Monday, November 23, 2015

EPN Heroes: The Humble Beginnings of the Songhai Centre

 In our last post, we discussed how Father Godfrey Nzamujo is reversing the logic of poverty at work in Africa by tapping into what he describes as "5 Core Capitals." In this piece, we'll take a closer look at how those "5 Core Capitals" came to fruition in the form of the Songhai Centre.  

After visiting one of the thirteen Songhai Centre technical schools, one might assume that such an expansive and innovative program had massive amounts of initial funding, and a great platform to start from.  Well the surprising truth is that Father Godfrey turned 2.4 acres of infertile land into one of Africa's most impactful agricultural education centers with barely any resources at all.  

The program started in the mid-1980's. West and Central Africa had just experienced the worst famine in recent memory. When Father Godfrey returned to his home country of Nigeria to pitch his idea for an agricultural training and research facility, government officials scoffed at him. "They seemed far more concerned with securing foreign aid and lobbying for charity,"  said Father Godfrey, "than in doing the hard work of empowering people in poverty to be productive." 

Undeterred, he traveled to the neighboring country of Benin to try his luck. The national officials there were more impressed with the potential benefits of hosting Father Godfrey's revolutionary Songhai Centre.  Nonetheless, they too seemed more interested in securing international aid than in financing grassroots efforts.    

They gave Father Godfrey one hectare of land (roughly 2.4 acres) to begin the first Songhai Centre. The land was thought to be infertile and worthless. He was not granted any staff so he recruited local workers. With a makeshift team of seven high school dropouts, and much of his own savings, Father Godfrey converted a desolate strip of wasteland into a thriving, self-sustaining agricultural system. People from all over Africa took notice.  

Word reached Europe that an African scientist and his small team were transforming the way agriculture was done in West Africa. France sent a small delegation to provide Father Godfrey with additional expertise and funding. Unfortunately, they also brought a competing vision of what current and future Songhai Centres should be. 

The European scientists assumed their job was to take over day-to-day operations of the Centre. They envisioned a research facility primarily operated by scientists, not local farmers. Against the wishes of the Benin government, Father Godfrey respectfully dismissed them.  To him the Songhai Centre had to be a place where local people learned skills to transform the lives of their families and communities. And the Songhai Centre has thrived. 

Now people from all over the globe come to learn from Father Godfrey and his team of locally trained agriculturalists. And when foreign countries help fund his programs it's because he has proven time and again that his intuitive understanding of African agriculture and the economy are second to none. Father Godfrey's heroic determination and unmatched expertise are transforming thousands of lives and proving his favorite saying:  "Agriculture can be a weapon of mass construction."  

Friday, October 23, 2015

EPN Heroes: The Five Core Capitals

In our last post we introduced Father Godfrey Nzamujo, the founder and director of the Songhai Center. He and his team of educators have trained thousands to use agriculture as a vehicle out of poverty. 

After returning home to West Africa during the famine of the 1980's Father Godfrey encountered a "logic of poverty." He noticed two underlying premises driving the way his countrymen thought about stemming economic deprivation: 1) a dependence on foreign aid, and 2) the need for large amounts of capital to create economic production.

Although foreign aid can be a wonderful tool to address the immediate needs of people, it rarely, if ever, addresses the root causes of poverty. For example, Tom's, the popular shoe brand, promises to donate a pair of shoes in Africa for every pair purchased here in the States. This means that many people who need shoes receive a free pair. Great!

Unfortunately, "shoelessness" is only symptomatic of the real problem -- poverty. Giving away free shoes won't create economic opportunity for those who need jobs that pay livable wages. Worse yet, when a village's market becomes saturated with free shoes, the local skilled craftsmen who make and sell shoes can't compete. With this logic at work, the impoverished stay dependent on foreign aid and never become self-reliant.

Great at solving "shoelessness", not so great at eliminating poverty.

Another tenant in the logic of poverty is that massive amounts of money are needed to create economic opportunity for those who have none. If this is true, countries struggling to provide basic services will never have the stockpiles of cash necessary to combat the root causes of poverty. Father Godfrey however, is proving that remarkable economic opportunity can in fact be created without a large infusion of money.

