A green bench against a background of leaves. On the bench is hand painted in white letters: “Do all the good you can by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Creating change with a camera

“There’s a saying, ‘you have to build, then they will come’, so that’s what I did,” says John Wambugu with a smile. He is disarmingly modest, considering how much he has achieved and inspired others to achieve over the last decade. A graduate in Business Studies and Development Communication, John is also a film school graduate, and while on a photoshoot for UNICEF he had an epiphany that changed his life – and the lives of many others. 

When John arrived to photograph an immunisation drive in Baringo County, Kenya, he was shocked by the devastation that met him. Lake Baringo had burst its banks and flooded the area. “A whole village and a school had been submerged, and I was there taking pictures and trying to get a smile from them,” he explains. Surrounded by extreme poverty but working with an organisation that was trying to make a difference, he came to a realisation that he too had a responsibility to play his part. “I told myself there and then that I’d experienced the worst and the best of the humanitarian world through the camera. So, I decided to start a non-profit called ‘MindMe International’, empowering communities for sustainable development”. At the same time, John, who had been using Canon cameras his whole life (“it’s a brand I’ve loved since I could pick up a camera”) applied to be part of the Canon Miraisha programme. Under the tutelage of Canon Ambassador Gary Knight, he quickly found himself progressing into the role of teacher as a Canon Certified Trainer. The qualification took him to across Africa, sharing what he had learnt with the other future trainers as the programme rolled out across country after country. “I would use that platform to talk to the youth about the Sustainable Development Goals and why it is important to embrace them. To take responsibility for what was happening within their communities, by the power of the camera,” says John. “The camera is not just for holding. It has to embody who you are and what you feel as a person. Because, at the end of the day, it is feelings – sadness, joy, excitement – that come together and can be seen and expressed in one photograph.”

On the right, John Wambugu of MindMe International is surrounded by the children who use the Laibu Mtaani.
John took action after seeing communities in need through his work as a humanitarian photographer and today MindMe International is an NGO in its own right, with a fully-fledged management structure and fundraising team.

Eventually he realised just how much he knew about photography and filmmaking, and the kit needed to do both – and decided to use this knowledge to progress his own career. “People would come to me and say, ‘Hey John, you’re a trainer, you’re a face of Canon here, what do you think is the best gear to get?’ and I asked myself ‘is there a chance I could become a dealer for Canon? Selling their products and talking about them?’ So, that’s when I opened the business.” John’s ‘Luminate Store’ also served to further support the work of MindMe International (which he had been funding out of his own savings) and the shop, which runs under the tagline ‘a great store with a big heart’, continues to give 20% of its profits to community initiatives to this day. However, all the while, John and MindMe International were working on a project that was quite extraordinary… 

The informal settlements of Mathare in Nairobi are home to some half a million people, and it is estimated that at least 70,000 are children. Most of these children do not attend school and as a result fall into criminality at a very young age. Through his travels and work in the informal settlements (sometimes called ‘slums’), John had seen that “after school, kids would come to a one room house – that has a family of six or seven with one bed – and sit on the floor to do their homework.” The desire to be educated was there and he felt strongly that, as someone who had already benefited from an education, he had a responsibility to help. “You have to put your money where your mouth is,” he explains. “So, in the beginning when I’d go to all these assignments, and even now, I’d save 20% of my income, which goes back to these communities.” That 20% translated into the $6000 needed to bring the first ‘Laibu Mtaani’ to Mathare. It’s a Swahili word meaning ‘Community Library’, and as well as the initial funds required to get the project off the ground, John sought out donations and support. Books were provided and the space transformed with tablets and internet access provided for students.

A dusty plot of land with a derelict building. On the left is a woman walking towards a washing line.
Before: The space that was to become Mathare’s Laibu Mtaani.
Young people around a building that has the sign ‘community library’ on the front. They are gardening and there is a person on the roof of the building.
After: The community came together to support the project.

This all sounds straightforward, until you realise that Mathare has no electricity infrastructure and extremely high levels of crime. “In the slums, when it gets to 7pm, you can see light, but you cannot see with it,” explains John. “Because it’s all illegal connections.” So, how did John and MindMe International solve this problem? With solar panels and a team of young men who have taken the Laibu Mtaani under their wing. “The community shapes the project,” says John. “It was one of the most dangerous places in the slums, so I met a group of young men who were willing to reform from crime and I told them, ‘You can be something. You can be responsible for kids in your community and transform this whole space.’” Their custodianship has seen the crime rate drop in the area and given Mathare’s children the option of heading to the Laibu Mtaani after school to do their homework. As a result, some of them are achieving scholarships to the country’s national schools. “We’ve also been able to connect girls back to school who had dropped out because of teenage pregnancy,” shares John. “We bought toys for the children, so a girl can come and concentrate on her books.”

Around ten people sit on chairs with their backs to the camera, facing at tutor at the front of the room. On either side of the tutor are two banners – one for MindMe International, the other for Canon.
Organisations like Canon visit the community library to deliver valuable skills training.
A small boy sits at a desk reading. Other children behind him do the same.
The Laibu Mtaani is a resource for children and young people of all ages who use the space to study and learn.

The Laibu Mtaani also welcomes organisations like Canon, who hold Miraisha workshops there for young people, giving skills training in photography, videography, filmmaking and professional print. It’s a sustainable community development model that John wants to take to marginalised communities across the 47 counties of Kenya. To achieve this, he is looking at the potential of solar-powered refabricated shipping containers, but beyond this, the project has also gained interest from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, South Sudan and India. John has since departed from his store to take a role with Canon, leading Professional Imaging in East Africa, but it continues to financially contribute to the work of MindMe International, which has been essential in feeding communities during the Covid 19 pandemic. “That, to me, is the power of the camera,” he says. “I’m not an 80-year-old who has seen everything, but what I can tell you for sure is that everything starts with the small step of minding someone else. Trying to make a small change that will become one big thing.”

John, MindMe International and the Laibu Mtaani project have been recognised by distinguished organisations and bodies, including a WHDO United Nations SDGs Community Service Award and the Youth United Nations SDGs Goodwill Advocate. John was also a 2021 nominee at the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders list.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard