In 2003, I had just graduated from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and was headed to South Africa to work with a couple that was starting a foster and adoption program for abandoned babies. I was convinced that my career would be spent working with orphaned and vulnerable children, and my focus was completely on ministry, service, and development work.
UNC offered a six week business course for non business majors right after graduation, and my parents thought that was such a great concept! So they highly encouraged (i.e. forced) me to take this business course. Even though I had absolutely no interest in business, I thought the skills might be useful at some point if I wanted to start and run a nonprofit organization so I reluctantly agreed.
I remember sitting in those classes and clearly thinking, “I am NEVER going to get into business.” In my idealistic young worldview, business was inherently selfish, focused on making money only to better oneself.
Well, never say never!
Fast forward a little over a decade later and I had spent several years working in international development and charity – in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, where I currently live. As I began to work with communities, I witnessed the stress and despair that often accompanies poverty. I recognized the difficulty for so many people to try and get out of poverty in economies with 50% or higher unemployment rates, where even very bright college graduates struggle to find jobs. Again and again, I encountered women like Mercy, Jane, and Ruth – women who were hardworking, resourceful, and intelligent – but had to piece together casual work to try and support their children, living from week to week or even day to day.
As I continued in this work, I saw development organizations and charities doing important work – sponsoring children, providing free or subsidized medical care, promoting peace, providing relief supplies, etc. Yet I saw very few cases where the economic situation of families had dramatically changed for the better as a result of these programs, and the ones that did were usually the result of income generating projects and small business creation.
Several years ago, I read the book Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo. Her main thesis is that international aid can often cause more problems than it solves, and what communities really need to develop and empower people is investment, businesses, and job creation.
The argument that Moyo put forth combined with my experiences sparked a completely transformed view of business, and I started to view business as a vehicle for bringing about empowerment and social change, and not a merely selfish endeavor. There are few things that can create as much impact as giving someone the dignity and security of having a steady job with a good income in a positive working environment. It was this thinking several years ago that inspired me to begin Kijani, a social enterprise in Uganda. But more on the story of how Kijani started in the next post….