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Pulitzer Center Update April 10, 2024

Davidson College: Naipanoi Lepapa Brings Investigative Journalism to Campus

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An investigation uncovers suspected ethical violations.

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Multiple Authors

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in The Davidsonian and is re-published with permission from the author.

Naipanoi Lepapa’s journalism strives to lift the voices of women who have been muffled. In her Pulitzer Center-supported project The Baby Broker Project, the Kenya-based journalist and her colleagues exposed the shadowy industry of low-cost surrogacy, highlighting the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable young women.

Lepapa, who was named Kenya’s Journalist of the Year in 2022 for her work on the project, has always been driven to investigate what the mainstream news media doesn’t. While looking for smaller, underreported stories about gender in Kenya, Lepapa kept returning to surrogacy. She noticed “dozens” of brokers promoting surrogacy services in the country, all working for foreign-owned agencies targeting foreign clients. Lepapa told an audience at Davidson College that she wanted to “follow the money.”

What followed was a scathing exposé of one of these agencies, New Life Global Network. In her lecture at Davidson, Lepapa spoke to the significance of what she and her team couldn’t find, the things that didn’t exist. This included owners of New Life, lawyers for surrogates, their contracts, and internal regulations.

“We discovered it was a fake company,” Lepapa said. “They [surrogates] didn’t have a lawyer. Nobody advises them about surrogacy or the complications of surrogacy, so this meant that they could be taken advantage of.”

According to the Fertility Clinic of Las Vegas, surrogacy services in the United States range between $100,000-$170,000. New Life promised to match parents with surrogates for as little as $40,000. The significant difference in price is due to the total lack of regulations protecting women who serve as surrogates.

“There are laws that protect people in rich countries, but in these other countries there are no laws so they [rich people] are basically bypassing their own laws and going to these places,” Lepapa said. “This has become a problem. I wish there was a way to have some international rules to protect these people in developing countries.”

New Life was traced back to a shell company in the United Kingdom, the named owner being an airport driver who had recently been convicted on drug charges. The contracts they issued to surrogates were deemed worthless by legal experts. This left the women and the would-be parents legally exposed. During her lecture at Davidson, Lepapa explained numerous instances of New Life’s exploitation.

“We also discovered that the agency was implanting up to three embryos in the surrogates, which meant that they were risking their health,” Lepapa said. “One embryo is difficult right? But two or three means the likelihood of the surrogate having complications goes up.”

Many of New Life’s surrogates were garment workers, victims of domestic abuse, and women desperate for money.

Most were uneducated. They didn’t realize when they signed with the agency that they were signing away their rights. At the same time, they were scared to talk to Lepapa.

“You can go online and see people promoting surrogacy, women asking for opportunities like, 'Does anyone know where I can do surrogacy?'” Lepapa said. “But they do not want to talk to you. It became basically impossible.”
Lepapa was determined to tell these women’s stories. She wanted the global audience to know what New Life and other low-cost, unregulated surrogacy agencies were doing in the name of naive, infertile, and homosexual couples. She decided to go undercover, first as a surrogate and then as an intended parent seeking out a child.

“I went undercover because it was impossible to get a woman who had worked as a surrogate, so I pretended to be a surrogate,” Lepapa said. “Pretending to be a surrogate, it didn’t really work. I couldn’t get much information ... I pretended to be a parent and I wrote to New Life because the only way to meet a surrogate was through them.”

Even while she was undercover, Lepapa found it difficult to break through to the surrogates contracted by New Life. The agent she was in contact with got suspicious, wondering why she kept coming back for more information.

“The manager of the agency will text me and he will be like stop texting my surrogates,” Lepapa said. “‘You are not police. Why are you investigating?’ So he would threaten me and threaten me and it continued for so long.”

After some time, one woman finally decided to come forward. Several followed.

“Because they trust this surrogate, others talked too,” Lepapa said. “I would speak to them but it was more like I was acting like a therapist—so they are asking, because most of them are not educated—so they are asking me like, ‘I have a problem; how do I go about it?’”

Lepapa carefully built a relationship with each woman she spoke to. She found that many of the women looked for work in surrogacy because they had no other options, and needed to care for their own families.

“I was kind of like a friend, speaking does take time, you have to take a lot of time to create that relationship with them so that they can trust you and they can share their stories,” Lepapa said. “The one thing that was important was don’t share our circles; don’t share our names as long as you’re protecting us; we are going to tell you everything you want and we are going to connect you to other surrogates.”

As a result of her investigation, some countries, such as Israel, banned or warned against surrogacy out of Kenya. While the intentions behind these decisions were to combat human rights abuses of the agencies, the bans effectively left women stuck with a child that biologically wasn’t theirs.

“She signed up to be a surrogate because she wanted money, but instead she ended up with a child,” Lepapa said. “That is an extra mouth, and that is what happened in surrogacy when these organizations or companies were illegal.”

Throughout her lecture, Lepapa emphasized the hardships these women faced. She also described the struggle she herself faced as a journalist in making their voices heard, as New Life continues to operate in the U.K.

“The U.K. government did some investigation and they found some criminal activity, but they could not persecute them because these people have no identifiers,” Lepapa said. “I feel bad because they investigated and found that they were doing something wrong, they continued to let them to operate. They still exist in the U.K. I find this very sad because if someone is doing something wrong, that shouldn’t be [allowed].”

Lepapa referred to New Life’s continuing operations as “heartbreaking.” But it has only intensified her desire to speak out about the findings of her investigations and command the world’s attention.

“What we need to do as journalists is continue to highlight the criminal activities of these agencies,” Lepapa said. “We are not giving up, we are going to continue telling stories because as they continue to operate, more women are being exploited.”



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