Good mental health is essential for young people’s development and future success. However, access to mental health care continues to be a challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa. Tom Osborn and Katherine Venturo-Conerly set out to fix that with the Shamiri Institute, an organization that uses data to develop low-cost, low-stigma mental health interventions. The Shamiri Institute uses research and multicultural collaboration to build and test psychological programs, then implement those programs in schools to reach at-risk youth.
We were fortunate to speak to Tom and Katherine – Executive Director and Scientific Director, respectively – about the Shamiri Institute! Here’s what they said.
Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start this venture?
Tom Osborn: We identified a need to help young people in Sub Saharan Africa – or SSA – secure their life outcomes. SSA’s population is very young – with a median age of 19 and expected to get younger – yet many younger people, particularly during adolescence, struggle to achieve important milestones that will affect the rest of their lives. I was born and raised in Kenya and experienced firsthand the many difficulties that young people face. This firsthand experience continues to inspire our efforts today.
Katherine Venturo-Conerly: Absolutely. In addition, we were inspired by the need to provide culturally-appropriate, accessible care to improve mental health and wellbeing. In Kenya and most other developing countries, very few trained professionals are available to provide mental health care. For example, there is about one psychiatrist per million citizens in Kenya. Compounding this problem, there’s increased stigma around mental health problems and care, and most of the effective mental health programs out there are tailored for those living in the USA and Western Europe, rather than those living in Kenya and other non-Western locations.
HIL: Has your venture changed over time? If so, what has changed, and what prompted those changes?
TO: We started by focusing on multiple life outcomes including healthcare, economic empowerment, and civic engagement. However, we have since narrowed our focus to mental healthcare, which we believe is extremely important in realizing many important life milestones.
KVC: Besides this, we have evolved from a primarily research-based venture into one that combines research and implementation; our research informs our deployment efforts. I consider us a data-driven service organization. It is important that we determine whether the solutions we deploy are working and alter them if they are not.
HIL: Why was Kenya the right place to launch your venture?
TO: I am a Kenyan native, born and raised in Kenya, and I went through the Kenyan education system. I have also, through previous ventures, developed a reputation as a community mobilizer and social entrepreneur in Kenya. Because of this, Kenya felt like a good starting point from which we could launch and achieve early success.
Given our focus on [Sub-Saharan Africa], one of the major challenges in the education space in SSA is helping all kids realize their potential – currently, the education system operates as a sort of a funnel.
Executive Director of the Shamiri Institute
HIL: What are the major challenges and opportunities facing the field of education today, particularly as it pertains to students’ mental health?
TO: Given our focus on SSA, one of the major challenges in the education space in SSA is helping all kids realize their potential – currently, the education system operates as a sort of a funnel. Only 10% of those who begin school graduate from college and many struggle to obtain gainful employment. Another major challenge is building infrastructure to increase access to quality education in environments where students are supported and empowered to learn.
KVC: I think another big challenge is that, because positions at colleges and desirable jobs are so competitive, many students feel immense pressure to succeed. Because of this, many struggle to balance getting enough sleep, taking care of themselves, and maintaining good relationships with the pressure to perform academically. Of course, these challenges do bring exciting opportunities for impact through mental health focused programming, policy change, and the opportunity for building much needed infrastructure to support students.
HIL: How has your venture been managing, adjusting, and/or innovating due to the challenges presented by Covid-19?
KVC: Our programming has been significantly impacted. Temporarily, we had to cut our programming completely. We had envisioned conducting our programming in June, but we couldn’t when schools were closed and travel was not possible.
TO: We have also now switched to a hybrid structure through which we are digitizing certain aspects of our programming. Fortunately, this will also allow us to achieve scale in the long-term. We have also had to rely heavily on our partners in Kenya.
Schools are excellent places to teach students skills for building and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and for coping with problems and stressors.
Scientific Director of the Shamiri Institute
HIL: What do you hope to see in education in the future?
KVC: We hope to see more focus on student wellbeing and social and emotional learning. Schools are excellent places to teach students skills for building and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and for coping with problems and stressors. We would love to see schools focus more on helping students develop their social and emotional capacities, in addition to their academic skills.
TO: In our work in Kenya, we have been inspired by the enthusiasm and excitement of young people, many of whom believe that education is not only a path towards a good future but also a tool for making an impact in the world. It is this enthusiasm that makes us hopeful that education can continue to uplift people across SSA and provide them with a platform to succeed.
This profile is part of our series on i-lab ventures changing the way we think about and approach education around the world. From teaching negotiation skills to improving students’ mental health, these startups are making sure students succeed in school and after.