Father Godfrey preaches that there are five "core capitals" at work, in sequence, to create wealth: 1) human 2) environmental 3) technological 4) social and 5) financial. By properly investing in people, using the right technologies to leverage environmental resources, and selling society on their benefit's, significant financial gains can be made to benefit all. Let's take a closer look.

"To cultivate human capital, " says Father Godfrey, "you must recognize the productive and creative potential of all individuals, regardless of their socio-economic status. Once you recognize this fact, you can develop their latent productive potential through education and vocational training."

With a team of highly trained individuals, you can cultivate environmental capital, especially in the form of agriculture. By using the right technological capital, which in this context includes machinery, tools, and specialized techniques, you can ensure the relationship with the environment is productive and non-destructive.

The Songhai Centre makes terrific use of renewable energy, like solar power.

When you produce valuable goods with previously untapped human potential and with non-destructive methods, agencies, institutions and the public start to demand that these principles be adopted as the norm. This creates social capital.  Financial capital is the offshoot of an economic system that maximizes human and environmental potential, not the impetus that makes it possible.

Need more proof? Father Godfrey started the first Songhai Centre in Benin with a team of high school dropouts on a 2.4 acre strip of infertile land. Today there are 13 Songhai Centres in 4 African nations. Each are "doing more with less" by rethinking how to address poverty and making tremendous use of capital sources that traditionally go overlooked and under-appreciated.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

EPN Heroes: Father Godfrey Nzamujo

Father Godfrey Nzamujo

Next in our EPN Heroes series we are featuring Father Godfrey Nzamujo. Father Godfrey is the founder and director of the Songhai Centre, one of Africa's premier technical schools.  He firmly believes that "agriculture can be a weapon of mass construction." 

We see many common themes among our EPN heroes. They see opportunities to make their world a better place and share a passion to make it happen.  Godfrey Nzamujo, known simply as Father Godfrey by his peers, is innovating new ways of wealth creation for Africa's most impoverished and underserved. His contribution to agriculture research, science, and the eradication of poverty aren't just inspiring, there heroic.

Father GODFREY NZAMUJO, is a true renaissance man.  Born in Kano, Nigeria in 1950, he has a B.A. in Modern Philosophy and Mathematics, an M.A. in Theology and a PH.D. in Economic Philosophy. As if that weren't enough, he has an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and a PH.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California at Irvine.  We're still trying to figure out how many languages he speaks.

The Songhai Centre, Benin

While working as a professor in California in 1984, west and central Africa experienced one of the worst famines in recorded history. Everyday, on every news network, he watched his countrymen literally starve to death. Equally distressing was the foreign response to the crisis. Nation after nation poured into Africa, handing out food and clothes, flooding the economy with aid, but not opportunity. 

"It's good to provide the hungry with food," he said, "but it's far better to provide them with opportunities for self-sustainability. The key to ending poverty is to make the impoverished productive." He committed right then to go back home and reverse the "logic of poverty" at work in Africa. 

When he arrived back home in Nigeria, Father Godfrey met with local government officials to pitch an idea to transform the fight against poverty. He envisioned a place where people would be trained to use technologically advanced, eco-friendly agriculture to launch their own businesses and feed their communities. With visions of petro-dollars dancing in their heads, the Nigerian officials thought agriculture seemed pretty mundane.  They turned him down.  But Father Godfrey was undeterred.  

He traveled to the neighboring country of Benin. After meeting with national officials there, he was given one hectare of land (roughly 2.4 acres) to begin work on the first Songhai Centre. With a staff of seven local high school dropouts, he converted a section of once infertile land into an agricultural oasis. People from all over Benin started flocking to the Songhai Centre to learn agriculture and entrepreneurism from Father Godfrey. 
What once was a wasteland is now a lush field of nutritious greens!

Twenty-five years later there are 13 Songhai Centres in four African nations, each of them equipping agricultural entrepreneurs with the tools and training necessary for economic self-determination. Additionally, the groundbreaking research being done in these facilities is helping the world better understand how farmers can have a symbiotic relationship with mother earth. Father Godfrey's impact on the lives of his pupils, colleagues, and countrymen is immeasurable. His commitment to excellence and service is utterly awe-inspiring, and of course, heroic!  

