Africa, philanthropy, social change, social entrepreneurship, social media, technology, thankful

Leap: Day #3 of Mashable’s Social Good Summit Wraps Up With Inspiring Calls to Action

This year’s Social Good Summit was full of examples of people fusing their passion for a cause with their expertise in technology. Thankfully all of the sessions are available online if you need a healthy dose energy and motivation. Here are my favorite highlights from yesterday’s events:

Making It Real
Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and co-author with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, of the book Half the Sky, delivered one of the most-anticipated and talked-about conversations about their partnership with Games for Change. Kristof and WuDunn have dedicated their lives and careers to covering social cause issues in the most ravaged parts of the world. To raise societal consciousness, they have co-developed a set of Facebook games to help others understand the impossible choices and desperate circumstances of marginalized populations. Their book has also been expanded into a mini-series that will air on October 1st and 2nd on PBS. Details here: http://www.halftheskymovement.org/

Empowerment Through Low-Tech Solutions
Anthony Lake and Clay Shirky made the case for low-tech two-way communication over high-tech one-way communication. They highlighted u-report, an initiative in Uganda, that is empowering local communities to take responsibility for their health by disseminating information and results of programs through mobile SMS service. To date, u-report has 147,000+ users that are spreading information and local data about health topics such as vaccinations, sex education, and breast-feeding. This program fits the principle that, “Ideas must be aggregated for impact,” said Shirky. “Go where the people are. Tech in the field needs to be low-tech to be widely accessible.” Follow the conversation on this topic on Twitter, hashtag #Promise4Children, and come together for child survival by visiting APromiseRenewed.org.

It Took a Village to Get the Lady to the Harbor
The crowdfunding discussions rehashed a lot of the facts and figures on their impressive impact that have been surfaced over the last few years. There’s no doubt that tech has vastly improved the efficiency and speed of crowdfunding. In all of our tech crazed eyes, we forget that crowdfunding is an ancient concept. For centuries, people have been banding together to do good work in their communities. My favorite example comes from New York Harbor. When France gave the Statue of Liberty to America, they forgot to create a pedestal. The people of New York, rallied together by Pulitzer, the publisher who ran a small print publication that would become the New York Times, pooled their funding to construct the pedestal. Over 100,000 people gave an average of $0.89 each to make it happen. Thanks to Danae Ringelmann, Co-Founder, Indiegogo, for reminding us of this historic act of generosity that demonstrates the power of community.

Of Food and Music
Angelique Kidjo is a world-renowned singer and songwriter. Originally from Benin, she is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, and never one to back down in the face of adversity, she spends a lot of her time advocating for women and girls around the globe. Anthony Lake shared the stage with her and explained that simple basic nutrition information is a tool that is incredibly effective and drastically underutilized in development work. He went on to detail the condition of Stunting that affects 160 million children worldwide. If children do not receive proper nutrition (not quantity but quality and variety of food) by age 2, they will suffer from permanent cognitive impairments. Getting help to these children in the earliest days of their lives is critical to building a peaceful, productive world.

In honor of the work of UNICEF, Angelique sang a gorgeous impromptu spiritual for all of us. I have no idea what she was saying, but I felt her emotion in every syllable and she brought tears to my eyes. For the first time in 3 days, the auditorium went completely silent except for her voice.

Everyone’s an Idea Person
So, you’re an idea person who wants to stretch the boundaries of human impact? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has thrown down the gauntlet. Get your idea down, send it in, and they’ll evaluate it for funding – $100K for a pilot with the potential of $1M to gain leverage and grow it. Visit grandchallenges.org for more information.

Audacious Ideas Get Support
The Global Fund and Wikipedia called on all of us to get creative with our mission statements. If Wikipedia had called people together to write a series of articles on any given topic, the reaction would have been mild at best. Instead, Founder Jimmy Wales put together a far grander vision – “to create a free encyclopedia for every person in every language.” It’s an enormous, unfathomable goal, and impossibility excites people to get involved. Who doesn’t love to be the underdog and triumph?

