Thank God 2016 is Over

It is December 30th and I cannot wait for the year to end.  And, when I say something like that, at this time of year, I imagine that most readers will nod and say to themselves, “I know what you mean.”

But it is not what you think. 

Americans might say, of course, given the interminable presidential election process and its outcome anyone would want to forget 2016.  Citizens in countries elsewhere, Rwanda, the DAR, Burundi, The Philippines might agree.  Ugly politics has certainly discolored 2016.  But, history is replete with political dyspepsia.

The end of every year also brings with it the obligatory family holiday reunions and the necessary accompanying chaos.  Our house, or I should say my Mother-in-Law’s house was invaded by nine adults (all related) and three dogs (probably related in some convoluted way) for a week of frivolity, fun and the anticipated familial stress intensified by sharing close quarters more suitable for two or three.  Family is always fun to be around, particularly when you don’t get to see them that often.  But the stress and work required for it to be memorable (and I mean in a good way) is another reason to be happy that the year is almost over.  Again, nothing has really changed.

The end of the year always causes everyone to reminisce.   Ah, the good old days.  Wasn’t life so much easier.  Weren’t the fifties grand?  I could go outside and play until dark without fear.  I could eat a Twinkie without the risk of poisoning my offspring.  I could crawl under my school desk and be safe from a nuclear event.  Terrorism was the bully in the schoolyard. The world wasn’t about to end with the next major climate event. The news used to be news.

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Famous and infamous people who were lauded and many who were not are added to the countdown list of who died in 2016.  The closer to the end of the year someone of modest fame or infamy dies is inversely proportional to the outpouring of goodwill or scorn accorded to that person that no one really, ever though much about …ever, when they were alive.

The last gasp of the year from late November through January 2 is crammed with too much food, too many people often in spaces way too small, too much forced frivolity, too many remembrances of less than memorable merit and songs that people like but really do not want to hear more than once lest they prefer the obligatory seasonal torture.   Like egg nog.  You know egg nog is not meant for consumption when a dog known to eat inedible objects won’t touch it.

Yes, I am a little grouch-like when it comes to the “Holiday Season.”   It is both too forced and worth it at the same time. It is enjoyable yet rife with much that we could do with and without.  I always wonder what life would be like if we celebrated yearlong like we do when it is about to end.  Goodwill to all, all year long, whether you like it or not.  But, I am lucky, because that is why I am looking forward to next year.

Now I can now refocus my attention on the Greater Impact Foundation where measured goodwill throughout the year is the modus operandi.  Yes, I do love the holidays despite all the excess baggage that comes with them and the time they consume, but for me being able to celebrate the opportunity to help others all year long is the greatest gift.   Perhaps, this is why I truly feel addicted to the work, so when I am distracted by Bing Crosby’s White Christmas or one more end-of-year countdown I do think about how joyous it will be when the calendar rolls over to 2017 and I can really get back to doing what I love all of the time.

All Across Africa

A the Basket Center conducting a product quality check

A the Basket Center conducting a product quality check

My job as a funder in the for-profit social impact space is to seek out enterprises that have a combination of a great product or service, a flexible, yet logical business methodology that can function under strenuous conditions often in unforgiving places and the ability to measure results, financial and impact.  All of this is key.  It must be focused on enabling those in greatest need, offering a sustainable pathway to a better quality of life. Not surprisingly, when this occurs it is likely that the talent behind the business is very strong, focused, driven, empathetic, yet ruthlessly self-critical, willing to constantly re-examine what doesn’t work and continuously improve what does.  The confluence of these factors is a joy to discover and this is just the case with the latest addition to the Greater Impact Foundation portfolio, All Across Africa.

All Across Africa is led by Greg Stone and Alicia Wallace, two individuals with different skills but a common vision that combined offers any funder a team that engenders confidence.  Friendly, no nonsense, experienced, open-minded, yet with strong opinions with a grounded business background coupled with an appealing social consciousness.  They do not know, but obviously will now, that when first I met them I could sense a drive after about a ten-minute conversation that compelled me to want to travel and conduct due diligence in Rwanda.  I was not disappointed. 

