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Investing in the future of Africa: The story of These Numbers Have Faces

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These Numbers Have Faces (TNHF) is more than an investment in higher education – it is an investment in the future of Africa.

In, 2008, CEO and founder Justin Zoradi had a vision to invest, equip and empower the next generation of Africans. He began to lay the foundation for TNHF — a Portland-based, non-profit that invests in the continent’s future leaders.

Justin’s story began in 2005, when he graduated from Westmont College and left the sandy coast of SoCal to pursue Peace and Conflict work in Belfast, Ireland. He spent the year working with youth in low-income neighborhoods, helping to mitigate the recruitment of young people by terrorist organizations. A big part of Justin’s job included leading 80 students from Belfast to South Africa, where he spent the summer playing soccer, and came face to face with the challenges young Africans face.

The challenges he witnessed created opportunities in his mind.Branden Harvey Photography (120 of 383) alice edit

The beginnings of a nonprofit

Currently boasting six of the ten fastest growing countries in the world, Africa is undergoing enormous growing pains. Youth unemployment and ethnic conflict issues are massive. It takes 170 percent of a family’s annual income to send a student to university in Sub-Saharan Africa.  As a result, only 5 percent of the university-aged population is enrolled. This is a landscape in which children, especially girls, don’t have opportunities to pursue higher education and career paths that could advance their communities.

Justin felt it was unjust that so many young, capable individuals didn’t have the opportunity he was afforded – an education that allowed him to improve his own life and make positive, transformative impact.

After finishing his work abroad, Justin moved to Portland, Oregon, with twelve of his friends, and enrolled in Portland State University (PSU) as a graduate student studying Peace and Conflict Resolution. His moment of truth occurred after class:

“I was sitting on a bench in the park blocks…and I got this really strong sense. It was a really intense spiritual moment — and it was ‘Justin, are you going to deny for others what you demand for yourself?  Are you going to take opportunities for you and not allow other people that I legitimately care about, who I felt were my friends — to have some of those same opportunities?’ And that kind of broke me in a real way.”

Justin immediately headed to Powell’s Bookstore and bought the book, How to Start and Build a Non-profit Organization. “It wasn’t very helpful, it was kind of crap,” he admits, “But it was that symbol — I’m not just going to talk about this stuff — I’m actually going to take action.”

Branden Harvey Photography (52 of 383) iranziThe name “These Numbers Have Faces” came to Justin as he tried to finds ways to reach people in Africa. His research led him to countless statistics, piles of data, and pie charts stained red, showcasing the real challenges Africa faces: war, AIDS, and famine. “But that wasn’t my experience there,” Justin insists, as he recalls the juxtaposition between his travels and his research. “My experience was meeting talented young people who wanted to change the world. It didn’t feel fair to me that the Western media had portrayed them all as these sad people. You see all those images of kids with flies on their faces and I just kept saying to myself, ‘These numbers — they’re real people. These numbers have faces.’ And that’s why we called it that. I wanted something that was a little bit unique — something that people would say, ‘Jeez Louise — what does that mean?’”

The program started out as a scholarship fund for kids and has evolved into a loan program, as the organization has grown exponentially. In 2010, they had raised approximately $33K in funding. They doubled in size between 2014 and 2015 reaching $1.2 million and have now directly impacted 344 African kids, and while TNHF is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, it has a core international hub in Rwanda. This hub allows the organization to do engagement year round.

The organization currently supports kids in four regions, and is now focusing its attention on Africa’s Great Lakes Region — an area that is affordable, and where children speak English. “We found a genuine excitement and passion in places like Rwanda and Kenya — of young people that are ready to take over and who want to make a difference,” Justin explains,  “Some want to become doctors and many want to start their own companies. We’ve been kind of caught in their tractor beam of excitement in these areas and we feel this is the best place to be operating.”

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Engaging bright minds to create bright futures

So, how does one get into the program?

Students must apply online, which often means saving money to take the bus to the nearest Internet cafe and spending a couple hours filling out the application. The acceptance process is extensive, consisting of the application, a phone interview, an in-person interview, and a home visit. Thus far, the program has spread primarily via word of mouth with the occasional presentation at select high schools. The selection process begins with a cutoff of year-end exam scores — and ends with the brightest minds accepted into the program.

“By keeping it more exclusive, we get extremely high talent — extremely high caliber kids. We use the phrase diamonds in, diamonds out as a means to get top quality when they come in and then they go through our whole program.  We find that they’re just so much more prepared and excited going through.” And it’s working, as 800 students applied for 30 spots in Rwanda in 2015.

One of their greater challenges is getting girls to apply to the program.  This is an interesting problem given Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in Parliament in the world — 64 percent of their government is run by women.

“I mean women are the secret weapon if you want to see justice, if you want to see peace, if you want to Branden Harvey Photography (1 of 383) jessicasee economic growth, women are the place to invest,” he says. Yet only 12 of the 120 kids who applied from refugee camps this past year were girls. “These families are impoverished and looking at short term gains rather than long term benefits of investing in their children’s education.”

Most of these young women aren’t able to make it through high school.Yet the long-term benefit of investing in a woman’s education is palpable. One of their scholars, a young woman named Skovia told TNHF that her family had arranged for her to marry a man for 20 cows. Justin confirmed this from her father on a visit to Rwanda. She joined their program and now her family recognizes the benefits of higher education as a long-term investment. “She can potentially benefit her family forever,” says Justin.

