It is not every day that you get to have a sit down with a former school mate who you haven’t seen in over 14 years. A former beauty queen and now the founder and director of Drawing Dreams Initiative, Grace Wanene is inspiring the younger generation to go out there and draw their dreams and reach for them, thereby reaching their fullest potential.

Through Drawing Dreams Initiative which is an ever-expanding CBO, Grace has taught conservation education, Life Skills Empowerment, and Menstrual Health Management, also distributing sanitary towels to numerous schools and villages in Laikipia County. Her social media campaigns such as #PeriodsDontPauseForPandemics, #EndPeriodPoverty, #EndPeriodShame have been successful and even headlined various media houses.

I really enjoyed this particular sit down because Grace is so authentic and I could tell that what she was telling me was not rehearsed. She truly believes in what she is doing and she is enjoying it. I hope you will be inspired, like I was!

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Describe yourself in a few words.

Grace Wanene: I am self-driven and passionate about everything or anything I set my mind to do. I’m also a believer. I believe in God in so many things and He really comes through for me. I am also a nurturer too. For everything I take up, I usually have the concept in mind that I have to nurture it to grow. Finally, I am also a lover of fashion.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Tell our readers about who you are and what you do.

Grace Wanene: My name is Grace Wanene. Most people know me from being Miss Earth 2016. Usually, I say I’m a former beauty queen because I held many titles. I was Miss Tourism Laikipia 2013 and 2014. I was also Miss World, Laikipia in 2015 and then I went to Miss Earth 2016 where I represented Kenya in the Philippines. I’m also a mother, a wife and a community change agent. I really love nature too and being an inspiration to other people. Since I know you cannot pour from an empty cup, I love taking care of myself so much. I’m also the founder of Drawing Dreams Initiative, which is a Community Based Organization in Laikipia County. By profession, I’m an administrator.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What does a typical day look like for you?

Grace Wanene: I have different types of typical days. There are days I stay at home and spend time with my baby. There are other days I wake up in the morning and go to the field and since Laikipia county is traverse, we move from one ward to another, across huge chunks of land like today and then I come back to the family in the evening. There are other days, I just have meetings in town. Most of the days, I normally wake up in the morning and ensure everything is set for my baby then get ready for work and come back later in the evening.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): So, are there times you go out to the field out of town and don’t make to come back in the evening?

Grace Wanene: Yes. Sometimes we have to spend the night where we’ve gone to work. I usually have somebody to take care of my daughter at that time, whether it’s a nanny or sometimes even my mom, because we live in the same town and then, of course, come back home eventually.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): You were able to start your modelling career as a teen. How did your career in modelling begin?

Grace Wanene: It all began while in campus at St. Pauls University. People always told me that I am tall and that I could model but I had never really done it. Then the auditions for Miss Tourism which had stopped for around 10 years came back in 2013. I began going to the library and computer labs to check out videos for pageants and modelling. I then trained myself through Youtube and competed among 300 participants. I remember professional trainers were brought when we were around 15 finalists and that was my first experience with a professional trainer. Anyway, I got to win my first pageant, Miss Tourism Laikipia which was really exciting.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Was it challenging to start a modeling career, as a teenager which is a time when many girls are dealing with insecurities and uncertainty about themselves?

Grace Wanene: Being staunch to my beliefs and my principles really helped me through it. After I won Miss Tourism, I was chosen by Ashley Kenya the following year to represent Laikipia for Miss World. In such forums, you get to meet politicians and the Who is Who and without a clear goal of what you want to do, you can easily get lost. I was just a teenager in school without money and the guys in such forums had a lot of money so getting lost would be easy. But I had a clear goal and a game plan of what I wanted to achieve and that is what kept me grounded. I also did not let the compliments and success get into my head even if it is important to celebrate the small wins in life. Knowing that I have a life that is bigger than me ensured I remained really focused on my goals.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Other than Miss Tourism, which other pageants did you participate in?

Grace Wanene: I began with Miss Tourism Laikipia in 2013 and 2014 then I was nominated for the Miss World Laikipia. I then competed for Miss Earth Kenya 2014 where I was the 1st runners up. In 2015, Ashley nominated me to represent Laikipia at the Coast. The same organization that had Miss Tourism partnered up with another franchise holder and nominated me at the Miss Earth 2016 because of the work I was doing and how consistent I was. It came as a surprise for me because I had already begun to move away from pageantry.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Tell me about Miss Earth 2016. How was that experience?

