The on-the-ground leaders of nonprofit organizations in the world’s poorest regions do little traveling outside their country. Their jobs are too demanding, and the cost of travel is too high. So it’s been a treat this week to talk to social enterprise leaders from around the world. Thanks to the Cordes Fellowships, 63 social entrepreneurs were able to attend the Opportunity Collaboration, a four-day convening in Mexico focused on global poverty alleviation. I had the chance to spend time with Charles Erongot, country director for Village Enterprise Uganda, and ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director for Paradigm Initiatives Nigeria. They are two of the Cordes Fellows whose work focuses on job creation. Their organizations are quite different but the end goal is the same: helping create new sustainable businesses and raise the income of families in extreme poverty.

Charles was initially reserved, but within moments, his passion for social change took over, and he spoke eloquently and urgently about improving the lives of extremely poor Ugandans living in remote rural regions.
Charles has been with Village Enterprise for seven years and manages a staff of about 20, including 12 business mentors. These mentors must have “the ability to inspire,” noted Charles, as the villagers they will work with have to “overcome their fears to try something new.” Mentors work closely with a group of villagers in planning a business, operations, marketing, profit analysis, and record keeping. Many of the new businesses are growing high-value crops, including rice, sunflowers, and sesame or raising livestock such as goats, chickens, and pigs. The crops and livestock are sold at a local market or crops can become part of a value chain. Village Enterprise also provides financial training and small grants. The rural areas are so remote that they are rarely served by microlenders.

Charles, who has a BS in Forestry from the University of Makerere, came to his current role via his passion for conservation. After graduating, he worked in conservation but “it was difficult to implement conservancy in areas of extreme poverty,” he said. Preserving nature was secondary to doing what was necessary to survive, such as chopping down trees for charcoal. “The poor need alternative sources of income,” he said, adding that the top three challenges of his job are “building the self-esteem of women—telling them they can be just as enterprising as men—building the capacity of business mentors, and funding.”

Village Enterprise, launched in 1987, works in Uganda and Kenya with a three, three-pronged economic development model (grants, training, and mentoring). The organization has helped launch 23,000 new businesses, and 75 percent of the businesses are still continuing after four years. Dianne Calvi is the president and CEO.

The location of ‘Gbenga Sesan’s nonprofit couldn’t be more different from the rural communities where Village Enterprise operates. Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) is located in the Ajegunle slum in Lagos, Nigeria. (Ironically, Ajegunle means “wealth resides here,” noted ‘Gbenga). PIN, launched by ‘Gbenga in 2007, aims to improve the livelihoods of disadvantaged Nigerian youth by equipping them with IT training and employment opportunities.

In PIN’s 2-1/2-month program in Ajegunle, young people from 15 to 28 learn how to use computers for economic empowerment. PIN works to improve the odds of employment by finding internships and providing entrepreneurship training.

‘Gbenga Sesan, founder of the nonprofit Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, leads a training session.

‘Gbenga, full of energy and quick to smile, related an anecdote about how he became interested in computers. His high school kept two computers hidden away in a special room. He saw others go in and out of the room, but when he tried to go in, he was turned away and told he couldn’t use them because he might cause damage. At that moment “I decided to learn about PCs and teach others,” he said. ‘Gbenga graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. After working for a private company in Nigeria and volunteering teaching youth on the weekends, ‘Gbenga launched PIN in 2007 and serves as executive director. He was an Ashoka Fellow in 2009 and was one of the 19 social entrepreneurs at the 2010 Global Social Benefit Incubator, a program of Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society.

In addition to the Ajegunle project, PIN is involved in a number of interesting initiatives including holding IT training workshops around the country, petitioning the National Assembly for cybercrimes legislation, and working with Microsoft Nigeria on teacher training.  ‘Gbenga summarized his biggest challenges as “scaling, staffing, and finding partnering organizations for local internships.”

Charles and ‘Gbenga reflect the diverse organizations of the 2011 Cordes Fellows. Fellows have leadership roles at an array of organizations, ranging from established to new social enterprises, remote rural regions to urban slums, and from agriculture to computing. Full disclosure: I was one of the jurors for this year’s fellowship program. Having the chance to meet many of them this week has been inspiring. By all indications, the Fellows I have spoken with met the criteria for applicants and delegates: to be “catalytic leaders who by their actions and accomplishments evidence pragmatic vision, passionate tenacity, multisectoral thinking, adaptive leadership skills, nonideological activism, and a strong ethical grounding.” It’s impossible not to feel hopeful about social change after spending time with these Fellows.

Read a related post, “Stone Soup and an Impoverished Mexican Village.”