Once the students have been accepted there are six main fields they focus in — business, medicine, law, science, technology, and engineering. TNHF has also set up an organic mentoring relationship between older kids in the same field as the younger kids. A first year law student would be paired with a 3rd year student to aid them through the strenuous process. In addition, students pay it forward through community impact projects. Each student must complete 50 hours of community service each year.

TNHF also has a five-year plan for graduates to repay their loans in small increments based on when they find work. “When they pay back their loan that money is going directly to a young person who is 3-4 years behind them.” TNHF has had 22 students graduate in South Africa, 10 in Rwanda and 12 are graduating in Uganda this May.

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Creating a sustainable and impactful organization

TNHF is funded by approximately 1,000 donors comprised of investors, family foundations, grants and corporate relationships.

“We have a relational focus from our students and our staff in this office.  We have about an 85 percent retention rate in donors every year. We work hard at making folks feel connected and a part of our whole mission. I want them to feel like they are alongside us, traveling with us, making this stuff happen side by side.” In Africa they film videos with students — constantly showing donors the impact their investments have made on these students’ lives.

However, TNHF continues to face unique funding challenges — a major one being getting people to recognize the power of investing in young adults.

“When people want to give to Africa they want to give in commodities — they want to feel like ‘I built a well, I gave these nets, I provided food for 500 kids’ — and those are important. But convincing people to invest in young adults is a big hurdle. “We always joke that we would be 10 times bigger if we did baby photos of our kids because they’re just so cute. People want immediate results — and for us to say invest in this kid now and in 5 years, in 20 years, I’m going to show you what that investment did — for many folks that’s not what they want.”

But even with those known challenges, TNHF continues to  work on building leaders who will make a positive contribution to their communities – a long term investment.

“Our work is not to serve a million kids a year. It’s that we deeply invest in the lives of these young people and work hard to ensure that they become young people of character and of vision to help them become the next leaders in their own countries. And that is really our main goal.”

Branden Harvey Photography (274 of 383) arnold scovia geraldIn the fall of 2015, TNHF launched Accelerate Academy, a new entrepreneurial mentorship/training program. Three-hundred and fifty individuals applied for the program and 27 were selected for a year-long intensive program based in Rwanda. On expanding, Justin said, “I think that we hit really hard on the education side of things, and now to be able to add on to a business creation side is great, because you need both. We need kids who are going to be doctors because they have massive health challenges. And then we need kids who will start companies…You can have all of the talent and the financial backing and the rest — but that mentoring is the most critical thing.”

The program will culminate in May with a Shark Tank style pitch-fest at the Accelerate finale with actual investors. Impressively, of the 27 individuals, eight have already started companies that are currently making sales in Africa.

TNHF also offers a corporate paid intern program that has doubled in size, with four students working in the U.S. during the summer of 2015 and eight coming in 2016. Corporate partners include Amazon, an engineering firm in Texas, and a few companies in Oregon including Allion USA — and the Portland Timbers hosted several of the interns. The students from last year’s program made enough money during their three-month internship to fully pay back their loans. This is impressive given the average income in Rwanda is 700 dollars per year and the loans were for thousands of dollars. “Then to go back home and have Amazon at the top of their resume — that’s a game changer for them.”

One of Justin’s proudest moments occurred when one of the young interns spoke at a corporate gathering at a Law firm in Portland last summer. “He gets up there and he brings it — crushes. These are the poorest people on the planet, and he’s here wearing a jacket and a tie and he’s fundraising for us in ways that I never could. I was watching him do my job and hearing his account of how terrific the program had been for him. And then to see him share about what his experience had been like here — that was something that you just dream of…He was exuding the character, the passion, the confidence, the leadership — and to think that had we not met him in his refugee camp — he’d be in that dirt hut carrying water. And yet here he is crushing it in front of these big time executive types.”

justinJustin’s vision for “These Numbers” ties directly with the best piece of advice he received as an entrepreneur: that his work will be incomplete.

“This idea that the work is meant to be incomplete is liberation actually. Because what it means is that what I’m starting right now, from 2010-2016 isn’t about me. I’ve been called to this and I’ve been able to mobilize people and we’ve done great stuff.   But this is going to extend beyond me. And when you understand that it enables you to walk into work every day and go ‘right, I’m going to do something small and I’m going to do it well, and I’m going to work hard at it but I don’t have to reach this high pinnacle mark today.’ And there’s freedom in that.”

Justin believes entrepreneurs should look for their moment of obligation. “I had a moment of obligation sitting on that park bench…There’s something about wanting to solve the greatest challenges of the world — wanting to meet real needs and I’m not saying that has to be something global justice based. The best entrepreneurs have something personal tied into why they do what they do. That is the fuel when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. And I want people to go on that search for meaning because that is the highest human good. If we can wake up in the morning and be like I have meaning today because I get to work on this — that is what happiness is all about.  I think that it’s all about finding that moment of obligation and then pushing through that. I’m surprised that I actually have that in me and that fire isn’t dying. It’s only getting greater.”
For more information, visit www.thesenumbers.org,  like them on Facebook and follow on Twitter and Instagram

 

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Danielle Towne