Grace Wanene: It was quite a great experience. Miss Earth 2016 was held in the Philippines and we were 92 delegates from all over the world. I got to meet so many people, exchange ideas, and learn so much about different cultures. Many times, I will start talking about a certain country in detail and people will ask if I visited that country, but it is actually because of what I learnt while I was there. The dynamics of winning in Miss Earth 2016 are a bit tricky, so I went there with an intention of having a great time of my life, creating a sisterhood; I am actually still in touch with most of the girls that I met there. We support each other in our projects. We also toured so many highlands in the Philippines.  Pageantry is like a sport in the Philippine, so it was quite an experience. I had so many fans there. I was always in the Polls. After the finals, when I didn’t make it to the top 15, people were literally chanting. I don’t even know how they got to know me. Though I got to know that there are so many Kenyans there doing nursing. Anyway, when you know the dynamics about the merits for who will win and all that, you just go there to build and expand your network. I got to sell what I do. It was the best experience ever because I knew what to focus on and what not to focus on while there.

After the pageant, the fans really supported my work especially after being awarded the Kenya Water Conservation Ambassador by William Ruto and Eugene Wamalwa because of the conservation work I was doing. The fans shared it and it kind of went viral in the Asian Media

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What are the greatest takeaways from your modelling career?

Grace Wanene: Remember in school I was an introvert, very quiet? Actually, guys were surprised that I was the one who got there. Modelling was a space where I got to learn how to use my voice. Other than cat walking and being graceful, one of my other skills is being able to talk about what I want to do. So, it was a platform where I could use my voice and not be shy about it. Modelling made me a very bold woman and I am loving who I am turning out to be. If you have checked, Jamaica is almost doing their elections, and one lady who has been inspiring me for such a long time is called Lisa. She was Miss World 1993 and has been a member of Parliament for 3 times and right now, she is vying for Prime Minister at 45 years old. She is so bold and confident. What an inspiration! They say people who have taken part in pageantry always turn out to be change agents in their communities because of the boldness to talk about issues and being able to get networks to solve them.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): How did you begin Drawing Dreams Initiative and how did your experience, as a model, prepare you for your current role as the founder and president of DDI?

Grace Wanene: Contrary to what people think, I began Drawing Dreams Initiative before Miss Earth 2016. When we were growing up, my mum always taught us about giving back. When we had many clothes, we always looked for opportunities where we would be a blessing to other kids. In campus, we found friends who are also passionate about charity work and we started going to an orphanage and another rescue home in Nyahururu. Most of the kids there had gone through traumatic experiences like rape. During our visits, we began doing art projects as a form of therapy with them then started even buying pads and stationeries for them when schools opened. At that time, it was not structured yet, we were just passionate about giving back. Then in 2016, my friends from Miss World threw a launch surprise event for me which they totally financed. It was kind of a homecoming and that is when we launched Drawing Dreams Initiative.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What is your focus in Drawing Dreams Initiative?

Grace Wanene: When I was doing Miss Tourism, there was a lot of human-wildlife conflicts in Laikipia and one thing I wanted is for the kids to learn how to co-exist with wildlife and nature peacefully.

Bringing all these elements together, we decided to focus on 3 things; Conservation Education, Life Skills Empowerment and Menstrual Health Management. For example, in Life Skills Empowerment, we partner with a project called Samburu Youth Education Fund. When the kids are on holiday, we organize 3 days with power-packed sessions from morning to evening. They get to hear from these professionals who include even people who do not necessarily have white-collar jobs.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What inspired the name, ‘Drawing Dreams Initiative?’

Grace Wanene: Drawing Dreams Initiative is a name I had since when I was in High School. And as a team, we agreed on that name because when you see what we are doing, we are really inspiring people to go out there and reach their fullest potential. We inspire them to go and reach for their dreams, so it is just like literally helping the young generations to draw their dreams and reach for them.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): How did you begin DDI?

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Your focus began with Conservancy campaigns. Tell us about that phase.