All Across Africa has all of the ingredients for long term success.  Solid talent, a simple economical business plan that is market connected, metrics that can be trusted and a vision that has the potential to truly expand all across Africa, or at least a good part of it.  It is a rather big continent.  More so, they have some of the highest quality African artisan products I have seen to date.  Originating in Rwanda, they have expanded to Uganda and Ghana and given the uniqueness of the tribal cultures across the continent and the array of indigenous products available the new product pipeline appears limitless.

I only had one full day to assess the business on the ground.  This included meeting a women’s artisan co-op, observing how the raw material, sisal, (agave sisalana) that feeds their current line is sourced and talking with the women about the impact working with All Across Africa has had on their lives.  

This is a rough roadside video and an introduction to a co-op of weavers working for All Across Africa, a social enterprise connecting weavers and their beautiful baskets to western markets

I then visited the “Basket Center,” a central hub where the sundry co-ops gather twice each week to bring the sisal for dyeing, drop off completed product to be shipped and pick up the patterns and quantities for the next products to be woven. Then, finally before departing for my return flight to Nairobi, I visited an artisan in her home to learn and see the impact All Across Africa has had on her life.

In between, travelling from one location to the next, the most important, least obvious, due diligence occurs.  In close quarters when the conversation is more intimate, when one question or comment leads to another subject, when personal character, sublime, curious, thoughtful, open and unvarnished emerges does the true nature of the leadership unfolds before you.  It is not uncommon to be on a long ride, sometimes on difficult roads in heavy traffic with little creature comforts that someone turns to me and says, “We’re here.”  I have no idea how long it has been.  Sometimes I have forgotten that when I set out it was hot and uncomfortable.  Often, I regret not paying more attention to the scenery (though I am getting better), only to realize that I have been deep in conversation that informs me in a way that no other part of the due diligence can.

Check out All Across Africa online www.allacrossafrica.org The story is great.  So is the product

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings About the Gift of Choice

This is a little long, somewhat off-kilter, personal and not specifically about the great organizations the Greater Impact Foundation (GIF) supports, but it does reflect how working for GIF makes one think and feel.  It is also a little late.  A week has passed since Thanksgiving, over a month since returning from Africa and I am still catching up; ruminating about my experience and the meaning of goodwill.

It is Saturday morning after Thanksgiving; early, no one awake except the wobblily, old, half blind dog trying to find the door in the dark to get out, probably to go to the bathroom. 

Cody is blind.   The glasses are a different story.

Cody is blind.   The glasses are a different story.

Of course, I’m awake too.  Not quite as old.  Not quite as wobblily, no need to go out, so to speak… just yet, but certainly not ready to get up either. But I cannot stop the mind from racing ahead.  Is it hard to move the host when the mind tells you to get up?  It used to be easy.  Up.  Out the door.  On the move.  That was then.  This is now.  The old dog looks up towards me, smelling, not seeing me as I anthropomorphize and says, “Are you nuts?  Of course, it's early, but if you do not get your ass out of the bed I am going to go right here, right now and that, my old brother, is something you do not want to deal with in the pre-dawn chill!”  So, I got up.

It used to be easier.  For both of us.  But, now I am up, frantically searching in the dark for my pants and shirt, trying to sequence what needs to happen in the next 30-seconds before I end up on my knees doing the last thing I want to do this morning, cleaning up after man’s best friend (ha!) in my Mother-in-Law’s house the day after a tryptophan overdose, and a long flight home.  

The dog went right back to bed, curled up in his blanket and passed out probably until next Thanksgiving. 

