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Econ-Math Major Awarded Projects for Peace Grant for Work in Kenya Market

By Casey Brown

Maryanne Ndung’u ’26 standing on Ankeny field.

Amid the bustling, open-air Kawangware Market in Nairobi, Kenya, matriarchs support their families, lead their communities and pass on business acumen from stall to stall and generation to generation. But they are vulnerable to some common predatory lending practices.

Whitman College’s Maryanne Ndung’u ’26, an Economics-Mathematics major, has been awarded a $10,000 Projects for Peace grant to address this problem—working directly with 20 women in the Kawangware Market this summer.

Empowering Entrepreneurs

The Kawangware Market employs nearly 16 million people, or 83% of Kenya’s population. Ndung’u says it is “a melting pot where dreamers and newcomers converge … and stands as a welcoming beacon, fostering a community of experienced women who have resided there for decades.” These women own small businesses that sell products from fresh produce to spices to thrifted clothing.

Despite a lack of formal education, the women of the market have remarkable business acumen and Indigenous knowledge. However, their unfamiliarity with financial products, reasonable interest rates and fair payback schedules allows predatory lenders to take advantage of them.

Ndung’u wants to supplement their existing network of knowledge with modern financial literacy tools. “The goal is not to replace but to enhance their financial strategies with structured, practical guidance,” she says.

Over the course of eight weeks this summer, Ndung’u will implement her three-part plan. During the first two weeks, she will conduct a baseline survey to understand their current level of knowledge and identify any gaps.

Next, she will develop a personalized curriculum and workbooks for 20 matriarchs. “We aim to tailor this curriculum to the specific needs of small businesswomen in the market,” Ndung’u says.

Everything will culminate in several weeks of targeted education during which Ndung’u will meet with the women in short sessions. Because their 15-hour workdays are not conducive to studying outside of work, Ndung’u will bring the training to them in 30- to 40-minute slots during less busy times of the workday.

Economics + Mathematics = The Right Fit

Ndung’u has always been interested in understanding the structure of businesses and how they function in the economy.

“That is kind of what led me to Econ,” she says. “When I came to Whitman, I knew I wanted to do something related to the way I’d grown up—the life models—and get a better understanding of how businesses function in [the Kenyan] economy.”

The decision to double-major in Economics and Mathematics came later. “If you told me five years ago that I’d be a Math major, I’d have told you that you’re mad,” she says. But Whitman’s supportive professors created the right environment for her to branch out into an area that deepens her study of Economics.

“I found Whitman’s Math department has created that space where I feel comfortable enough to explore math in my own kind of way,” she says.

The option to combine both Mathematics and Economics just made sense. “When I learned about Econ-Math, I found that it was a nice balance where I could get to do the theory but then also be able to quantify it in some way,” she says.

A Future Informed by Her Past

Ndung’u’s mother taught her that charity begins at home. “If you've made no difference in the place you grew up, it is impossible for you to truly make a difference in the world,” she says.

She hopes to build on this financial literacy project for many years to come.

“I think you can’t make a difference in the world if you have made no difference in the place you came from,” she says. “So I’m hoping this expands into me working with businesses all around Africa. I want to work with Black women, I want to work with African women, and I want to work with African youth.”

A Proud Legacy of Peace

Projects for Peace supports students in designing grassroots projects for the summer—anywhere in the world—that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict. Past Whitman College winners include: 

  • Samuel Clark ’07 and Sophia Kittler ’07 (joint project, Mexico)
  • Meheret Endeshaw ’08 (Ethiopia)
  • Curt Bowen ’08 and Jesse Phillips ’09 (joint project, Honduras)
  • Henry Musa Kpaka ’09 (Sierra Leone)
  • Alice MacLean ’11 (United States)
  • Carson Burns ’11 and Nate Rankin ’11 (joint project, Honduras)
  • Jeremy Norden ’12 (Colombia)
  • Alex Brott ’13 and Lian Caspi ’13 (joint project, Israel)
  • Keiler Beers ’14 and Genevieve Jones ’14 (joint project, United States and Mexico)
  • Brenna Bailey ’16 and Drew Edmonds ’17 (joint project, United States)
  • Annie Want ’17 (United States)
  • Daniel Charlton ’18 and Kathleen Daly-Jensen ’18 (joint project, Tanzania)
  • Madeline (Maddy) Gold ’19, Erina Horikawa ’19, and Donovan Olsen ’19 (joint project, United States)
  • Amara Killen ’21 (Palestine)
  • Sylvia Amoding Adome ’22 (Uganda)
  • Joy Nina Nampaso ’23 (Kenya)
  • Stacy Mwangi ’24 (Kenya)
  • Nishtha Rajbhandari ’24 (Nepal)

Learn more about fellowships and grants at Whitman, and read about other recent recipients.

Published on Jul 1, 2024
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