From the get-go, you can tell that Adelle Onyango is unapologetic about who she is. “I don’t identify with labels so much. That would be limiting myself. The identity that I want people to have of me is that of African, Kenyan woman who keeps evolving,” she starts us off.
This self-awareness was cultivated right from her childhood. Since her early years, Adelle has always found room for her creativity to thrive. “Growing up in Karen, I had to come up with creative ways to keep myself entertained,” she shares.
The last-born in her family, Adelle’s worldview and perspectives expanded when she travelled all the way to Westwood International School in Botswana for her high school studies. At the time, she was just 12 years old.
“I was more excited than scared about the new environment,” she recalls.
Adelle stayed in Botswana for three years before coming back home. She hoped to join campus almost immediately but this was not the case as her mother felt she was too young. “I was only 15 and my mother was not for the idea of me joining campus at that age so she enrolled me to St Mary’s for my International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma,” she recounts.
Even at that age, Adelle confesses that she was aware of who she was, what worked for her and what did not. “I was into African music and poetry and being in the IB environment created a space for me to grow and acquire skills that would prepare me for campus life,” she explains.
A graduate of United States International University (USIU) – Africa with a major in psychology and a minor in public relations, she attests that radio was never in her career radar. “During my selection of elective units, I happened to select integrated media which at the time I had no clue what it entailed. All I knew is that I had a few units remaining for me to graduate. The unit required me to frequent the campus radio studio to work on bulletins and course work projects,” she shares.
It was during those frequent visits that she got to interact with journalism students who were also carrying out their shows. Being known around campus as a poet, Adelle got invited as a guest on one of the shows. “I ended up co-hosting the show as the co-host did not show up,” Adelle reveals.
This marked Adelle’s entry into the radio world. “The show was centered mainly on afro-soul which I loved and now had an opportunity to play,” she says.
Besides radio hosting, she started a weekly open mic session around the campus where she got a chance to perform her poetry. The session also enabled her to make some pocket money from the ticketing. “To make it more interesting, I invited Fena Gitu, Elani and Patricia Kihoro to perform at the event. I believe poetry is my first love even to date. Even though I do not perform, I’m continuously writing poems,” she attests.
While working at the campus radio station, her co-host, having witnessed how easily Adelle took to radio hosting, would record the radio shows and send them out to media houses as samples. It did not take long for this to change the course of Adelle’s life.
Her big break
“I had carved my niche in poetry and so I was getting calls to perform at poetry events. One day I received a random call from One Fm, which was still a new radio station and were just setting up. They were looking for radio presenters and they requested me to come on board to host their drive show,” she shares.
It was here that Adelle honed her skills whilst growing her brand. Three years later and at the age of 24, Kiss 100 came calling, literally. Kiss 100 was already a household name and one of the leading radio stations in the country. For young Adelle, there was no pressure. After all, she had mastered the art of being true to herself.
“I was still naïve and I did not understand so much what being in the limelight would entail. All that mattered then was that I had a radio show and it was paying me some money. I also got to play music that I loved and enjoyed listening to,” she shares bluntly, adding that her mother – the late Mary Onyango – was a major influence in her life.
Surprisingly, Adelle is not big on the idea of a role model. “I have my reservations with the whole role model idea because it has been presented overtime to young people as compulsory. Secondly, one has to mimic and assimilate into this person they admire at the expense of becoming who they are and that for me is wrong. If you happen not to have a role model, that’s fine; it shouldn’t be seen as something bizarre. Figuring out who you are is more important,” she expounds.
While it might have been intimidating fitting into the shoes of previous Kiss FM breakfast show hosts such as the eclectic Caroline Mutoko and bubbly Kalekye Mumo, Adelle took it in her own stride. Her authenticity resonated with her audience who fondly refer to themselves as TeamADELLE and who religiously tune in to the radio station to get their daily dose of inspiration.
The Adelle Onyango Initiative
Keen to understand her listeners and to know their plight, Adelle sought to bring TeamADELLE members together and just over 4,100 members signed up.
