Visible Women

Meet the woman whose accident inspired her to help London's communities

Posted by
Emily Reynolds
Published

Stylist’s Woman of the Week is Kemi Akinola, a community organiser who helps people across London. 

Kemi Akinola was all set to become an architect in 2006. But when she was hit by a car, her life path changed forever.

Facing two years of recovery and unable to work, but wanting to keep herself busy, the now 36-year-old began volunteering in the community.

“I’m a person that likes to keep myself busy so I volunteered with young people,” she says. “I realised I was good at it, so I did another degree and retrained as a youth worker.”

It was while working with young people, including young offenders, that Kemi took part in a two-month project, offering meals to lonely people in the community.

“We realised people were very, very hungry and very, very lonely and we couldn’t end the project,” she says. 

And so in 2013, Be Enriched, of which Kemi is the CEO and founder, was born. It runs community canteens in Tooting Graveney, Battersea and Elephant and Castle, and also has a social enterprise, Brixton People’s Kitchen, which generates funds for the community canteens.

The canteens provide people with nutritious meals, and welcome a host of people: “Our project is totally open access. It’s for anyone from any background, and we encourage a wide demographic to come along.”

Ingredients are donated by Be Enriched’s partners - Sainsbury’s, Planet Organic, Borough Market and local grocers. Many of the meals served up are vegetarian, and anything not used on the day is given to the people who come along to the canteens.

This week, Be Enriched will host five Christmas dinners across its canteens - in Battersea, Tooting and Graveney, as well as Brixton People’s Kitchen - each of which is expected to attract about 60 people. 

It is also running a Christmas appeal in conjunction with the dinners, but Be Enriched is not just about the festive period, especially as Kemi (who has given a TedxWandsworth talk about using a community approach to tackling hunger) has seen need for the service increasing.

“Our Christmas campaign is to help support those families [who attend the canteens] throughout the year,” she says.

“We’ve noticed over the years more people are coming. The need is more.”

And Kemi, who is also a local councillor in Wandsworth, is worried about the effects of Brexit.

“I’m worried about how Brexit is going to affect the importing and cost of food across the borough,” she says. “This will have a knock on effect, meaning more people will need our projects, and we may not have enough food to go around.

“Many people aren’t being paid a living wage already, so if the cost of food goes up more people will be food insecure because they can’t afford it.”

The group’s mission is to “engage the community through food” and it does this through more than just its canteens.

It runs CooksForce, a community cooking project designed to help develop people’s cooking skills so they can make fresh, tasty meals at home and on a budget. Be Enriched also hosts youth projects, working regularly with young offenders to help them complete community service and also hosting summer activities, among other things.

And the group runs a bicycle kitchen, which is exactly what it sounds like: the bike can take a kitchen to anywhere, with people invited to come and cook on the bike before sharing a meal with other people.

It’s all part of Be Enriched’s community focused approach, but it’s a lot of work for a small team - there are just five members of staff, including Kemi.

Volunteers are key to the group’s success. “My team is very very important to me,” says Kemi, “and we are supported by about 3,000 volunteers a year. Without any of them we wouldn’t be able to run.

“A lot of people relish giving their time back.”

To donate to the Be Enriched Christmas campaign, click here.

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of women who are making a difference to society and to celebrate their success. See more Visible Women stories here

Images: Supplied

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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