Transfer this kind of thinking to the issue of HIV / AIDS and you understand why The Global Fund has the audacity to dream of a world free of HIV in our lifetime. As they pointed out, we have eradicated diseases before. Small Pox is an excellent example. So why couldn’t we do the same thing with HIV / AIDS?

Reuniting Families Torn Apart
The Danish NGO Refugees United has partnered with Ericsson to reunite refugees separated by war. They have developed an online and mobile platform that creates profiles of refugees and then runs these profiles through a series of algorithms to match people to family members. They’ve engaged with 200,000 people to-date, mostly in Sub-saharan Africa. In 3 years, they want to grow the platform to 1 million people. Find out how to be a part of the solution at RefugeesUnited.org.

Now What?
Conferences like the Social Good Summit fire people up in the moment, but what happens when they get back to their everyday lives. How do we keep this goodness going? Here’s my advice: go through the agenda from this year’s Social Good Summit, identify the cause you care about, and then connect with the people from the Summit who are involved with that cause.

Email them, follow their blogs and social media channels, send a card, or heck, send a carrier pigeon. Do what you can to reach out and build a bridge to someone who cares about the issues you care about. Build something together for the good of the world. In the words of Timothy Leary, “Find the others.”

Africa, creative, litertaure, story

Beginning: We are Storytelling Creatures

“Human beings have two ears and only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.” ~ Henning Mankell

I read Henning Mankell’s article in the Sunday Times on the edge of my seat. He is a brilliant Swedish author who has spent almost 25 years off and on living, working, and creating in Mozambique. In the article, Mankell explains how African storytelling and narratives are about to burst onto the world literary stage.I couldn’t be happier about this development!

I went to Africa for the first time in 2007 after decades of dreaming about it. Immediately, I felt at home in a place that should have felt incredibly foreign. It was as if I had been there before, many time before. It felt like comfortable. It must have been our mutual love affair with great stories that made it feel so familiar.

We have the opportunity now to listen and share stories across continents, over oceans, and through the decades. The stories we tell today will be preserved in some way for people to read hundreds of years from now long after we’ve crossed over to whatever is next. Whenever we feel most alone, most frightened, we can take comfort in the stories of others who have had similar experiences. Go to Google. You’ll find them there, just waiting for you – your people, all holding a seat of your to sit around the proverbial campfire and share.

Storytelling in an act and art as old as time. It began with the very first person and will end with the very last. Storytelling and listening are more innate, more human than anything else we do. And its craft is within all of us.

adventure, Africa, home, travel

Beginning: Getting Reacquainted with Tanzania, a Place That Still Feels Like Home

Today I’m very excited to share a guest post from Nikita Raja. We “met”via this blog over two years ago and since then have kept up a regular correspondence. She’s one of the members of this blog’s community who is constantly encouraging me to continue to share my experience as a way of helping others.

Nikita recently sent me a collection of her photos from her first trip to Tanzania as an adult. She was born in Tanzania and much of her family history is wrapped up in that country. I asked her to share this experience in a guest post as a reminder to all of that new beginnings can be discovered everywhere, even in places from our past. 

This past summer, my sister and I were lucky enough to travel back to Dar-es-Salaam (Dar), Tanzania. Known as my birthplace, and the place I can tie my family’s roots back to – Tanzania is home! Home, because this is where so many of family’s cherished memories and stories have emerged from.

It had been twelve years since I last visited, and my trip ended up being nothing short of an adventure into the wild and a journey back to my roots. Although I was about ten years old when I last visited Dar, it seemed completely unrecognizable to me! But it was refreshing to return to a place that felt both different and familiar and still be able to call it “home”.

