To Bless Africa

How can we make the biggest impact with the most efficiency for the greatest good?


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For Profit or not for Profit… is that a question?

In our general and sundry research in preparation to launch To Bless Africa, we have come across tons of fantastic, exciting, awesome (not to overstate or anything) like-minded ventures (like check this one out for example – www.mamahope.org – how cool is that?! I especially recommend their videos). These ventures are run by individuals and groups who are passionate about the people of Africa, who seek to make a difference, and who are changing the world. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the majority of the ventures we’ve come across are non-profit initiatives.

And yet – you may realize – we have chosen to pursue a different path: arising from the same desire to positively impact people’s lives, we have chosen to create a for-profit company, and you may wonder at that. Dear reader, wonder no more for we are about to substantiate our decision before your reading eyes (or at least attempt to!). There are in fact several different reasons why we chose to pursue this path, and not necessarily in order of importance, the reasons include:

Scalability (is that a word?) – Not-for-profit ventures generally would have a limited pool of resources they can draw from – what the people and organizations they can engage with donate to their cause; whereas a for profit venture, if they build efficient systems that can be replicated, multiplied, and scaled up, have a potentially limitless ability to increase their operations, thus – at least potentially – being able to multiply their impact indefinitely and quickly.

Promotability (that’s definitely not a word!) The ability to promote the business – to have a bigger marketing budget than a not-for-profit venture, would allow us to engage a bigger audience which in turn would help the business grow faster. The faster the business grows the more communities we can impact.

Efficiency (now that’s a word!) Profit would not, of course, be THE bottom line of this venture, but by having the profit of the business be one of the bottom lines, there’s an added pressure and accountability to use whatever resources are available to us with ideally the most efficiency, the least waste.

Flexibility (also a word, lots of points in Scrabble!)- By making this a private, for-profit business, accountable to a board of like-minded individuals who understand its purpose and objectives, we believe the company would have greater flexibility in trying out different methods and approaches with the least amount of bureaucracy. Furthermore, we’d have the flexibility of being able to offer outstanding customer service, a great return policy, etc, even if it costs more to us, because customer satisfaction then becomes one of our top priorities.

Perspective – The media is replete with depressing stories out of Africa. By connecting with vibrant partners in the continent, we hope to help portray a different Africa – a productive, enterprising, striving, creative, exciting, value-creating Africa; as opposed to the same old war-torn, impoverished, malnourished, corrupt, suffering Africa that we see in so many movies, news stories, and donations appeals.

Having worked with charities through most of our time so far in Africa, we have a deep appreciation for the tremendous work they are doing across the continent (and the world!)- from education to healthcare, to healthcare education; from clean water to better nutrition to better farming practices – and everything in-between – non-profits are directly affecting the lives of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of African men, women and children on a daily basis for the better. Rock on!

But that, dear reader (you can start a sentence with ‘but’ if you’re using poetic license right? I’m sure I have my license here somewhere…) is why we have decided to pursue a different path!


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Oh the Pain of Accountability…

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” -Lord Acton

It strikes me that a great chasm seems to exist between who we are as people and who we would like to be. It further strikes me (one more and I’m out!) that humans desperately need accountability to ensure that we are moving towards becoming who we would like to be. Built with an innate need for companionship/community/society, it would seem to me that though the rubbings and friction caused by being around others (and the closer we are the more friction we generate!) are often a pain and sometimes our least favourite thing, they might be a lot more necessary than we realize in keeping us in check, in keeping us accountable, in keeping us human.

Wise groups of people though history have realized this, ensuring that principles were laid down in constitutions and systems of government so that those with the greatest power and the thus the greatest freedom to make decisions, were still kept accountable for their actions. Sometimes those systems break down – as they did in central Europe in the late 1930s, leading to a small group of people who sought to become who they thought they should be even if it came at the expense of others. It took the intervention, labour and sacrifice of many of the world’s nations to hold the Nazi party in check and to bring them to account.

A series of similar breakdowns seem to have taken place in Africa through the last few decades. Though the continent has seen inspired, wise and sacrificial leaders like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, so many of Africa’s leaders have tragically left a legacy of self-seeking, self-serving, selfish behaviour – from doing whatever it takes to seize and keep power, to using national budgets as personal expense funds, to brutally crushing any dissent. The International Criminal Court (ICC), established to investigate charges of crimes against humanity and genocide, is currently investigating 8 situations worldwide – all of them sadly in Africa, several of them tragically against current or former heads of state. Even more heartbreaking is that some of these leaders are now accusing the ICC of being racist and pushing for the African Union to withdraw from the ICC. Accountability isn’t fun.

When it works however, accountability can be a powerful motivator. It can keep neighbours from harming each other, nations from invading one-another, the powerful from stealing/hurting/exploiting the weak. It can help people strive for and attain astounding goals, it can help ensure the development and growth of people, communities, and nations.

If we are to establish this company through which to bless communities in Africa, accountability would need to be hardwired into it – accountability to the public in North America, ensuring that our workings were transparent, honest, and true. Accountability to our partners in Africa to ensure that we truly did seek blessing for their communities, and not just profit. Ultimately though we would need a commitment to model accountability and transparency in all our business dealings, to mentor, foster and encourage accountability in all we did and all we worked with, and to require that accountability of those we partnered with. Before accountable leaders can be elected, accountable leaders have to be cultivated.

This, it strikes me, could be a good thing. That’s three and I’m out!

 


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Blessing Africa

So I may not have posted on here in a while – what with the baby and all, but that does not mean that the purpose for this blog has been far from our hearts. Our hearts still long to bless communities across Africa, our hearts still long to make a difference in people’s lives – to provide people and families opportunities to better their lot, to provide opportunities for greater education for those who wish it, and to provide better health education for those who could use it.