In our next post we will take a look how Father Godfrey five fold approach towards creating wealth in some of Africa's most economically depressed areas. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cross-Cultural Connections: Life-Changing Inspiration Through Little Rock

In recent posts on EPN Hero Lilly Oyare, we showcased many of her activities and what makes them so remarkable. But her work even touches lives of people back in the States.  Today, we are sharing a conversation we had with Ellen Arian. Ellen is a longtime friend of John and Judy and a supporter of the Little Rock Scholars Program. Thanks to Ellen's contribution, one special young lady, Faith, is realizing her dreams to attend one of Kenya's top secondary schools.

The Little Rock Scholars Program allows donors to reach out to the students they are supporting and have a more personal relationship through email conversations. Ellen has exchanged several e-mails with Faith.  Here's what Ellen had to say: 

Faith Amondi, Little Rock Scholar, and friend of Ellen Arian
How We Met Faith
"Connecting with Faith has been a wonderful experience for us, and talking with her through email has left our family wanting to know her better and feeling lots of excitement about her future.

We began our support of the Little Rock Scholars program early on. I have 3 daughters who have been able to go to the schools of their choice. After hearing about the students at Little Rock and the challenges they face in pursuing secondary school education, it seemed like an extremely important cause; we knew right away that we wanted to join in the effort.

Our friend, Ellen Arian

From the start, we hoped the effort would be personal. But we couldn't have imagined how gratifying it would be to connect with Faith. Having conversations with her has truly been a blessing and it has inspired me in a couple of ways.

How Faith Has Inspired Us
First, our interactions with Faith have deepened my capacity for gratitude. I've heard the stories and seen the pictures of Kibera. Here is a girl raised in the most dire poverty, yet she has emerged grateful, rather than tough and embittered. She is filled with appreciation, love and hope. It's so touching to read her words, and seeing these qualities in her helped wake me up to the remarkable power of attitude. Our conversations with Faith are continually instilling in me an even deeper sense of gratitude for all that I have.

The second place where Faith has moved my heart is seeing her belief in her own bright future. When we first began writing to her, we saw that Faith wasn't focused on obstacles - she was determined to make a difference and she believes she will. She sees years ahead full of possibility and promise. When we read Faith's reaction to receiving her scholarship, we saw someone with dreams whose biggest barrier to their success was just removed. That was truly inspiring.

We've seen the same appreciation, the same pure heart, the same love, in every letter from Faith. And none of this would be possible if we had not had the chance to communicate with her directly and get to know her, even across miles. It has truly been a blessing.

Faith Amondi (far left) with other Class of 2016 Little Rock Scholars
A Blessing to All Involved
The Little Rock Scholars Program has allowed us to help remove the biggest barrier to Faith's success. With a relatively small contribution, we have been able to make a huge and lasting impact on Faith's life. If you are in a position to make a difference you won't find a more compelling cause. And  because you will have the opportunity to communicate directly with that young person, your own life will be enriched in the process."

So there you have it. The words of our dear friend Ellen, who was paired with Faith in her support of the Little Rock Scholars campaign. 

As we close out our EPN Heroes campaign on Lilly Oyare (who Ellen described as "a dynamo"), we'd like to reflect on what makes this campaign important. It certainly shines a light on Lilly and her work. But what is really noteworthy is the lives of the students who come through the program. Lilly and the Little Rock School foster a sense of hope and the belief that with hard work and determination anything is possible.  In the midst of the slums of Kibera that is truly heroic work.  We're privileged to know her and help support what she does. 

How have the words of Ellen inspired you?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Introducing Kaveh Naficy

We’re following up on our last post introducing our newest board members here at EPN. The second is Kaveh Naficy, who, like Peter Wentworth, is a good friend of Eliminate Poverty NOW, as well as John and Judy.