Me, not so lucky.  The key had been turned in the ignition and while my body was still just cranking up, my mind was in gear, long out the door.   That is why I am here right now writing this down.  No one else is awake.  Why should they be?  I’m not even fully awake.  My body is still waiting for one complete revolution of the blood stream.   My back is still waiting for forever how much time it takes to stop reminding me that I have one.  My brain is revved up, but would prefer the help of a strong cup of coffee to sync my digestion system with my circulatory system so that my brain stops complaining about what the hell I am doing awake when I should be comatose dreaming about something less compelling than commode communing that I know will make me less cranky.  A lot less cranky.  Then suddenly, I realize that I must be channeling the old dog.  Except that he has that canine capacity to suddenly lapse into a sleep state and forget it all and I do not.  I am now awake and the only capacity I have is to begin to feel guilty about what I am complaining about when I know deep down how damn lucky I am.  I must be Jewish, or Catholic or paranoid or marginally insane, but, alas, that is the way it is.  Deep down, something else I am not aware of (Freud could probably tell me) keeps telling me to stop complaining.  I know how lucky I am. I have the blessing of a cohesive family.  Everyone is reasonably healthy.  Marginal insanity is my private reserve.  No one is starving (remember Thanksgiving just passed) and I have a job that constantly reminds me that there are those in the world who have no time to complain because they are too busy just surviving.

Thanksgiving is a mindful time of year.  I know the essence of the concept has morphed over time and that likely history of its origin and evolution is questionable.  Historians do that sort of reconstruction, building something from disparate parts to make a point that is likely a little fuzzy.  Yet, the concept of Thanksgiving, even if it has changed shape over time is worth dwelling on.  It is worth it because it offers us all the opportunity to cherish what is dearest while reminding us that it is a blessing to have the luxury to do so.  And, even though I am now awake way to early, my body is in revolt and I am filling time writing this until I am civil enough to talk to another human, I do appreciate more than I let one how lucky I am. 

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I could detail that now, but the list is long, so suffice to say that I am aware.  And, since everyone else is blissfully asleep, I am writing it down because unlike the cranky, old dog, now sleeping like he is dead, I am awake and wanted you to know. Choice is a luxury.

About a third of the planet has little or no choice.  Sustenance is a daily struggle.  I always knew that, but on-the-road for the Greater Impact Foundation makes me realize what a blessing choice really is.  The holidays are here.  Everyone should enjoy them.  But, try not to forget.

 

NURU International Cracks the Fund Raising Code

On the wall in NURU's office in Isibania, Kenya

On the wall in NURU's office in Isibania, Kenya

I have never met Jake Harriman, the founder of NURU, but given that on behalf of the Greater Impact Foundations we are considering support, I though it more than prudent to get to know him as much as possible.  So, I found this video on the NURU website. It is worth a few minutes.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLIuL39uIQo

NURU Headquarters Isibania, Kenya

NURU Headquarters Isibania, Kenya

So, it is clear from the video that Jake has his head firmly affixed to his shoulders.  And, from my recent due diligence in Isibania, Kenya, and the surrounding villages adjacent to the Tanzanian border, the interventions NURU has applied to enable the poor clearly works. 

The progress they have made building a leadership network, not only of committed NURU staff, but including local village elders who live with the challenges of extreme poverty day in and day out is impressive.  And the results speak for themselves.  The four interventions that Jake refers to in the video, agricultural training, financial inclusion, health care and education were on full display on my field visits.  Of the four, some are more robust than others as they are at different stages of maturity.  However, all are trending in the right direction.

 On the agriculture & financial Inclusion side essentially everything begins with training and initial inputs (seeds). 

NURU's Kenyan staff

NURU's Kenyan staff

The NURU team of 44 field trainers (all Kenyan) teach farmers in groups of 8 – 15, visiting farmers on a weekly basis after initial training.  There are roughly  2,125 farmers in the network.  This network is made up of local cooperatives of anywhere from 25 – 200 farmers with a rotating locally elected leadership team including a chairman, secretary and treasurer.  Farmers are given an initial one time zero interest loan of about 8,400 Kenyan Shillings ($83 USD).  This allows for the purchase of qualified seed, fertilizers and pesticides.  But first they are required to go through training.

 The results are impressive and, of course, I am sure that generally they select the best performing farmers to visit, so it is important for me to visit the full range including some who have dropped out of the co-op so I can fully understand what is happening as they scale.  An average farmer has one acre of land on which more often than not they are growing corn.  Before the intervention the yield from this one acre ranged between 2 – 4 bags (90 kgs./bag).  After the intervention yields jump to 10 – 14 bags. Surely, other farmers do not achieve this output, but it is equally true that the drive of the individual farmer plays a big role in the outcomes.