In the tension created between this desire and the knowledge of our limitations, this blog was created to explore avenues through which the impact we can make could be multiplied. We had ideas, but they were uncertain. After much thinking, talking, praying and research over the last few months however, we believe we see a possible way forward:

What if there were a company that connected with cottage industry, mom-and-pop enterprises, and hard-working co-ops in Africa, p186384000-5sourced the goods they were creating, and sold them in North America? This company would provide greater markets for existing enterprises, thus securing existing jobs and creating new jobs amongst the needy. This company would encourage and reward enterprise among hard working people with initiative by providing them with bigger markets, thus helping them expand and increase their economic impact in their communities (expanding farms/workshops, hiring more workers/new apprentices, all of who would then spend the money they make locally). This could make a considerable difference in the socio-economic development of poor communities, whether in rural villages or in urban slums.

This company could, through accountability and transparent business practices ensure honesty and responsibility in its operations and also foster a similar work ethic amongst the businesses it partners with. Furthermore, through its members’ blogs and writings, it could expose and try to combat corruption at all levels of government, which is currently rampant in most African nations.

This company could, by placing strategic people in strategic positions, provide mentorship and business education to its partners to help further increase the scope of their enterprise. Eventually perhaps even encouraging the formation of new co-ops and businesses that utilize locally-available raw materials and expertise in the fostering of new enterprises – more jobs, more opportunities.

This company could, through the reinvestment of some of its profits back into the communities that generate them – create scholarships, encourage education and promote a greater health-awareness – thus directly blessing communities even beyond the businesses it would partner with.

By operating as a trading company, this company would not only make a tangible difference to the communities it partners with, but it would help in the economic development of the entire nation; and it would seek to do so increasingly more efficiently and sustainably, and with detailed accountability.p1002763768-6

And finally, this company could – by making the goods it sources from across Africa available to the North American market, give consumers in North America – whether they’re buying woven carpets or wood carvings, coffee or jewellery, the opportunity to directly impact struggling communities and economies throughout Africa, to make a difference, to be a blessing. Furthermore, by making transparent the company’s ongoing relationship with partners in Africa, it could give consumers in North America the opportunity to see how their purchases are making a direct impact in the lives of individuals and communities. This would allow all concerned – from families in villages and slums in Africa to families in suburbs in North America, to move towards greater awareness and knowledge of one-another and a greater interdependence.

This idea has grown in my mind these last couple of months, but it strikes me that for anything to happen in this regard it would be imperative that people on this side of the ocean believe in it. Finding people making cool stuff in Africa is the easy part. Finding people who need jobs in Africa is even easier. But finding enough people in North America who believe in and are willing to stand behind such a venture might be more difficult.

What do you think? Would this kind of initiative even be viable? Would it be able to take off in the US and Canada? Would people be interested in buying goods made in small communities in Africa even if they’d have to pay a bit more than buying them at Ikea/Sears/Costco/Pier1? Would people in general even be interested in the welfare of others so many thousands of kilometers away?

As I mentioned in earlier posts, we’ve

spent the better part of the last 10 years in a different continent, so understanding the North American zeitgeist – how people are thinking, moving, what motivates them, is not really our forte. That makes your thoughts so valuable to us – would you please let us know what you think of this idea? Your insight/help/advice could make all the difference.

Is this how we are going to bless Africa?


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Now where do we go?

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Well, I started a blog hoping to engage people and had 3 hits on my first day. I’m pretty sure two of those were me on my phone, but to be fair I haven’t told my mom about this yet – I’m sure I’ll get a lot more hits/day  once she knows…

Changing the world (or, for that matter, bringing change to a continent) seems like an ambitious undertaking, so I thought I’d start by laying out where we’re coming from.

A lot has been written lately on the ineffectiveness that seems to have inadvertently crept into many of the currently operating models of charity. Books like Walking with the Poor, When Helping Hurts, and Toxic Charity look through the eyes of wisdom and experience at the waste, lack of sustainability, inefficiencies and dependency created by much of today’s charitable system, while books like Dead Aid and The Trouble with Aid do the same for Government to Government foreign aid. Of course this does not include mismanagement and ‘misallocation of funds’ (which seems to be a nice way of saying that someone in government just got a new sports car/house/jet/Swiss bank account). Having worked within this system and seen the good and the bad, but also desiring to be the most effective in what we do, we thought this blog might be a good avenue through which to explore better models, or perhaps even find the best model.

The truth is that trillions have been given, through foreign aid and through charities, to governments and projects in various African countries. Just last year Africa received some $50 Billion in government aid (almost a quarter of which was given by North America), and another $310 Billion was given by North American donors through charities. Why is it then that poverty in Africa has barely been dented? North Americans may be generous, but this system is obviously broken. What could we be doing differently that could bring lasting change? What is being done out there that is working? If you happen upon this blog and have an answer to any of these questions, I would really love to hear it please!

Meanwhile, here’s where we are: we really believe that change in Africa won’t come as a result of pouring more money into it. No duh. The path taken by that money – how it’s spent and what it ignites –  has to change. The current, most prevalent system is too akin to a tap pouring water into dry sand – the sand will drink it up and be just as dry once the tap runs out of water. You can’t irrigate a desert that way. How does one tap the aquifer? Dig deep enough to find water under the desert? Engage the average Tanzanian/Malawian/Congolese/South Sudanese/Libyan into working for the betterment of their own country, and not just what they can get out of it (which leads to corruption), what works for the immediate term (which leads to poverty), or what’s always been done?

And ultimately for us, what can we do to catalyse change, where do we start?

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