“We were seeking to understand who they were? What percentages were men and women? Were they in high school or university? If not, why? Where are they working? Did they like the jobs and organisations that they were working for? If not, why? And so on. Answers to these questions would enable me as a young African to create solutions to problems that were afflicting the African youth,” she explains.
“If we are going to come up with solutions that help our continent, it has to start with our generation. We cannot afford to sit down and complain about it. We need to equip ourselves to be today’s leaders and become knowledgeable to make a difference in the big and small spheres around us,” she adds.
The project was obviously bigger than they had anticipated and this gave birth to The Adelle Onyango Initiative – an advocacy and opportunity building organisation that has three pillars which are centered on youth empowerment, gender equality and mental health.
After understanding what the team needed, they managed to create programmes that could assist them. The first programme was a partnership with Centonomy, which offered scholarships to the youth that were interested in going into business but had no knowledge or financial skills to grow their businesses.
“We give three scholarships to TeamADELLE members during each Centonomy intake. Successful applicants are taught skills that would enable them to become business savvy. The initiative also has a job shadow programme where we link the youth with professionals who are in the career paths that they would like to pursue,” she shares.
The initiative has so far managed to attach some of the TeamADELLE members to professionals working with brands such as Big Square. Partnering with Fuzu, a recruitment agency made the effort a great success.
“This experience is different from a regular internship as the programme invests in you as an individual giving you skills that come in handy in your career path,” she offers.
At the end of the programme, they receive a certificate from the initiative and also from the employer. “With all this, my goal is to help young people who don’t have tertiary education to acquire some skills and get a foothold in the career path they want to take. I had an opportunity to job shadow while still in St Mary’s at the Gina Din Group and this opportunity enabled me to network and keep connections fresh 10 years down the line. I would love to do the same for someone else,” she says.
The Adelle Onyango Initiative is currently working on a project dabbed The Next Economy in partnership with incubation start-up Nailab targetting150 members of TeamADELLE who are aspiring entrepreneurs and job seekers.
“For those seeking to join the job market, the program will equip them with the right skills and make sure they get placement in jobs. Aspiring entrepreneurs will get access to a network of experts, investors, and potential partners who can support them through the growth phase of their business,” she clarifies.
For the women and mental health pillar, the initiative aims at having candid conversations about matters that affect them. The first conversation was held in November 2017 and they covered sexual harassment with many young women in campus sharing their ordeals. They also did a similar conversation with the men about sexual and street harassment. A rape survivor herself, these are topics that are very close to her heart.
“As for mental health, talking about the kind of environment that leads to mental illness as well as sharing the scientific findings really helps to demystify mental health. I intend to create and lead the spaces for such conversations to be brewed and discussed,” she explains.
Anyango Capsule Collection
Beyond radio and her initiative, Adelle created the Anyango Capsule Collection in honour of her mother who succumbed to breast cancer. “The collection seeks to honour my mother’s attributes. The collection consists of a jacket, a chain and lipstick. As I engaged in this process, I realised that it was beyond honouring my mother, I was also celebrating the African creative’s behind it,” she expounds.
“The jacket symbolises her power, the chain her strength and the lipstick her limitlessness,” she explains.
Adelle has received numerous accolades among them the acclaimed BBC 100 women in 2017. The BBC Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. In 2018, she was nominated as one of OkayAfrica100 Women in the media category. The campaign celebrates extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora making waves across a wide array of industries, while driving positive impact in their communities and the world at large.
“All these have exposed me to a company of game-changing African women who inspire me and just getting to meet them and seeing them live their most authentic lives is an honour,” she says, adding, “The greatest success for me is beyond the awards. Awards are great but they are not the goal, just knowing that I have not sold out on myself and have managed to stay true to who I am is the greatest achievement thus far.”
On the marriage front, Adelle recently got married to Falgun Bojak, a Safari Rally race coach. Asked about her marital experience, Adelle says, “I married my best friend and so I find marriage life fun.”
Before Adelle became the voice behind the radio space, she worked at her mother’s Breast Cancer Foundation.