kinara for Youth Evolution, a youth-led, Non-Governmental Organization based in Chamwino Morogoro, Tanzania. This is the story about how it all began.
What was your first experience in Tanzania? And what about the times after that?
The first time I went to Tanzania was in 2008. I found this community volunteer program through an organization called Youth Challenge International (YCI), which was sending volunteers for 3 month stays in different countries in the world. We went with a group of 5 people in total and got stationed in Morogoro. I ended up starting a new computer class for an organization in Chamwino ward, teaching things like Word, Excel, and typing letters. During this time, I lived in a family’s home. It was an intense experience, since there was basically no privacy. Although it was mostly intense in a good way, because you’re really living right there in the community. After this first time, I kept in touch with the people I had met. I guess it made such an impression on me that I just couldn’t stay away. Especially Morogoro as a town, it’s special to me. It’s a small town where you can walk around easily, people remember you, they talk to you. It’s a good size for a foreigner to experience Tanzania, because it’s not super touristy it forces you to integrate with the community. So, I came back to Morogoro in 2011 for another three months to continue working on the computer program. The third time was in 2012 when I worked in Morogoro for one month and in Zanzibar for the next month, both months still working on teaching IT skills.
2012 was obviously not the last time you came to Tanzania. At some point you co-founded MOYODEI, Morogoro Youth Development Initiative, now known as Kinara for Youth Evolution. How did that happen?
Yes, that happened in 2013. I was still in touch with a lot of the young people I had worked with starting in 2008. The YCI program at one point stopped coming to Morogoro, but the people in Chamwino wanted to continue getting educated. I came back to visit Morogoro in 2013 and met with one of the mobilizers of the computer classes back when I was teaching there. He told me they wanted to start something on their own. I also felt like an organization where young people were the ones designing and leading projects would be beneficial for both their own development as leaders and the community as a whole. He said he would gather some people he knew and told me to come back the next day. The next day I came back expecting there would be four or five people. To my great surprise there were about twenty people in the room waiting for me! This is when I felt something was about to start. They talked about what they wanted and needed. They expressed the lack of jobs for young people, lots of gender discrimination, and a lack of knowledge about reproductive health. I told them I could put down enough money to rent a room for 3 months where they could get together and figure out what’s next. Unfortunately, I had to leave Morogoro the next day. After I left, they continued meeting together. They started a Girls Club in which girls educated each other on sexual health and topics like gender equality. I was happy to see the initiative from their part and I saw that they really wanted this to continue. They weren’t getting paid at the time, they just really wanted to learn. My role in the organization at that time was mainly being the funder. They told me what they wanted to do and I supported them financially, together with family and friends. In the beginning I gave them about 100 dollars a month for rent, electricity, and to pay the computer teachers something. This soon wasn’t enough anymore as they wanted more and more programs so they could help even more people. In March 2015 I came back to see how things were going. I knew that they had planned events for International Women’s day. As I arrived that day at the event, I saw that we started something that was known in the community. I saw how motivated people were to be a part of it. That’s when I knew I wanted to be more involved.
Why and when did you decide to move to Tanzania?
I wanted to come and see if MOYODEI could grow and be an established and continuing organization. The person who was running things at the time at one point left the organization. I think him leaving was a trigger for me to move to Morogoro and make things run smoothly again. So, I quit my job in august 2015 and moved to Tanzania in October 2015. I intended to stay for not longer than two years, but I’ve been here for 3,5 years now. I guess after two years I wasn’t ready to leave. A lot of things were going on, we started a sewing class which was very popular and tried a lot of different things. We had run sports teams, started a sewing business, and the Girls Club turned into our Sexual Reproductive Health and Gender program, helping to create and run different clubs and groups at schools and the community. We also started teaching after school academic programs. This is where I got to interact more directly with our students, pitching in to teach Mathematics. It’s inspiring to see the kids come back, see them learning and becoming better students. You just want to keep it going. In my previous career, it was sometimes hard to see the impact of my work. I wanted to work with people more and do something that mattered to an entire community. That’s why I decided to move to Tanzania and dedicate my time to the organization.
What are the biggest differences living in Tanzania compared to living in America?
The biggest differences are the basic needs and lack of luxuries we’re used to back home. For instance, the bad roads, the power that goes out occasionally, running water sometimes not working for days and less variety in types of food. It’s these basic things that make it hard sometimes, but they also make you more appreciative of what you had back home. It also makes you more appreciative when things DO work. Another thing is flexibility, you really have to be more flexible here. Luckily there are just as many positive differences. The sense of community here is amazing. People are very willing to help each other out, they greet everyone, and they just really stick together. There’s this feeling of togetherness, because people are so compassionate to each other. I just really love the people here.
Looking back on how Kinara started and where it is now, what has changed?
Definitely the personal development of our staff. It’s amazing to see how confident they are when they’re educating, talking to government leaders, talking to people internationally, visiting schools and just overall improving their (English) speaking skills. They are so proud when they’re talking about Kinara and the work they do. It is really rewarding to see them grow like that. We are also growing as an organization. We have four major programs now, divided in different projects. We are getting more known in and outside of Morogoro. We work closely with CIVICUS and its DataShift initiative, and won a grant from Innovation for Change – Africa, where we are working with MORUWASA, the municipal water utility, to improve water services through technology and citizen participation. Our young leaders have represented us at meetings and conferences from Dar es Salaam to Rwanda and Ghana. All great things.
What is your role in all this? What do you do?
I feel like nothing and everything. I don’t have a specific role, but I’m involved in everything that happens. I’m not the boss and I don’t want to be, because I want the staff to be the bosses and me to oversee, advice and connect them to opportunities. I want them to run the show.
What makes Kinara different from other NGOs? Any specific strengths or challenges?
I think how close we are to the community. We are literally surrounded by them. I love how I hear stories about how people know us and got to our organization. We don’t promote our programs a lot, but everybody in the community just knows about us. I think this and the fact that we’re being led by local young people are our biggest strengths. Of course, there are challenges too. I think our biggest challenge, as many NGO’s will agree, is sustainability. We’re depending on funding from my own savings and donations from friends and family. It worries me sometimes. Our staff has put in years to built up the organization. We want Kinara to be there for their own kids and future generations and we all feel responsible to keep on being here in the community. We’re the only organization in the community that runs programs like ours, so there’s a need for us to be here.
Of all the work Kinara does, what are you most proud of?
Seeing people whose lives have changed because of one of our programs. The best example is our sewing class. We have seen people who got jobs because of our program. Visiting them afterwards is very rewarding, because you can see how much they’ve changed and how thankful they are. I’m also very proud of the community library we have established next to our office. It’s great to see that the children have a place where they can go every Saturday to read books and play with other kids. It is a safe place for them to go to.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m planning on leaving Tanzania in the middle of 2020 and I want to get back into school in September 2020. I want to do something in data science or artificial intelligence, so combining my technical background with my social experience in international development. I will always want to stay involved with Kinara. The goal is that our staff runs everything, from our programs, to social media, to the finances.
Do you still want to work in development in Tanzania after you finished studying?
Well I want to be based in Vancouver, close to my mother. But yes, maybe do some projects in Tanzania or other surrounding countries in the future! And there will always be Kinara of course 😉.