Rather than get depressed about being a housewife with no tangible income, Mariam Mpaata identified a need and created a solution that will go on to impact thousands of youths in Kenya. She achieved this through football. Her story is one of passion, innovation and the truth that it is never too late to begin to go after your purpose. You will enjoy this interview.
Who is Mariam Mpaata, and what does she do?
I am a 39 year old mother of four children and I have been married for 18 years. I am the Founder and Programme Director of Junior Stars Youth Development Programme, goal keeper and captain of Soccer Divas Club and the Vice President of the Rotary Club of Mombasa. I am also a published poet and budding writer.
You have an interesting story, of how you set up Junior Stars Youth Development Programme – tell us about that.
It all started after I relocated from Uganda with my three year old son and husband. I had just completed university and I was eager to be employed. I remember applying for jobs in vain. I ended up a housewife by default for seven years. I followed my son to all his school activities; soon I discovered that he loved football. His father bought him footballs all the time. One day, he kicked the ball way too high and the ball hit the wind screen of the neighbour’s Mercedes Benz. We had to pay for the damage.
That was the turning point. I made up my mind to enrol him into a football program. We could not find one so I decided to begin a football club. But when Kenya underwent post – election violence, I shelved the idea and revisited it when the reconciliation process began. On 7th April 2008, Junior Stars opened its doors to 15 boys including my son. We had five balls, a coach, a manager and myself as a cheerleader.
I remember that first day, it was very hot and I kept thinking I cannot do this for long. I felt lonely and idle just being there doing nothing. It was a humbling experience I found myself doing things like calming down those who had lost a match, the next minute I would be offering first aid, other times I would be washing team jerseys and other days I would be cheering from the touch lines. I also took up driving the team to matches. It’s been nine years and the football programme has grown into a dynamic organisation with awesome people working with me. I still enjoying doing those things I did back then, the feeling is always priceless.
Incredible! What were some of the challenges you faced in starting the programme?
In the beginning my biggest challenge was convincing the community that they could trust me with their children especially after the post- election violence. The community has been very supportive over the years. However as the number of players increased, our biggest challenge is lack of sufficient funds. We try and come up with ideas that generate income and other times we reach out to corporates and well- wishers to close this gap.
It’s been 9 years since you started the programme; what would you say are some of the milestones you’ve achieved?
I celebrate the fact that we started out with 15 boys and now we talk of 60,000 youth. We celebrate the fact we have been able to bring diverse backgrounds together, talk of different tribes, religions. One of my proudest moments is when children from less privileged areas interact with those from well to do families. It is magical when they begin to draw strength and lessons from each other.
I also celebrate becoming a Pan-Africanist when I launched Watoto Africa Soccer Awards in Uganda last year in December. I always wanted to go back home and run a football program. Also being recognised as part of the shortlist for the Top 40 under 40 Award by Business Daily in 2014 was phenomenal. In 2016, I went on to receive another award that recognises Muslim women in this country, the Al’Muslimah top 30 under 40 Muslim women. I have also been recognised on many other local and international platforms, it is always humbling and encouraging.
Also being supported by corporates like Safaricam and NTV, have been milestones. It has encouraged us because we have proved that we can be trusted to deliver community projects.
When you started the programme, you didn’t have any interest in soccer, how did you brush up on knowledge?
It’s funny but even as a child I did not like any sports, I found sports too tiring. When I started the football programme and I hated being clueless about the game. Over the years I have deliberately tried to understand football and also look out for football mentors. I have very resourceful colleagues whom I learn from all the time.
Let’s talk about funding. How did you raise capital to start the project and how do you monetize it?
Since I did not have a job, I was a penniless housewife, and my first funding came from my husband. I had a budget; it was not more than 100,000Kshs about $1000. I bought about five balls, some training cons, bibs, one first aid kit and paid the coach and field for two months. This funding gave us a firm foundation.
Your business has an important social aspect to it, how do you measure impact?
As a social entrepreneur often I don’t wait for change to happen, I see a need then innovate ways in which to solve it. One of my principles is that in every idea that I create there must be a representation of all people. There must be different tribes, different races, and those with different economic status. As a social entrepreneur there is always a need that requires our attention. If we are not paying school fees for some of the players, we are offering a helping hand to a parent with a medical bill they cannot handle. We also keep data and tabs on success story of those we interact with. I also use a lot of social media to run different campaigns and the feedback is always overwhelming.
You were recognized as one of the Top 40 Women under 40 in Kenya, how did that recognition make you feel?
The feeling was really awesome. It is not every day that one gets recognised for doing social work. I felt appreciated, valued and most importantly I knew my calling was bigger than me. It also gave me more bargaining power for the youths. I walk into places with confidence that Kenya believes in what I stand for and it means a lot.
What new innovation have you brought to the programme? And any expansion plans?