 Farmers are required to contribute to a cooperation savings & loan program weekly and cannot remain a part of the cooperative unless they repay their loans in full before the next planting cycle.  For some farmers this gain covers key items like putting on iron roof on their home (replacing a thatched roof), paying school fees (expensive), costs for the next seasonal planting which could include diversification to other crops, as well as saving a small sum for the future.

 This is just an example, but clearly one can see a pathway to sustainability at the farm level, especially when one discovers that participation in the loan program with full repayment is well above 95%.  I think that one of the big reasons the participation is so high is because of the quality of the leadership at the cooperative level along with the ongoing support of the field officers.

An articulate Co-op Chairman

An articulate Co-op Chairman

 

So, at the beneficiary level we can see a pathway out of poverty.  The bigger question is absent donor funding how does NURU continue to scale.  There is an answer, though admittedly it is still evolving.

 NURU has two big for-profit enterprises at different stages of development, an egg business and a decentralized dairy business.  Pilots for both have been completed, though the egg business is much further along.  A Kenyan ex-Unilever/Nestle commodities executive has joined NURU.  His story is interesting but tangential to this story. This is what I have learned.

 The egg business is up and running currently with 30,000 layers (hens) scaling to 100,000 this October.  I visited the new ten-acre production facility upon my return to Kisumu yesterday.  It is massive.  I now know more about the egg business in Kenya than I ever would have conceived possible.  Perhaps it is good for this conversation and idle cocktail chatter at the most, but I found it compelling.  I have rough numbers, but I will receive shortly the full plan with the P & L.  In short, the business will do two big things.  Once it breaks even it will generate annually somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 K USD annually which will be ploughed back into NURU’s non-profit side to allow them to scale and serve more farmers in southwest Kenya.  Equally important, the egg business will buy all of the maize for chicken feed for up to 700 farmers directly eliminating the middle man and as the farmers diversify they will also buy their soybean, millet, sunflower and sorghum crops giving them direct market connectivity.  Currently, NURU acts as the middleman on behalf of the farmers, aggregating crops from the cooperatives and selling on their behalf.  This will continue but eventually be displaced by the direct purchase of feed raw materials for the egg business.

 The diary business is less developed, but the plan is interesting.  Some farmers have no livestock.  Many have at least one cow.  Some have several.  These are local cows that produce two to six liters of milk daily, enough for subsistence and maybe a few shillings in the market.  The plan, over time, as they have done with seeds, provide small loans so that all farmers in the cooperatives can have at least two cows.  The magic is in the use of artificial insemination from Jersey cows who can produce up to 20 liters per day.  Just as they are doing with the egg business NURU will aggregate all the milk process it and return the profits to NURU’s non-profit side to further scale.  Farmers will have cows for milk and meat or sale as meat once the cattle dairy productivity declines, which it does.  This is also true with the chicken business.

 So, that is it in a nutshell.  NURU has a business model that when fully operational will self-fund their non-profit initiatives.  It is a great model, one which I know other non-profits who must continually reach out to donors to do the good work they do might think about.  I understand it won’t work for everyone, but for those it does it is a beautiful thing.

 

A Transformative Story

Joseph Ojuma

Joseph Ojuma

It would be foolish to suggest that the story I am about to share is one of a kind.  Tales of the human spirit can be found everywhere and history is replete with them.  But when those unscripted stories are revealed first hand, conveyed from the heart, often in the most unlikely places, they can be transformative.  Perhaps, this is why, in spite of the challenges of travelling to places difficult to reach, where just getting to the location where the story, often impromptu, often brief, often taking place beneath the relentless equatorial sun in the middle of a corn field sowed for sustenance revitalizes that spirit, reminding us that life is a blessing never to take for granted.  This is one of those stories.  Simple, straightforward, from the heart.  Powerful.

