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Inch by Inch: Africa's Determined Social Entrepreneurs

'Gbenga Sesan and Erik Charas, both graduates of the Tutu-sponsored African Leadership Institute, are helping the young and poor in Africa find a voice of their own.
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Erik Charas showing off the free newspaper he founded. Photograph by Aly Ramji/Mediapix/World Economic Forum.

When the character played by Al Pacino sat his football team down in the interval of a make-or-break game towards the end of the film Any Given Sunday, he described life as “a game of inches”. In other words, it is all about the small steps forward, no matter what.

“We fight for that inch. We’ll claw with our nails for that inch. Because we know that when we add up all those inches, that’s going to make the difference between winning and losing. Between life, and death.”

Determination is the active ingredient of a conventional entrepreneur. Set-backs, hurdles, puzzles and gatekeepers stand between you and your millions. But when you are a social entrepreneur, trying to effect change for good through business, you also have to take account of factor in poverty, drugs, alcohol, sex working, illness, mental health, or disabilities into your business plan. Your determination can be tested daily.

'Gbenga Sesan, the man with a plan

Every three months, 'Gbenga Sesan, a social entrepreneur operating in the poorest area of Lagos, sits and interviews himself in front of the mirror. “What have you done well in these past three months, 'Gbenga? What have you failed on? How will you be better? How can you help more people? Why have you failed and what will make you succeed?” The cycle of self-appraisal continues relentlessly. At the end of every major project, at the end of every quarter, after every setback, he has reviewed himself without mercy for the last five years.

In 2007, Sesan was nominated for a place on a leadership course organised by the African Leadership Institute sponsored by Desmond Tutu. Flown to a secluded conference centre near Johannesburg, Sesan joined other young Africans from business, government and development backgrounds. They were put through an intense series of seminars, discussions, lectures and exercises about leadership. It didn’t take long for Sesan to have his eureka moment – on the plane home to Lagos, he scribbled the blueprint for Ajegunle.org on the back of his plane ticket.

Ajegunle.org is based upon giving Nigeria’s youth key technology and communication skills. The scheme helps young people in the slums get training and jobs. Unemployment is a major issue in Nigeria, with even large swathes of graduates unable to find work. Many of these unemployed graduates come from disadvantaged communities and find themselves sucked into an underworld of cyber crime and petty theft.

Sesan’s employment and training programme targets these unemployed but high-skilled individuals. He improves their IT, entrepreneurial and communication skills, and then connects them with internships and local employers, or helps them start and grow their own small businesses. Since 2007, his work has helped over 13,000 young Nigerians.

Every one of those should be grateful for Sesan’s private ritual of self-appraisal. Clearly it gives him determination. It has inspired his programme to grow to a staggering reach, and demonstrated the potential to transform not only the lives of people he touches directly, but also other social entrepreneurs around the country, continent and world.

Erik Charas, bringing truth to the masses

Erik Charas, from Mozambique, was one of the other entrepreneurs on the African Leadership Institute programme. Remembering his first days on the course, he tells Think Africa Press, “It is exciting, because you have in mind your nomination from Tutu, and it feels like a great achievement. He is an African that inspires respect, and has fought an entire oppressive system of government using only words.”

Like Tutu, Charas is also in the business of employing words to challenge the system. In his native Mozambique, the government once enjoyed complete control over the printed media. Only 15% of citizens had access to electricity or the internet. This severely limited their ability to consume information, understand and ultimately critique their government.

Recognising this problem, Charas established Mozambique’s first free newspaper distributed in print form to areas of socio-economic deprivation. The paper was entitled Verdade which means ‘Truth’ in Portuguese. The free newspaper is denied to members of the middle classes, who are directed instead to a free edition online. This distinction is important as the cost of a newspaper can be the same as eight loaves of bread in Mozambique, and in order to get the widest distribution possible and into areas of social and economic neglect, restricting it to those who could not afford to buy it is important.

Traditionally, poor Mozambicans instinctively mistrusted printed media as government propaganda. Charas and his team wanted to challenge the conventional hierarchy of information and news distribution. Editorial direction was taken from the hands of the newspaper editors and offered to the citizenry. Stories could be suggested by letter, phone, social media, email or SMS. As events developed and information was verified or falsified, the news would update on the website and alter what was printed in the newspaper. They even put a blackboard up on the wall outside their office and allowed people to chalk up responses to their articles.

Now the printed word is becoming a reliable tool for spreading accurate news about events in Mozambique. Corrections and opposing points of view are harvested from each of its mediums and artfully re-dispersed, with comments on its Facebook page printed in the newspaper, and the scribbles on the chalkboard photographed and put on Twitter. The feedback loop is large, active and transparent.

The effect is enormous. Not only are the poor of Mozambique able to educate themselves on current affairs but literacy rates have measurably improved, perhaps thanks to the fact readers have a chance to practice their language skills for a short time every day. The so-called ‘Messengers of Truth’ who distribute the newspaper throughout the poor areas of Mozambique are highly organised and discriminatory. They have divided the country into postcode areas and keep detailed records of living conditions and wealth inequality so as to carefully target the free papers along class-based distributions.

By throwing the ownership of the newspaper out to the poorest people in Mozambique, Charas has allowed a lesson from Tutu to manifest itself in his work.

“Humility was the greatest lesson I learned on the leadership course”, he says. “We are all equal Africans. I don’t know whether I am black or white, I die my hair blonde, I speak three languages. But I know that I am African. All of us are the same.

“But we should all know also that we have a place in the world. And we shouldn’t be jealous of other peoples’ places. I know that my place in this newspaper is not managing it and telling reporters what to write. I know that my role is to distribute it and that is all. I am humble and I know that they are better at some things than me.”

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