The Watoto Africa Soccer Awards (WASA), an annual sports event, is possibly the best innovation that has happened at Junior Stars. For six years now, WASA has run numerous tournaments and Gala Awards that recognise the winners and outstanding players. We use the same platform to mentor youth in various departments like photography, events management, refereeing, commentating and so forth. We also invite football legends to inspire the youth through their stories. WASA has also provided a platform for cultural diversity to be exercised, we now have girls enjoying football and youth from communities playing on the beautiful pitches as opposed to the sandy and stony pitches they are used to. Since 2012, over 40,000 players have taken part, this year alone we shall have 6,000 young people playing in the sixth edition in April to June. It has been a remarkable project. Last year in December we launched it in Uganda. Our dream is to launch in all East African counties as well as the counties in Kenya.
I have created a conversation place called the MMM’s Women Series. My cause is to allow women to openly share their experiences without being judged. I do this by hosting women with similar issues so no one feels out of place when experiences are shared. We have had various conversations around issues like miscarriages and infertility. We are heading to our fifth series this March.
We have also gone into youth mentorship forums because young people require guidance at every stage. During the forums we encourage open conversations between mentors and the mentees. Issues like career development, peer pressure, sex education, drug abuse are prominent topics.
My other baby is Soccer Divas club. It is still in its crawling stages but is already making great impact.
Speaking of expansion, can you shed more light on your latest initiative, the Soccer Divas Club?
At Soccer Divas Club a lot has happened in one and half years. The club is made up of awesome diverse women who have never played professional football. Our youngest player is 11 and our oldest player is 50. We play for fun, exercise and networking. We advocate for breast cancer awareness and youth education. Right now we are excited to be part of the 24 amateur teams taking part in the Global Goals Women World Cup on 5th March in Nairobi. We will be playing for goal 2: zero hunger and goal 16: peace and justice.
Do you think more women should we encourage participating in sports, and why?
Oh yes, we should encourage women and girls to get into sports. It does not have to be professional but every woman should find time to play at least one sport if not for talent then for health reasons. And besides this, sports can be a good place to have good fun, sweat off the stress and meet productive networks.
You have a forthcoming memoir that you’re currently working on, tell us about it?
My memoir is called “Boots don’t lie”. I have been writing it for a while now. I hope to complete it in 2018. It has not been easy. Twice thieves have broken into my car and stolen my laptop and then my new laptop crushed early this year. I am however more determined than ever to finish the job. Many times I meet young people who feel unlucky, lost and unwanted because of their challenges. They think being accomplished and successful comes easy. Besides writing the memoir, I have a brilliant documentary editor working around the clock to capture my story in a documentary. It has been very interesting capturing some of the highlights of my life. We plan to launch next year as well. I want them to know that my struggles have made me who I am. I was 13 when I lost my father, I had my first child at 21, moved to a foreign country at 23, remained a housewife for 7 years, started a football club at 30, and started playing football at 38, and now I am here telling this inspiring story. This is what my memoir is all about.
What legacy would you like to be remembered for?
I am armed with a football and mentorship skill on a mission to change young people’s lives. I want people to say “Mariam changed the narrative on youth football, she made us see the need to invest in grass root structures.” One day I plan is to set up a modern football centre for talented players so that they can utilise their full potential and join top clubs. I know it is a tall order but it is not impossible.
Name 3 women that inspire you.
My mother inspires me a lot. She taught me that kindness, patience and not being materialistic makes a woman awesome. She is a remarkable woman.
Malala Yousafzai and her struggle to give girl’s education a voice is out of this world. I like that she teaches us to 1. Take a stand. 2. Be yourself. 3. Find your story. 4. Listen well. 5. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Oprah Winfrey, oh she is amazing. She inspires me in many ways with her life story and way she has used her passion to leverage on many things that change people’s lives. One day I want to have that kind of power of influence and use it to make things happen for young people. She says “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is the steppingstone to greatness” I can face my tomorrow each time I read this.
Words of advice for upcoming female social entrepreneurs
Social entrepreneurship is a very exciting and fulfilling journey, because you get to see real change happening through your work and sacrifice. It gives you a sense of accomplishment. However it also can be very nerve breaking because you continuously encounter heart breaking stories of real struggle that need much more support than your enthusiastic ideas and monetary support. They need stronger forces like peace and stronger government institutions, which sometimes might not be in place. But because there is always that one fish that needs to be saved, a life that needs to be encouraged, and a voiceless person that needs your louder voice to survive another day. Your efforts matter.
It is very important that every social entrepreneur should embrace me time. You have to de- stress or else you become unproductive. I love taking photographs, writing and now I have added playing football on my list. These are my stress killers.
Along the way, people will discourage you but remember “Nobody should cut your wings, they grow on you not them, and the more you fly the more they grow.” MMM
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might feature her.