Joseph Ojuma, a father of eight including his grandchildren, lives on a small farm in Busia, Kenya a few kilometers from the Ugandan border.  He is sixty and has set aside time this Saturday morning before heading off for his grandfather’s funeral to meet with me and the team from KickStart International to share his story about how a simple irrigation pump powered by hand has changed, not only his life, but those of his neighbor as well.  He is scrupulously dressed in his finest threadbare second or third hand suit.  Clean shaven with tattered note pad in hand he has prepared for this special visit from the mzungu (foreigner – white man) from some place he likely has heard of but equally likely cannot conceive in any comprehensible form.   He has set out chairs and a table in the ever scarce shade and invites us to sit.  He would like to show us something. 

Tracking weekly revenue

Set down in writing Joseph shows me his weekly accounting of the income he has made from selling his crops that he now makes throughout the year, a direct result of being able to grow crops during the dry season when supply is low and prices are high. In the beginning this miraculous $30 pump was a group purchase rotated among 27 villagers, but now he has his own.  His children are all in school. 

Water catchment feeds Joseph's KickStart hand pump

Water catchment feeds Joseph's KickStart hand pump

He has dug a well to source water to reach the parts of his farm the local stream does not reach.  He has a home with a corrugated metal roof, enough food for the family and more.  His life has stabilized and he sees a future for his family.  But that is not what is amazing about Joseph’s story. In fact, his story is common for virtually anyone who has been fortunate enough to acquire a KickStart pump, a simple, durable hand powered device that has changed the agricultural landscape of subsistence farmers across western Kenya.  What is amazing is what he told me about what happened to him once he was able to grow crops during the dry season.

One day upon returning to his village from the local market he found, as he said in his own words, “my naked farm.”  Thieves had stolen his crop, a story I have heard before.  He was penniless and life was already difficult.  One would think that Joseph would throw up his hands and bemoan his lot in life.  But what Joseph did is the exact opposite. 

Mud bricks drying in the sun

Mud bricks drying in the sun

He set out immediately to make bricks to sell for five shillings a piece ($.05) or seven shillings delivered to keep his farm afloat until the next dry season crop could be harvested. Have you ever watched someone at work in the equatorial sum making mud bricks?  Was he in his sixties?  Did he still have all of the daily responsibilities that come with a large extended family in western Kenya?  Was he smiling as he toiled away?  Did he complain for a moment about the thieves?  Or his bad luck?  No, he just did what he had to do to survive and he did it with grace.

Today Joseph has recovered.  His neighbors helped.  His family helped and that simple KickStart hand pump has transformed his life once again.  When I asked him what he was going to do next he pointed at the unfarmed land beyond his own near the river and said, “I am going to buy that land and plant it using the pump.  Maybe you will help?”  I smiled at him knowing full well I could not do what he does so well.  Nor could I do it with the grace he exudes.  I smiled at him and said, “It appears to me you do not need my help.”  And, while that is not completely true the fact is that that simple pump has empowered Joseph in a way that one can only understand when you visit his farm well off the road in the dusty rural environment of Busia in western Kenya.  Life is a challenge, but grace is a powerful force.  As I left his farm, once again I turned to John, my host and guide and shook my head and said, “The power of the human spirit is mind boggling especially when you see the obstacles facing people like Joseph.  I know he said he was honored for us to visit his farm, though truthfully, it was I that was honored to meet him and here his story.  The pump has transformed Joseph’s life, and people like Joseph have transformed mine.”

This is a True Story

Pit trench of Ginger. Notice the trees providing shade.

Pit trench of Ginger. Notice the trees providing shade.

I just finished due diligence with an interesting social enterprise in Kamuli, Uganda.  Uganda Farm is working with the abject poor teaching them the advantage of growing, in addition to their subsistence crops, ginger.  Here is the math.

In Kamuli, one acre of corn, culturally the most important subsistence crop, generates one kilogram.  At the current market prices that equates to 500,000 Ugandan shillings per harvest or about $150 USD at the current exchange rate.  Two cycles of corn per year are possible, though climate change has brought on drought conditions that makes two cycles iffy.