Grace Wanene: The conservation bit was inspired by so much of what I had watched on the news about human-wildlife conflicts in Laikipia. My belief is you can’t repair broken men, but you can only nurture children and tell them what they can add value to. And that is when I collaborated with a team of 3 other guys and co-wrote a book called ‘Let’s Go Wild.’ It was available on Amazon and in Laikipia, Narok and Samburu counties. We would also sell to schools with kids who would afford them then give them out for free to children who could not afford it. I wanted the kids to learn how to co-exist with wildlife and nature peacefully.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): How did you coordinate the environmental campaigns in schools with your team to ensure consistency and impact?

Grace Wanene: We introduced Drawing Dreams Initiative Clubs which were referred to as DDI Clubs, in partnership with the environmental clubs in schools. We also made sure that every class had 2 trees which they planted then took care of them the entire time they were in school, say class 5 to class 8. We would also organize a small prize giving day during mid-term or end-term and would award the best 3 kids in art, conservation among other categories. This was a way of motivating them to concentrate on what we were teaching them and also practice it. Many of them went ahead and even taught their families and friends. I was a part of the board at one of the schools and they provided very positive feedback on what we were doing but it was a collaborative effort with the teachers.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): One thing that I noticed with you is that you were/are always going out there and changing lives and then other things kind of figure themselves out on the way, which is very outstanding. Because many people would rather wait for the conditions to be perfect, like finances. After you decided you wanted to become a champion for the environment, women and children what really helped you get your foot out of the door? What was the motivation?

Grace Wanene: Honestly, I’m not sure how I get out there even when resources are limited but I believe God cannot direct you to do something if He does not have a plan about it. It is up to us to go out there and things will align.

A while back, I shared a story on social media about a river that had turned green because the flower farms in that place would dump dirty water there. The communities around that area were drinking that water in that condition. After I shared, a friend donated water funnels to the families in one village and these funnels would remove all the dirt and germs and the water would remain crystal clear. It is through such efforts where solutions come in.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): How did you get the courage to finally start?

Grace Wanene: The drive of bringing about change and being true to it is what pushed me out of the door. Just being an impactful human being in my community and not doing it for fame because if you do it for fame, it will come to an end. We are showing the older and younger generations that we have the solutions to the issues we are facing. It is something that you fuel yourself to do and give yourself a pat on the back and wake up the following day and make the dream come true.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What are some of your highlights during those times you were focusing on conservancy, a few years back?

Grace Wanene: I have worked with Laikipia Wildlife Forum where we were going to the villages teaching them about conservation in the simplest of languages. This gave me an opportunity to work with the governor on a conservation project they had and be a part of the tourism sector until early this year.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): It is very clear that you are an out of box thinker and that can be seen in the projects you have done so far. For example, as you introduced DDI Clubs, you brought in scouting. I also remember you did a campaign for a work camp where you got people from social media to join in building a dorm for school kids. How did that come about and how was the experience?

Grace Wanene: In 2017, my sister, another DDI member and I began going to a school called Reteti in the evenings. When lessons would be over, we would teach the kids about conservation then with time, incorporated scouting. Some of the team members among us were scouts so they would teach them basic scouting skills. With time, we noticed, there was a dorm for the girls which had been built by the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) but the boys would sleep in a space in the staff room which had been partitioned by a cardboard to accommodate them. No mattresses. No blankets. Nothing. We learnt that they would sleep there because if they went home, they would be forced to miss school because they would have to go look after cattle thereby missing school. So, we started a campaign to mobilize youths to come to Laikipia and help build a dorm for boys. On the day of the work camp, more than 20 people travelled from all over the country and came to Laikipia. We camped and built the dorm, but we were not able to complete it. However, the good news is that somebody saw our work recently and has offered to complete it. This was a great milestone for DDI and it is how people got to know about us.

Another successful partnership we have had is with Visa Oshwal Academy. The Club leader found our work on Instagram and they said they wanted to come and camp in Laikipia and give back to the community. They came and we started painting schools, blackboards, repairing windows, doors, provided water tanks, built kitchens, toilets, pit latrines. And from then on, work camps became a thing yet the first one was a random thought.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Let us talk about the Menstrual Health Management work you have been doing. How did it all begin?

Grace Wanene: As we interacted with the kids in the DDI clubs, we got to understand some of the issues they were going through. We noticed that they were not big problems like school fees, but it was things like lack of sanitary towels which affected them and their learning. So other than conservancy, we began life skills empowerment and menstrual health management where we began buying pads for the girls and would give the teachers so that they give them during their periods.

In Laikipia, there are deep-rooted cultures. For example, talking about periods is almost a taboo so the girls felt comfortable talking to us because we were like big sisters. Even being a young woman who is not a Maasai or Samburu, I have to be accompanied by the chief as I visit the communities. After a while, we noticed the problem was bigger than we anticipated so we began doing activations in the mall in our area, our plan being to provide sanitary towels for 300 girls for the whole year.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): We know that the world is trying to be more inclusive, giving women equal opportunities as men. But as someone who is actually in the game, do you think that it’s really happening or is it just for show?

Grace Wanene: At the grassroots, it is not happening. The patriarchy systems are still there. We have a really long way to go. What is on social media, especially the conversations about the girl child on Twitter is very different from the ground. People talk about the girl child being empowered but it is very different from the ground. On the ground, it is ZERO. So, to bring awareness, we began showing people pictures of the places we had been to, videos of what we were doing, and the kids we met during those visits. People contributed a lot and that is when we did the first Menstrual Health Management campaigns.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): How did you approach sourcing and retaining of donors for your first campaigns?

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Tell us about Bonga For Pads Campaign

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What happens before and during a field visit?

Grace Wanene: Before a field visit, we do scouting of the areas, talk to Nyumba Kumi and the Chiefs beforehand then also get to know the number of girls. The number of pads given to the girls is dependent on the area because the need could be more in some areas than in some other areas. To break the ice during the visit, we normally have a contact person on the ground, say 1 or 2 girls or boys, then we always work on building a rapport with the girls so that we can have conversations with them.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Another campaign that really inspired many is the ‘DDI Pads Drive.’ Tell us about it.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): These critical and unprecedented times have really shifted how we work and think. Physical events and meetings have come to a halt and gone virtual. Yet you have been relentless in reaching out to girls and women in the marginalized areas. Tell us about #PeriodsDontPauseForPandemics campaign what motivated you to do even more during these times?

Grace Wanene: Since we had gone to many schools in the beginning of 2020 and most of the kids came from families that relied on daily wages such as construction, we knew sanitary towels would not be considered a priority for many families. We also took advantage of the fact that both parents and brothers were home so we would meet the people who were responsible for the girl’s welfare and make them accountable for the girl and even the boys because of the high teenage pregnancies rate. Other ‘stereotypes’ like your brother can’t get a pad for you from the shop needed to end. So, I took it as an opportunity.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): The #PeriodsDontPauseForPandemics campaign headlined various media houses. Did that come as a shock to you? And was your campaign boosted by the publicity you received from that?

Grace Wanene: Absolutely. We were not doing this with any expectation of recognition so, I was so surprised to see people were inspired by what we were doing. Our plan was to see how many villages we could cover. The more people engage, the more I appeal to them for help through social media and they respond.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): I recently saw on your social media that you did a phase for teenage mothers, as part of your #PeriodsDontPauseForPandemics campaign. Tell us more about it.

Grace Wanene: As we were donating pads, we met teenage mums and on top of donating sanitary towels, we had conservations about their wellbeing and aspirations in life and mental health. And we laughed a lot.

The teenage pregnancy rate is so high. In one village, the chief told us, there were 26 pregnant girls. Another grandmother told us that her 15-year-old was pregnant. This is why we educate these young girls about their rights. That it is possible to put childbearing on hold and go and study first. I read and research a lot so that I am able to disseminate information in the simplest but most accurate way.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What next for the teenage mothers?

We want to start a tailoring project for the teenage mothers for reusable sanitary towels though they are not my favourite but the need is just beyond reasonable doubt. Once we train them on how to make them, they will sell to the communities for a small fee and will have a little source of income for their kids because most of them live in harsh conditions

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): The #PeriodsDontPauseForPandemics campaign has definitely touched many lives, tell us about your highlights?

Grace Wanene: We have learned so much through the exposure and challenges we have faced as we went out there. Other than the one for the teenage moms, my other highlight was this remote area we visited called Nakirer, Olmoran. We got lost but when we finally got there, we found the girls waiting for us with their moms though it was sad to see teenagers look really old because of the number of kids they have given birth to. I truly think all the projects were different and special. It is even hard to compare.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): The #PeriodsDontPauseForPandemics campaign has meant a bigger team for your ever-expanding organization. Tell us more about your role at DDI. Also, what’s your leadership style?