While I spent a lot of time bonding with family I hadn’t seen in years and indulging in eating different East African specialities like “Mogo” (Grilled Cassava) and “Kitale” (Coconut filled with potatoes and chillies), I actually got to explore parts of Tanzania that I had never seen before – a two-day safari to the Serengeti National Park, driving through endless running African savannahs and capturing photos of animals in their natural habitat. Simply breathtaking! I also managed to get away for a weekend trip, to the beautiful island of Zanzibar. Known for its paradise style beaches and resorts, spice tours, and rich history.

Through travel, we often gain new layer of wisdom. Wisdom from the experiences we had, the people we met, the food we ate, the stories we heard and the learning we gained made for such an enriching experience. Although life in Tanzania may be worlds apart from life here in North America, it’s through experiences like these that one begins to appreciate travel and cultural realties.

Travel allows us to indulge, learn, and adapt. It was the perfect trip to celebrate my graduation from university and my start into the working world.

Nikita’s photos from Tanzania:

Night time food bazaar known as “Forodhani”, with diverse crowds of tourists
Zanzibar’s Stone Town - a World Heritage Site.
Zanzibar’s Stone Town - a World Heritage Site.
Prison Island, popular beach site in Zanzibar
The Serengeti National Park
The Serengeti National Park
"Kitale” (Coconut filled with potatoes and chillies)
Africa, art, film

Step 131: Meet Kate Ofwono, Documentary Film Maker from Uganda

My friend, Amy, has been staying with me for the week. She is an exceptionally talented production stage manager (currently on the Phantom of the Opera tour) and a trained trauma counselor. Amy and I worked together many years ago as young theater managers and we’ve stayed close pals ever since. She has an incredible heart and has spent much of her free time abroad doing international volunteer projects. Last year she spent 6 months at the UNHCR in Geneva working on refugee issues.

In graduate school, Amy met Paulette Moore, a documentary filmmaker. Paulette’s blog, Story Doula, chronicles her film work and one aspect of her work involves making films about social justice and peace building. Paulette was able to find a way to premiere the work of Kate Ofwono, a 22-year old filmmaker from Uganda who currently resides in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, in Geneva in March. Kate filmed her daily life with the help of FilmAid International’s participatory video program.

Kate’s film is exquisite. She is so honest, strong, and articulate. Her courage inspired me. Watch her film clips here.

Africa, children, education, innovation, technology

Step 19: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

“If the first people to experiment with great inventions such as radios, generators, or airplanes had been afraid of being arrested, we’d never be enjoying those things today. ‘Let them come arrest me,’ I’d say. ‘It would be an honor.'” ~ William Kamkwamba, author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

I just finished The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. William elegantly tells the story of how he constructed a windmill in his village in Malawi to provide his family with electricity in order to save them from suffering another famine. With Bryan Mealer, a former Associated Press correspondent, he elegantly explains how the will of one boy can change an entire community, even an entire nation.

Rather than give a recap of his remarkable feat, I want to emphasize the great lesson that William has for all of us: tell the naysayers in your life to “shut it”. (Those are my words, not his.) How many times do we develop an idea only to have it crushed by someone else’s criticism? William faced this many times, from his family, friends, and community members. He refused to doubt himself. He refused to give in to negative energy. He just kept right on building his windmill, despite all of the criticism and mocking. In the process, he inspired millions of people all over the world. Read the book – you’ll be inspired by his energy, curiosity, and determination.

The next time someone even hints that you can’t do something you want to do, I want you to tell them the following:
“A kid in Malawi with one year of elementary school education built a windmill to help prevent his family from starving. He built it by following diagrams in a beat-up, out-of-date science textbook from a local library miles away from his home and using salvaged items from a scrap yard, all while everyone in his life told him he was mad. He couldn’t read English well so all he could do was follow the pictures. So, do I think I can do (fill in the blank)? Yes. Yes, I do. If William Kamkwamba can build a windmill, despite every roadblock imaginable, then I can certainly bring all of my ideas to life.”