Conversely, one acre of ginger, a cash crop relatively unknown in Kamuli generates ten kilograms.  At the current market prices that equates to 10,000 kilograms, 10x the corn or in perfect conditions almost $20,000 at today’s exchange rate.  Only one cycle is possible per year.  But, the delta is startling.  Two corn cycles = $300.  One ginger cycle = $20,000.  One would think that common sense would make the choice simple.  So, what’s the catch?

There are a number of variables that intrude.  Most subsistence farmers have little land, maybe one acre, possibly two.  In their effort to make the most of it they plant whatever will grow. 

On one farm, one of the poorest farmers I have ever met (I included pics of his home and living conditions) 

Kamuli Subsistence Farmer's Home

Kamuli Subsistence Farmer's Home

One plastic chair for furniture, filthy mattresses & blankets, a recipe for illness

One plastic chair for furniture, filthy mattresses & blankets, a recipe for illness

On one farm, one of the poorest farmers I have ever met (I included pics of his home and living conditions) grew everything from avocados (the trees were gargantuan), coffee, fruit trees (oranges, small sweet tomatoes, mangoes, corn, potatoes and more.  Uganda Farm convinced him to cross crop ginger in the spaces between everything else pit style.  This method uses shallow trenches running the length and width of the space available in the shade of the other larger trees.  Manure and water is all that is needed for the ginger to flourish and the shade cover is a bonus.  So, on this land the farmer cannot grow a full acre of ginger.  Amazingly, he still can grow enough to generate almost $4000 per year, a huge gain, although he has a large family to support, more than a dozen.  That is a little less than $1 per day more per person, but a big jump up considering his total income is well below the poverty line.  You would think that he would opt to plant as much ginger as possible, forgoing the other crops to chase the elusive $20,000.  But, he does not.  Historical cultural norms get in the way.  While he is testing ginger, he is solidly resistant to expanding.   Sources of irrigation are poor as well.  He is reliant on the rainy season, one, which noted is suspect this year.  Cultural barriers exist.

Corn is a subsistence crop.  It is a food source. The fruit and coffee trees were planted by his ancestors.  They are also a food source.  Ginger, a cash crop, is an unknown in the region.  These factors coupled with the issues of available manure and water are obstacles which inhibit the wholesale conversion to ginger only.  If the farmer had two acres maybe he would consider the alternative, but he does not.

Opportunities abound for the poor and thankfully this social enterprise is pushing to convince these people that there is a different way.  The goal is to engage some of the less culturally resistant, Uganda Farm now has three hundred farmers in the fold.  Peer pressure might convert the obstinate.   When neighbors see neighbors flourish, conversion is easier.  At a one-time cost of $52 per farm to provide the initial inputs and build the capacity to nurture the crop there is a pathway out of poverty for these poor farmers.  It may take time, but it is possible to create a sustainable livelihood from ginger.  Simple math is compelling, but other factors mitigate conversion. This is not unusual in Uganda. Time will tell.

Perspective

In the west, particularly in the U.S., people are drowning in the turbulent seas of the political race for the Presidency.  It is unescapable, giving one a feeling of being tossed overboard from a damaged vessel (perhaps, named The Constitution) bobbing in fifty foot waves out of sight of land, disoriented, adrift, at the mercy of the stinging winds of negativity.  It is as if nothing else is going on. Personally, I feel like I have been underwater too long, yet I keeping popping back up (a survival instinct, I guess) for a gasp of sanity hoping the angry seas have calmed. The only thing one can think of is survival, searching the horizon for the proverbial island in the storm.

For the moment, it feels like election day is that island; one I can wash up upon, if only to escape the inevitability of death at sea for the uncertainty of survival alone, lost and forgotten on an uncharted isle amidst the vastness of that never ending sea. Maybe, this island is populated by pirates.  Maybe, missionaries.  Maybe simply with one soul named Common Sense.  Who knows?  But, at the least, it is better than a watery abyss.  There is still a glimmer of hope.

Both options seem grim.  But at least there is an option.  Elsewhere, in a world no less turbulent, where survival is a day to day reality, the contrived world of American politics actually seems benign, if not pretentious.   Sure, the options seem slim.  But, for many there are no options ever.

