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Northeastern’s Mike Behan uses fashion to help Kenyan mothers

Lucy Wanjiku at Njabini Apparel, a nonprofit cofounded by Mike Behan (below) that sells handcrafted goods made by landless and handicapped mothers in the Kenyan settlement.
John Deputy
Lucy Wanjiku at Njabini Apparel, a nonprofit cofounded by Mike Behan that sells handcrafted goods made by landless and handicapped mothers in the Kenyan settlement.

Mike Behan spends six months out of the year in Njabini, Kenya. But it’s no safari vacation. Behan, 21, is the cofounder and CEO of Njabini Apparel, a nonprofit company selling handcrafted accessories made by landless and handicapped mothers in the Kenyan settlement.

A rising senior at Northeastern University, Behan first visited Njabini in June 2010 as a volunteer with Flying Kites, a nonprofit group that supports orphaned children in Kenya. With Flying Kites’ help, Behan then started Njabini Apparel with Tom Mwangi and marketing director Erin O’Malley (both volunteers with Flying Kites) in August of that year. By October, they were selling hats and scarves. Most of Njabini Apparel’s sales are done online, or by volunteers for Njabini Apparel and Flying Kites.

John Deputy
Mike Behan.

“For us, these products are a means for these women to achieve something that they’ve never achieved before,” says Behan. “Each project is a tangible source of empowerment.”

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Women hired by Njabini Apparel must have at least one child under 12, be physically disabled or landless, and reside within 10 miles of Njabini. Thus far, Njabini Apparel employs eight mothers.

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Participating mothers are able to immediately earn four times the average national income (equivalent to $780), which is then driven back into the local economy. When possible, Njabini also buys its fabric and materials in Njabini or Nairobi. But that’s just the beginning of Njabini Apparel’s business model, says Behan. Mwangi, a Njabini native, grew up witnessing his family’s financial struggle.

“One of my desires is to see as many women empowered as possible because being here so long, I can tell you there are so many women that need to be empowered,” he says. “Many men are not responsible in their families and that means that all the responsibilities are left to the women — feeding the children, clothing the children, paying the school fee.”

Marie Sullivan
A beach tote.

Njabini Apparel (www.njabiniapparel.org) helps the mothers through a variety of programs. In addition to dramatically increasing the women’s income, the company also funds seminars and programs that emphasize monthly budgeting, saving, and business development.

The company has grown over the past two years, receiving three project-specific grants that it has used to develop outreach and educational programs.

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With the help of one of those grants, Njabini Apparel started a pilot credit program in December 2011 which provides the mothers employed by Njabini — as well as others in the community — loans for non-consumption-based assets. Women are allotted the Kenyan equivalent of $30-$2,000 to invest in livestock, land, or small business needs. These loans, which help women to start their own local businesses, function like microloans.

“But to the women, they’re definitely not microloans,” says Behan, a business major with a dual concentration in social entrepreneurship and finance. “They’re really flexible. It’s tailored to what each woman wants to accomplish.”

Behan’s aunt was on the board of directors for Flying Kites when it was founded. He worked for Flying Kites through high school and into college.

“That’s what brought me to Njabini, and that’s where everything unfolded,” he says. “It was really a natural process for me.”

Prices for Njabini goods range from $8 bracelets to a $34 yoga mat bag. The current line also includes jewelry, headbands, and various satchels and bags.

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The company produces a new line of products about every three months. Behan has a volunteer staff of college students, as well as a volunteer designer, Katherine Hillman. Hillman, a Flying Kites volunteer from Spokane, Wash., designs pieces and then trains the mothers how to make them.

“Selling the products is more of the fun aspect of what we do,” says Behan. “But our focus is really leveraging this business to support the mothers that we work with.”

When Behan and O’Malley graduate in 2013, Behan says that they plan to stay with Njabini Apparel. He says he would rather have a small, sustainable business that can improve the lives of a few women than expand too quickly and fail.

“As unique as we are, we’re still at the core a business,” says Behan, “and we need to fund our programs and continue increasing our revenues and grow, in order to have a better impact on the women we work with.”

Marian Daniells can be reached at marian.daniells@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marian
daniells.