To learn more about Williams and his continuing journey, visit his blog: http://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/. You can also learn about his project, Moving Windmills, by visiting http://movingwindmills.org/ Follow William on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/wkamkwamba

For more information on Bryan Mealer, visit http://www.bryanmealer.com/

Africa, creativity, innovation, new product development, simplicity, social entrepreneurship

My Year of Hopefulness – Clay Pots

I was witness to a conversation today that round and round in circle so many times that I began to feel dizzy. The two parties couldn’t get out of their own way, despite the fact that both were seeking a common goal. The more they talked, the more complicated and convoluted the conversation became. It was a welcome relief to then dive into the book The Pursuit of Elegance and learn about Mohammed Bah Abba’s clay pots.

Recognizing that subsistence farmers in Nigeria needed a way to keep fresh produce from spoiling so quickly, he took a common object in Nigeria, clay pots, and combined with a little middle school science to build a refrigeration device. Abba put one clay pot inside another larger clay pot, packing wet sand in between the two. Then, he placed a wet towel over the inner pot and let the science of evaporation do its work. As the water evaporates, it cools the inner pot, and any contents stored inside that pot. Farmers could preserve their produce longer to increase their sales at the market, raising income for those farmers and their families, spurring all of the positive side effects in a community as wealth increases.

So simple. Clay pot, sand, basic science principles. When cobbled together by Abba’s creative mind and sense of empathy, these three things transformed a community. Abba’s business has expanded throughout Nigeria and into other Africa countries. Abba saw a problem, took what he had, and crafted an elegant solution that could be made available to many at a very low cost. So simple, it make us wonder why it wasn’t thought of earlier.

Abba’s story made me re-consider the conversation I witnessed earlier today. It made me consider the importance of clarity of vision and the value of a solution that combines design and function in a simple, elegant fashion. And the equation to get to this type of solution isn’t complex. Ask three questions: What are we trying to solve for? What assets do we have available to us? How can we use those assets to transform what we’ve got into what we need?

The photo above can be found at: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/08/mohammed_bah_ab.php

Africa, economy, entrepreneurship, investing, Kiva.org, money, philanthropy, social entrepreneurship

My Year of Hopefulness – Kiva.org

I’ve given up on opening my 401K statements. The news is just too depressing. Given our current economic state, I’ve been searching of where to put my investment money. Where will it do the most good, for me and for the companies I choose to invest in. When I look at the Dow 30, I don’t have a lot of faith in many of those institutions to reinvent themselves. Some of them have remarkable potential. Most of them have to accept that they have a very tough realization to come to terms with – in the words of Darwin, “Change or die.”


The investments that are intriguing to me these days are in entrepreneurs, particularly those in developing nations such as Rwanda. I just placed my first investment in an entrepreneur in Ghana through Kiva.org. I lent $25 to a woman named Agnes Cobbina for a 7-month term. She owns a hair salon and she wanted to borrow $375 to expand her business. With 14 other lenders, I completed Anges’s loan goal. What was remarkable is that I clicked on several different entrepreneurs and by the time I got to the “lend to” page, their goal was already completed. In the 10 seconds that it took me to read a bit about them, someone else had stepped in to help! One loan is made every 14 seconds through Kiva.org

Some people might think of this as a charitable donation rather than a loan. Nothing could be further from the truth. 99% of those who receive loans through organizations like Kiva.org pay them back in full. How many U.S. investments can say that these days? And not only am I confident that I will receive my money back; I know that I helped someone help themselves through this loan. I am empowering Agnes, providing her with a dignified way to grow her business and support her family. 

I’m thrilled to be able to participate with Kiva.org. But I want to do more. I’d be willing to take part of my investment money and provide it directly to an entrepreneur in a country like Rwanda for a return. What an amazing thing it would be to combine the idea of Sharebuilder with that of a Kiva.org. Could this be a new paradigm for global investment?  
Africa, entrepreneurship, Fast Company, government

My Year of Hopefulness – Happiness is Forward

This month Fast Company ran an incredible article about Rwanda and the economic revolution that is happening in that country 15 years after the genocide that robbed it of 1 million people (1/8 of the entire population) in 100 days. 


