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A View from East Africa: Transcendence

Acumen Fund launched the East Africa Fellows program to identify and train the next generation of leaders united by a common mission of harnessing the power of social innovation to create solutions to East Africa’s most pressing problems.

We received over 500 applications from the East Africa region in response to our call. Each of the 19 Fellows we selected for this inaugural class has a unique approach to solving problems in the region. We have invited each of our fellows to share their story and social change projects in a blog series titled “A View from East Africa.”

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Eight months ago during the first Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows seminar, Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen Fund’s CEO, asked the Fellows if and when we had ever “transcended our current state of being”. I immediately challenged Jacqueline, questioning the relevance of the inquiry and answering her, emphatically, that I personally had never transcended anything. I wondered where she was trying to go with the debate and soon assured myself that this part of the discussion was irrelevant to my work or life.

Last week, during the last Fellows seminar on operational skills, the we were treated to a sequence of star speakers, including Sunny Bindra, Dr. Robert Ochola and Farah Pandith, Special Representative to Hilary Clinton. However, the weekend kicked off with the IDEO.org team introducing us to design thinking. Part of the assignment was to experience a way to find solutions to problems through a process that included deep listening sessions. We were divided in groups, and using IDEO’s method of Human-Centered Design, we completed a two day exercise of field work. Each group was split up based on sector and given a particular challenge at the BoP to tackle – the health group I was in came up with an affordable children’s mobile clinic.

IDEO.org's design thinking seminar at work

At the end of the session members of the Baba Dogo community, an area outside of Nairobi where residents typically live on less than 2 USD a day, joined us to provide feedback on our work. The group I was in interviewed several families in the community, and our last stop was at a room in a rundown building a few meters away from the ACREF ( African Culture Research and Education Foundation) headquarters. Entering the room we were welcomed by Amata, the single mother of Felix, an 18 year old mentally and physically disabled young man. The typical participants in our interviews were women and children without basic services, something we are well aware of. Our last interviewee was no different, but while sitting in her sofa and looking at this young man that couldn’t talk or sit on his own, and required special care unavailable for him, ‘transcendence’ happened to me.

With my basic Swahili I could not understand the words and only by observing the way this mother talked, held her son’s hands, was I able to fully comprehend her pain, frustration and anger. For a few minutes I felt the urgent need to hug her and her son, and an emotional connection was created beyond language and nationality. I was, there and then, transcending. As If I was just a pawn in Jacqueline’s master plan of creating an army of moral leaders, I felt naively manipulated. Eight months before, Jacqueline knew something I didn’t – that this connection is what binds us and makes our work as social entrepreneurs unique, relevant and critical in building our moral imagination.

Understanding this, I was reenergized to go back to work, refocused on the goals I want to achieve, and morally refreshed knowing that I have a promising and challenging path ahead of me. Soon after my experience in Baba Dogo I came to these simple but matter of fact conclusions: Why are we doing this work? Because we MUST! Our generation has the knowledge, the drive  and the moral obligation to change. Change what? To protect our environment, solve the energy crisis, ensure every person has access to a proper education, decent housing, basic services and an adequate health system. And finally – how? By transforming the traditional aid model, putting social entrepreneurship in the global agenda, treating the poor as equals and providing them with opportunities and jobs.

Julio is the Chief Operating Officer of Nuru Energy, a social enterprise that produces and distributes low-cost lanterns that are rechargeable through pedal generators. Nuru Energy has 12,000 light units sold in East Africa, and aims to reach five million lights sold by 2015. Julio has worked a Program Manager with the UNDP in Kenya on private sector development. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Development from the University of Oslo, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in International Studies and Economics from California State University.

The Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows Program is made possible through the sponsorship of KCB Foundation and the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations.

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