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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A Manifesto to Bless Africa:

Several months ago, after having lived in Africa for several years and as a result of our love for its people, my family embarked on a journey to explore not only the best and most effective methods of making a positive and sustainable impact on the continent, but also to find ways of multiplying that impact beyond what one small family could achieve. After much reading, many discussions, and extensive exploration, these have been our conclusions:

1. Faceless people matter. We’re in this together.

If we don’t care where our t-shirts are made, hundreds die in Bangladesh under collapsing factories. If we don’t find out where our shoes come from, 10-year-olds lose their childhood in Pakistan making them. If we don’t know who mined the stones in our rings, communities get enslaved or slaughtered in Sierra Leone to put them there. We cannot afford to allow ignorance, complacence or indifference to be an excuse. We choose to care. When one human being is dehumanized, humanity suffers, and we are lessened as a result. We can do something about this. It is worth doing something about this.

2. Charity is important. Dignity is more important.

If charity and foreign aid were to end, millions of the neediest people on Earth would perish. Just like that. Don’t stop giving – your soul needs it. Nonetheless, the trillion dollars that’s been given to Africa over the last 50 years has not pulled it out of the hole, and we are convinced that the next trillion will be no different. It’s not until people are given the opportunity to not only survive, but to hope and to dream; not until they are allowed the dignity of striving, working, and sacrificing for the fulfilment of their dreams; not until they have the luxury of choice – including the choice to make their own mistakes and to learn from them, that communities – and nations – will begin to change. We are convinced that it is responsible, transparent, and sustainable enterprise that will bring forth this change.

3. The challenge is enormous. Enormous is not impossible.

War, terrorism, disease, poverty, ignorance, famine, corruption, hatred… the list goes on, and does not fail to overwhelm. That is not sufficient reason to give up. We will never cure every ill, right every wrong, impact every community. But every ill we alleviate, every wrong we help bring to light, every community, family and individual we impact will make a difference; and the more of us that come together, the greater that impact and the greater that difference will be. Africa doesn’t need us – it could carry on just as it has for decades; but today we have the opportunity, the honour and the joy of standing together and making a real difference. We choose to seize that opportunity.

4. Ultimately, it’s all about Jesus. It has to be.

We love Africa, and we love her people – they are kind, gentle, hospitable, generous, industrious, beautiful people. But if this endeavour becomes about them – eventually friends will let us down, corruption will dismay, cultural differences will shock and fatalistic worldviews will exasperate – it’ll be a matter of time before indifference or despair sets in, and then this potentially amazing endeavour becomes just another chore or worse. We are of the absolute conviction that if this endeavour is to thrive it has to be about something greater, greater even than a continent of a billion people. We love Jesus – tremendously – and we pray that never changes. Jesus loves every man, woman and child in Africa – more than we ever could – and desires to see their families and communities blessed. That will never change. Our driving force in this endeavour is, and will always be, Jesus and His love.

Rooted in these convictions, we hereby establish To Bless Africa as a trading company that will seek to form partnerships with communities across Africa, that will seek to encourage, promote and advance local enterprise while at the same time modelling integrity and transparency, and that will seek to genuinely bless the communities it does business with rather than to hold to the pursuit of profit as its ultimate goal. In the fulfilment of this endeavour, To Bless Africa will seek to develop relationships with communities across the continent so as to procure the best locally made merchandise available, and will seek to sell these goods in North America – thus creating an avenue for anyone who so desires to not only buy and enjoy them, but to have a direct hand in impacting and blessing our partner communities. Would you walk with us – we want to go far. So help us God.

Through the public posting of this manifesto of our foundational convictions, we ask any members of this community who agree with them and would seek to support this venture to please help hold us accountable to them. If you would be willing to do so, could you please indicate this below by means of a comment?

I do believe we have taken the first bite of this elephant!


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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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Back to business… again?