President Paul Kagame has set audacious goals for Rwanda: increase GDP by 7X, move half of Rwanda’s subsistence farmers into paying jobs, quadruple individual income, and make Rwanda a tech center for Africa. All by 2020. In 11 years, he believes he can transform his country and he is dedicated heart and soul to the effort. His charisma and ambition is so powerful, you’ll want to ask where you can sign up after reading the article. 


The connection I felt to Rwanda after reading the article is very much a testament to Jeff Chu’s talent as a journalist. He captured small details as well as the big picture so that a reader can imagine lumbering down the roads of Rwanda with President Kagame, Jeff Chu, and Marcus Bleasdale, the talented photographer who captured iconic images of Rwandan life for the article. The one small detail that has played over and over in my head since reading the article is a short phrase that Jeff Chu saw painted onto the back of a truck. “Happiness is forward.”

Despite the vast separation, geographically and historically, between Rwanda and the U.S. there are universal themes that bind us together. I imagine that in 1994, hope was a scarcity in Rwanda. After the genocide, many Rwandan must have doubted that their country would ever heal, forgive, and flourish. And somehow they were able to keep moving forward. Our nation’s hope has waned considerably in the last 18 months, and though for different reasons, that sense of hopelessness and helplessness is the same. After all, the loss of hope is the same for everyone who experiences it, regardless of the cause. 

Rwanda’s story is a poignant one of resilience and strength. Their ability to move forward and not only hope for better days but work hard for them, day in and day out, is remarkable. We have much to learn from them that is particularly relevant given our country’s current crisis. We must all believe, remember, and recite to ourselves and to one another “Happiness is forward.” This sentiment in Rwanda is moving from an ideal to reality. 

The photo above was taken by Marcus Bleasdale for Fast Company
Africa, New York City, nonprofit, volunteer

Ice Cream and a Helping Hand for Rwanda

The fabulous folks at Blue Marble Ice Cream have started up a non profit, Blue Marble Dreams. They are building an ice cream shop in Rwanda as a safe community gathering place. To make this dream come to life, they need our help. Here is the pitch posted on Daily Candy:


” All funds raised by October 19 will be matched (they’re shooting for $20 grand). They also need research/development interns, consultants, and volunteers.

It’s not about saving the world. It’s not even about ice cream. It’s about hope. With a cherry on top.

Blue Marble, 420 Atlantic Avenue, between Bond and Nevins Streets, Boerum Hill (718-858-1100 orbluemarbleicecream.com); 186 Underhill Avenue, at Sterling Place, Prospect Heights (718-399-6926). Donate online at bluemarbledreams.org.
Africa, career, travel, volunteer

Finding Purpose in Africa

Running off to the developing world to make a difference and contribute to humanity used to be the realm of young college graduates. Now, more and more professionals, solo or with family in tow, are finding themselves drawn to areas of the world where they can see the direct impact of their work improving the lot of those who cannot improve the quality of life on their own. 

This week, USA Today ran an article about Americans finding purpose in Africa, specifically Rwanda. For me, that country conjures up images of the gentle mountain gorillas juxtaposed to the images from CNN and MSNBC of the brutal genocide that the country endured. Today, there are ex-pats living and working Rwanda who think that the country is poised to be the next Singapore. After years of unrest and violence beyond measure, the country is fighting its way back to peace and prosperity. And Americans looking for purpose are flocking to lend their expertise, time, and energy. And while Rwandans are reaping the benefits of lower infant mortality, higher education rates, and greater economic opportunities, Americans are gaining a sense of self and purpose, empathy, acceptance, and faith in the goodness that we can create for one another.  

As someone who’s always thought that my time for the Peace Corp had passed me by, this article left me encouraged by all of the future opportunities that exist for me to lend a hand, my heart, and my spirit.