Kaveh is a founding partner of Philosophy IB, a management consulting firm based in Florham Park, NJ. Kaveh has close to 40 years of business experience as a corporate executive, management consultant and entrepreneur. He also has extensive international experience, as the son of a diplomat and an expatriated executive, leading international businesses.

Kaveh's career has spanned assignments with global organizations such as AIG, American Express, Citibank, Ernst and Young management consulting, and Warner Lambert/Pfizer.

At Warner Lambert, Kaveh met John Craig and immediately connected with him professionally. Kaveh developed a deep respect and affection for John, Judy and, some years later, their work with Eliminate Poverty NOW. 

Kaveh's father, Habib Naficy was one of the catalysts of modernization and progress in Iran under the Shah regime. Amongst other amazing accomplishments, he built over 150 technical and vocational high schools and universities all over Iran. Many of his former students now lead renowned organizations throughout the world. Bearing that influence and legacy, Kaveh carries a deep passion for helping the underserved to reach their potential and to make a difference to their communities.

Kaveh's dream was to someday return to Iran and give back to his country. Unfortunately, that dream was circumvented by the Iranian revolution in 1979. However, when Kaveh met John and became familiar with the great work of EPN, Kaveh was convinced that he can realize his dream through EPN. Kaveh believes in EPN's mission of helping to erase poverty as a precondition for achieving self-respect and a sense of worth. He believes in the unlimited potential of people once their basic needs are met.  He sees Africa as a bedrock of extreme poverty and a place where good work goes a long way. He also deeply believes in John and Judy's personal involvement and sense of accountability. 

On a more personal note, Kaveh has three children, ages 29, 26, and 5 who are the loves of his life. He is an avid tennis player, skier and a voracious reader. Being Persian, he cannot help but to carry backgammon in his blood.

Kaveh received his BA from Baker University, a Masters in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, and an MBA from Boston College. Kaveh is a frequent speaker on the subject of Leadership and his blog has attracted a wide following.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Article Review: "Giving More Globally, and Less Locally"

In a recent New York Times article, we find that despite an increase in overall philanthropy in the United States, global giving accounted for only 4% of the total $358 billion donated in the past year. Some suggested reasons for the low amount were:
  • No major natural disasters in the past year.
  • Causes like Ebola left potential donors feeling helpless.
  • A "desire not to turn our back on our neighbors". Essentially, we connect with and give back to causes that seem 'close to home' for us.
Researchers and professors are looking into what factors can encourage people to give more globally. One such professor, Peter Singer, a philosopher out of Princeton, favors the idea of "effective altruism". "Effective altruism" is about large scale impact, measurable improvement, and addressing an often overlooked cause.

Training the women of the Farmers of the Future Program, a prime example of effective altruism

This kind of giving can radically improve and even save lives around the world from perils that many would not even imagine in the United States. While it is important to give and volunteer locally, our donations can go a lot further in places far from our own homes.

Sound familiar? It definitely did to us. At Eliminate Poverty NOW we've been working on "effective altruism" for quite a while, and that'll continue with your support.  We're continually amazed at the impact we have by working directly at the local level with wonderful partners.  Despite modest budgets, we've positively impacted thousands of lives over the last 5 years.

You can feel great about a donation to Eliminate Poverty NOW.  One hundred percent of your donation goes to work directly in Africa to help change lives.  And the support you provide is more than just a donation. It's an investment. The work we do is designed to grow and sustain itself in the people and communities we support. Now that's effective altruism, and with your help there is so much more we can do.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The EPN 2014 Annual Report and 990

Hi all! Here we are, halfway through 2015, and we have done so much in the past year. This is just a brief post to share some of that progress, in the form of the 2014 Annual Report and 990. Programs like the "Songhai Women's Capital Fund" and "Farmers of the Future" have steadily increased in both funding and reach. We're pleased with all we've accomplished in 2014 and the future looks bright.