Here’s another guy who believes that Aid is not the answer. I listened to this TED talk by Andrew Mwenda, an Ugandan journalist who has apparently gotten into some trouble for criticizing the political elite in his home country, and who believes that business, enterprise, and wealth-creation will do more for Africa than Aid. Here’s what he has to say:

I really appreciated what Andrew had to say about corruption, and how with corrupt governments not making it easy for new businesses to be created, many of the brightest and most enterprising young people in many African nations end up seeing the Government as their best opportunity for success, which makes for an ever-growing bureaucracy. But without individuals paying taxes (because of widespread poverty), or businesses paying taxes (because they are so few), governments instead end up relying on foreign aid rather than taxes for survival, which means that they don’t need to encourage policies that are necessary to build up their economies, and as a result, don’t. They end up listening to international creditors rather than their own citizens.

This so resonates with my observations – Aid’s been around for decades, hundreds of billions of dollars have been given, but poverty is still growing across the continent. Then there’s the corruption – how can corruption be so rampant when people can see the horrible effects that corruption is having on their country?

I’m beginning to think that perhaps business is the answer, perhaps creating jobs by building businesses, or investing in local entrepreneurs to encourage enterprise – in an accountable and transparent manner – is how we will end up making a difference. Any thoughts?


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Patient Capitalism

A little while ago I was introduced to TED talks – an organization that takes experts in a variety of different fields and asks them to distill the greatest nuggets of wisdom/insight/innovation that they’ve encountered in their work into the 20 minute ‘talk of their lives’. These talks are then made available for free to the world. Here’s an idea that is changing the world – nothing short of inspired.

I recently came across a talk by Jacqueline Novogratz, a lady who has since become one of my heroes. For around 20 years she’s been working in South Asia and Africa to eradicate poverty, and has some radical ideas on how to do it. There was so much to learn from what she’s said that I thought I’d share it here:

She begins and ends her talk by speaking about the interconnectedness of today’s world. Having already called 4 continents ‘home’ at different times, I am totally in synch with this. What is really exciting though is to see more and more people in North America begin to get this – from young people who’re willing to spend more to buy Fair Trade coffee so as to ensure that farmers in Colombia – who they’ll never meet – get paid sufficiently; to professionals who give generously for the relief of people in Indonesia who’ve been struck by a tsunami – again, people they’ll never meet; to families who commit – for years – to give monthly for the education and well-being of a child in Kenya who again, for the most part, they’ll never meet. To see this growing global awareness, this realization that we’re all in this together begin to gather momentum is exhilarating. What a great time to be living in!

Something else that stood out is her mention of how Good Will donations in North America destroyed the retailing industry in Rwanda – how well intentioned kindness can have consequences that are completely unforeseen. This reminds me of a story I heard while visiting with some friends in Chad about how a large UN presence in the capital – Ndjamena – was in the process of deeply affecting the local economy. Some UN personnel tried to buy some chicken, and thinking that the price they were being charged was far too low, offered to pay several times the asking price – just to be kind. Very soon this made meat unaffordable to local Chadians. Strategies can be a lot more effective when they are fully thought through – from every perspective – and learn from past mistakes.

Last, but not least, there was her main point – ‘the only way to end poverty is to build viable systems on the ground that build critical and affordable goods and services in ways that are financially sustainable and scalable’. Ms Novogratz founded the Acumen Fund just over 10 years ago, which invests in medium to very small scale enterprises, over long periods of time (a non-profit capital venture fund for the poor). The intention is to see local people who are more enterprising natural leaders come up with solutions that work in their own communities. Rather than just give via foreign Aid and charities, and rather than just invest financially into building factories (which hopefully don’t collapse) which would create low-level jobs, they seek out a middle-ground. They seek to use business to pull people out of poverty, but with patience and long investment time-frames in mind, what she calls Patient Capitalism. A method that allows people to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, and keep their dignity.

Lots of food for though, lots of ideas for chewing on. I really recommend checking out some of her other talks on www.ted.com/talks.

Dignity is more important to the human spirit than Wealth.
J. Novogratz.