Jane Ngoiri

Providing a path out of poverty in Kenya

Jane Ngoiri grew up in the slums of Nairobi and dropped out of school after the eighth grade. She married at age 18, but when she was pregnant with her second child, her husband took a second wife and she soon found herself with three younger children, pushed out of her home and with no money.


Jane Ngoiri, a prostitute-turned-businesswoman in Nairobi, Kenya

Photo by David Smoler

To survive, Jane Ngoiri became a commercial sex worker for the next five years. It was a dangerous existence in Mathare, which journalist Nicholas Kristof describes as “a collection of dangerous slums in Nairobi. The area, a warren of winding, muddy alleys, is consumed by crime and despair.”

In 1999, Ngoiri joined an antipoverty organization called Jamii Bora, which means “good families” in Swahili. There, Ngoiri was encouraged to invest in her the future; she learned to sew, quit the sex trade and used the money she had saved and a small loan to buy a sewing machine. She began buying secondhand wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses; cutting them up to make two or three smaller dresses.

Ngoiri’s business grew and she used her profits to buy a small home in a safe suburb and to keep her children in school. Her eldest daughter, Caroline, became the first child in the family to graduate from high school. Her two younger children have excelled in academics and athletics.

According to Kristof: “Jane’s life reflects the lesson of mountains of data: overcoming poverty is a tumultuous and uncertain task, but it can be done.”

Read Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column about Jane.

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