 

Young Ugandan boy in suffering heat making sun dried bricks every day, all day, no relief

Young Ugandan boy in suffering heat making sun dried bricks every day, all day, no relief

Perhaps, this is a long winded way of getting to the point.  Forget, for the moment, the lengthy list of options most Americans have.  It would turn a simple blog into an encyclopedic opus.  However, many Americans, not all, but quite a few, seem oblivious to the concept of choice and how fortunate they are to have one.  For those struggling at the bottom of the economic pyramid choice is a luxury.

Refugees seeking refuge with everything they own and no destination in sight.

Refugees seeking refuge with everything they own and no destination in sight.

When I think about the amount of wasted money poured into the political maelstrom which we know will pass I choke on the idea that that money could be used to empower so many businesses with a double bottom line mentality.  I am not suggesting embellishing entitlements.  Those in place that are meaningful need to be fixed,

Untie or cut?

Untie or cut?

the Gordian knot of political maneuvering untied before any further investment might be considered.  What I am talking about are those for-profit social enterprises conscious of both profit and people.  Wouldn’t it be a great experiment if our government actually used the entitlement resources to support sustainable young businesses that empowered people and held both the employers and the beneficiaries accountable? Wouldn’t it be great if all of the money in politics was redirected to that end?  Those at the bottom of the pyramid would benefit.  In fact, everyone on the pyramid would be better off. We all would feel better as well.  And, we do have the choice. 

Prepping for the Road

prepping for africa.jpg

Sometimes it is easy to decide what to write about in this blog.  Other times, particularly when I am focused on time sensitive issues for the Foundation, it is difficult.  This is one of those times.  In less than one month I am headed back to Africa.  Prepping for that trip is time consuming with many moving parts.  Some are impossible to manage alone.  I am often reliant on the responsiveness and cooperation of the enterprises I am going to visit, the airlines and hotels I am going to book, the embassies I need to interact with to acquire visas and the ground logistics teams I must connect with in order not to find myself stranded somewhere. 

With imperfect language skills and frequently questionable cell or internet connectivity losing contact in the field creates a significant challenge and require a little luck if one is to extricate oneself from nowhere to somewhere.  Putting together a seamless itinerary packed with key contact information that maximizes my time, minimizes mishaps, yet remains flexible is mandatory.  It is more than worthwhile. 

The purpose of this trip is twofold.  Annually we visit virtually all of our current partners to check in on their progress.  Of course, they all provide regular reports on that progress, but seeing the results first-hand informs us in a way no report can.  No less important, I will be visiting potential new partners, conducting due diligence that, again, cannot be conveyed in a spreadsheet or glossy presentation.  Face to face interaction cannot be undervalued.

Looking back to Rwanda from Kisoro

Looking back to Rwanda from Kisoro

So, off we go.  Uganda and Kenya are on the itinerary, though I will fly to Rwanda and drive across the border to southwestern Uganda this time saving over 20 hours of transit time from Kampala to Kisoro.  I will visit four enterprises while in Uganda over 11 days and seven in Kenya over 17 days.  Some places will be familiar.  Some brand new.  Some accommodations will be pleasant.  Others the only choice.  Some transit will be smooth.  Others not so much.  With luck everyone I meet will be engaging.  That has been my experience in the past and in spite of the grueling schedule, it is probably the driving force that makes such a trip beyond worthwhile.  Even if the Foundation decides not to support a new enterprise I will visit, I am certain I will be informed by the experience.  At least, that is what has happened in the past.  Reconnecting with those that I have previously met is always delightful.  Anticipating new connections no less rewarding.

Synergy at the Bottom of the Pyramid

The Greater Impact Foundation’s very first grant was in Nicaragua, where we worked with the American-Nicaragua Foundation to help the poorest of poor bean farmers improve productivity and, therefore, their incomes.  Since then, GIF has moved on to support initiatives around the globe, but we have never lost sight of those bean farmers. 