Grace Wanene: I am the founder and director. I mostly direct most of the projects. I also do community liaising and communications. My leadership style is collaborative. I am a person who includes people in it and try to have them empowered as much as they can. I do not look at anybody as a man or woman, but I focus on their capabilities because I know we can collectively achieve more.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What is a quote that you live by?

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Do you have a company culture at DDI, maybe values that the team abides by?

Grace Wanene: Yes, there is. First, respect then just having a sense of humanity, dedication, and courage because courage is everything.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): How do you approach setting and executing goals for DDI? For example, the #PeriodsDontPauseForPandemics was very well planned and executed. Walk us through that process.

Grace Wanene: I am not a fan of too much planning but once I put my foot in it, I’m always sure it will work out because I give it my all. So, I just plan and find resources then I roll out in say, a month. As a team, we set goals such as what we need to achieve, the number of pads we want to donate and to how many girls, a budget of admin expenses among other things.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): During this journey of growing your company into a phenomenal CBO, what would you say has been the most challenging aspect?

Grace Wanene: Sometimes going to the field and finding the number of beneficiaries is more than what we had been initially informed, the rising expectations too.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in regards to running DDI?

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What are some tips you have for other women hoping to become founders of organizations but don’t feel like they have the resources or don’t know how to start? 

Grace Wanene: Believe in yourself because if you don’t believe in yourself, no one will. You also have to be prepared to do all the work because sometimes you might be the only motivated person in the team or the only one running the project. Once you have the end goal, nothing will hold you back successfully. Make sure you also just don’t do it for the limelight because it won’t last.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): How often do you say no and what has been your journey to saying it unapologetically?

Grace Wanene: Quite often. Personally, I don’t like short term things. Sometimes, some people also approach me, and I just sense their intentions are not genuine, so I just say no and I don’t owe anyone any explanation.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Have you experienced rejection in your pitches etc? How do you handle it and what’s your advice for young, upcoming women who want to be like you?

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What are you most proud of about yourself both personally and professionally?

Grace Wanene: I am proud of being able to accomplish something when I begin.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): How is it balancing your new normal as a Community Based Organization founder with being a mother? How do you make it work?

Grace Wanene: I give what deserves that particular time, my time. If I am spending time with my family, I make sure I am present. My job, the same thing.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): As a C.E.O and mom, how do you ensure you take care of your mental health and avoid having a burn out so that you are productive in all aspects of life?

Grace Wanene: To keep my mental health in check, I play with my baby. Also having a good time with my family helps, as most of them are high spirited. I also enjoy taking nature drives with my family and having some alone time also really helps. I also watch series; my last watch was The Lawyer.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Kindly share with us how you ensure you are growing in your walk of faith.

Grace Wanene: Sundays are usually dedicated to family and spiritual matters. I also listen to tones of worship songs especially in the mornings. Prayers are also very key in my life and I teach my daughter the same.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): As a woman with many things going on, how do you measure your success and that of your organization?

Grace Wanene: For myself, I measure success by growth; progress over perfection. For DDI, by the number of young people who have benefited from our programs.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What is one book that has greatly inspired your work and goals?

Grace Wanene: Becoming by Michelle Obama. Her journey is such an inspiration. Also, Half the sky.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Fill in the blank. I am Grace Wanene and you may not know that ____________

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What has been the biggest win for your organization over the past several months?

Grace Wanene: Being able to interact with different communities in this difficult time and engaging them on menstrual health management in over 10 villages.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Overall, how has doing this work impacted you as a person?

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): When did you meet President Uhuru Kenyatta and how was it?

Grace Wanene: I actually met the president in 2015 when Mwangi Kiunjuri was being sworn in. It was exciting to meet the president and have a word with him. Looking forward to the next meeting.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): Would you ever consider going back to modelling?

Grace Wanene: No more pageants; maybe commercial modeling. I am now in a capacity to mentor and coach other upcoming models, especially in the pageant world.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): At #WomanChangingWorld (#WCW) we focus and celebrate ambitious women. In your opinion, what makes an ambitious woman?

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): What’s next on the horizon for you?

Grace Wanene: I hope to keep growing in all aspects.

#WomanChangingWorld (#WCW): My last question to you is, what is your motto? What keeps you going day to day even through the hard times?

You can partner with Drawing Dreams Initiative via Mpesa; Paybill – 222911, Account – DRAW#