If you click the following links, you can take a look at the full Annual Report and 990. In the meantime, here's a brief excerpt from the Annual Report:

In 2014, Eliminate Poverty NOW completed its fourth full year of operation. We continue to sharpen our focus on the mission of empowering Africa’s extreme poor to lift themselves out of poverty. We place special emphasis on empowering girls and women, using a combination of education, training and funding to create opportunities to boost their income –today, tomorrow and for years to come.
Two young friends we made while working with Dov Pasternak in the Sadoré Village
If you compare the projects featured in this year’s annual report to those of prior years, you’ll see many similarities. It’s not by accident. Breaking the shackles of extreme poverty takes patience and perseverance. We have plenty of both. Some projects will take years to achieve sustainable change. In the case of Farmers of the Future, with its goal of changing agricultural practice in an entire country, it may take decades.

The success of such ambitious projects lies squarely on the shoulders of our local partners. EPN is blessed to work with remarkable people doing remarkable work. Superlatives like this are overused and therefore often overlooked. So we’ve started to feature our partners on our website under the heading of “EPN Heroes.” As you read their stories we think you’ll agree that they are, in fact, extraordinary.
Dov Pasternak, one of our good friends and our first of many EPN Heroes, showing Judy some of his work

You can continue reading on the website here, but let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

5 Things You Need to Know About Kenya's School System: Part 2

In our last post, we shared some information about Kenya's school system that makes the work done at Little Rock all the more amazing. You can check out Part 1 of that post here, but we'd like to continue with 2 more points today that really impressed us about Lilly's work in Nairobi, Kenya.

4. Many students have to learn a whole new language just to learn in school.

That language is English, and many students from Kibera do not start off speaking English around the home. The "mother tongue" in most Kenyan homes is Swahili, while the language of instruction in school is English. As you can imagine, putting a kid straight into the school system in Kenya without knowing English creates a huge disadvantage. The Little Rock School intervenes here in a great way, getting young kids comfortable speaking, reading, and writing in English before they go into the public school system where English literacy is essential.

5. Special needs students are not served by the Kenyan public school system.

No special needs children have access to the public school system in Kenya. A typical teacher in a Kenyan classroom might be responsible for 100 students (think of a large university lecture hall in the United States). As such, there's no way that a teacher could provide the personalized attention that special needs students require.

This point in particular is what really makes Lilly's work go above and beyond. She opened the doors of Little Rock to special needs kids in 2006. They are "doubly disadvantaged." They deal with extreme poverty as well as deafness, Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy, or autism. The schooling they receive at Little Rock is unique and vitally important. Today, one third of Little Rock's preschoolers have special educational needs, and Little Rock offers the only inclusive preschool option in all of Nairobi, a city of 4 million people.


Eliminate Poverty NOW focuses support primarily on the students beyond preschool. As students move on to eighth grade, Little Rock offers test prep tutors, funded by Eliminate Poverty NOW. This tutoring program drastically improves the chances that students earn high marks on their secondary school entrance exams and qualify for some of Kenya's best secondary schools.   Once qualified, we provide 4-year scholarships so students can attend.   To date, EPN has funded 26 scholarships and hopes to add 10 more this coming year.

You'd think that after a year of intensive test preparation, scoring well on the entrance exam and qualifying for a scholarship, the rest would be easy.  But students from Kibera have huge cultural adjustments to make in secondary boarding schools. They are away from home for the first time, sleeping in a bed for the first time, and dealing with the challenge of being "the kid from the slums" in schools made up largely of students from well-to-do families. So Lilly and EPN added an additional tutoring and mentoring program for Little Rock Scholars to ensure their success. And it's working.

Of our 16 scholars who have completed at least one year of secondary school, half are in the top 20% of their class, several are in the top 5%, and one is in the top 1% of her class.  Not bad for a group of kids from the slums!!

As you've seen from these facts about the Kenyan school system, children from Kibera face many challenges before they even get into the classrooms. Hopefully these posts give a clearer picture of how heroic Lilly's service is. Students lucky enough to attend Little Rock are going on to do great things in school, and we are hoping to see great things well beyond! With your continued support, we can keep on working with Lilly to make a difference in Kenya. Leave a comment below, and donate for a Little Rock Scholarship here!

How has this information on the Kenyan school system inspired you? What came as a surprise for you? Share your thoughts below, and share Part 1 and Part 2 with friends!