They have made progress. We observed productivity gains over the years.  We also recognized that external factors out of everyone’s control arose again and again, creating headwind slowing that progress.  

A severe drought has crippled the country and the bean farmers whose poor land quality and lack of irrigation has made us aware that long term success required a strategy that spreads risk and minimizes the negative impact any one uncontrollable circumstance.  You might say, that the stars have aligned.  Now, we have been able to develop plans to accomplish that goal.

As our portfolio has grown we now have partnerships with an irrigation enterprise in Kenya, KickStart, an agricultural enterprise in Mexico, Sistema Biobolsa, who produces mcicro-biodigesters that turn biowaste into fertilizer with a methane byproduct that displaces fossil fuels and provides an alternative energy source for the home.  The wonderful Catholic Charity, Food for the Poor, who originally introduced us to the bean farmer project in Nicaragua is also helping and now has tapped their donor fund to provide piggeries for those same farmers.

The piggeries create another income source for the farmers and the animal waste is important to fully maximize the Sistema’s biodigesters.  The KickStart irrigation pumps offer a tool to improve irrigation, but also a source of water to prime the biodigesters and GIF still provides training and capacity building to empower the farmers.

Alone, KickStart has proven they can improve farmer output particularly during the dry season ors times of drought. 

Alone, Sistema Biobolsa has proven that a digester improves farmer productivity, as well as displacing chemical fertilizer and fuel costs for wood, charcoal, LP gas or kerosene.

Alone, piggeries, create both a food and income resource while using waste byproducts to fuel the digesters.  Compounding that is the very important use of animal waste which historically is a health hazard.

Alone, GIF has continued to build capacity with the bean farmers.

Together, the synergy potential from all involved is enormous.  The cooperative participatory approach leverages individual assets.  The variant sources of income generated from revenue and cost savings is significant.  Moreover, while we are still testing the overall program, I am almost certain that the drive of the farmer to build a better life will be fueled by the sense of empowerment created and the knowledge that the program is sustainable.

It feels great to be part of the project. And, while that is just a byproduct of the Foundation’s overall mission, it engenders great pride in the Foundation’s work.  Cross your fingers.  If we are successful we will do it again, and again and again.

Transformative Talent

Don’t you just love reading about transformative ideas that change the ways we do and think about things for the better?  It just feels good knowing that there are incredibly talented people out there not just thinking about what is possible, but doing so in a practical way that is both disruptive and constructive at the same time.  In my role as the Executive Director for the Greater Impact Foundation I am constantly searching for organizations led by talent that does just this in the social impact space  addressing poverty.  We cast a wide net seining through myriad enterprises.  And, just like the fisherman who often finds something in his net that is a perfect catch, but also discovers things that are not, we do as well.   Two cases are perfect examples.

MoringaConnect in Ghana led by Kwami Williams and Emily Cunningham has established a dual market business model that monetizes Moringa in the food and beauty space.  The backbone of their business centers around the empowerment of Ghanaian farmers struggling to productively manage their land and earn an income that enables them, over time, to exit the bottom of the economic pyramid.  Check them out http://moringaconnect.com

Moringa has been around for a very long time and its miracle-like attributes are becoming well known.  Kwami and Emily have figured out a unique way to monetize it while truly generating a double bottom line impact.  More impressive, and less well known are the proprietary  processes in development.  Shush! Top secret! They would have to kill me if I let on.  I have included two videos here, one short, www.youtube.com/watch?v=5geWE6VqwjE. The other is longer, www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNo-HTJBxJY  so you can get a feel not only for the power of Moringa, but also for the unabashed talent leading the way.

Alternatively, the Greater Impact Foundation learned about GreenWave, http://greenwave.org, another fascinating business led by Bren Smith, a great talent and storyteller.  We have not yet committed to supporting GreenWave, but we are watching closely.  Vertical ocean farming is a wonderful business model that solves multiple problems.  Watch this video and you will understand why. www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MoBDoiQa58.

Why do I love my job?  Well, helping create sustainable incomes for those in greatest need is key.  But, meeting people like Kwami, Emily and Bren is an over-the-top benefit.  You cannot beat it.