Hand Up, not Handing Out: Social Entrepreneur Interview – Sylvester Renner

True social entrepreneurs find ways to empower people by giving them the tools to improve their own lives as they see fit. Sylvester Renner is just such a social entrepreneur with a big vision – to develop Africa!

Can you give us a nutshell summary of what Develop Africa is all about?

Develop Africa is all about empowering people. We are about changing lives. We focus on developing people, helping them transition from poverty and powerlessness to self-sufficiency and independence. Through the support that we provide, the lives of the beneficiaries are strengthened and transformed. Ultimately, their families are empowered and they contribute positively to national development. We accomplish our mandate of “Changing Lives, Nations and Destinies” through several holistic programs supporting education, microfinance and small businesses, job skills / leadership development training etc.

What’s been the biggest success of your organization?

The biggest success so far has been the implementation of the FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalists) all-girls school computer lab in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Some of the funds from a 2010 Chase Community Giving grant were used to set up a fully-furnished, multimedia computer lab at the school.

Female education in Africa desperately needs to be supported. Undoubtedly, healthy, well-educated and emancipated women will rear healthy, well educated and emancipated children. As Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, said “to educate girls is to reduce poverty”. In a paper on the Determinants of Poverty in Sierra Leone, it is stated “Female education in particular (both primary and secondary) is associated positively with the welfare of households…”  Supporting the education of girls and women with ventures such as this computer lab is crucial for development in Africa.

The education of girls is dear to heart of the Develop Africa team. We are working together with FAWE, Freetown Branch to help eliminate gender disparity in education and empower girls. This lab is in direct support of and in concert with the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) furthering the education of girls. These computers and the training are enhancing the quality of the education given to the girls enrolled at the school. Future possibilities for the lab include opening up the lab for use by other school groups and the general community.

We are excited about this opportunity, helping to transform their education through this pilot lab and look forward to setting up additional labs. We invite your support as we provide on-going computer training and launch additional labs.

Why focus on microfinance and small businesses instead of charity work?

Small businesses are the life-blood of every nation. By strengthening businesses through microfinance funds, vocational and business training, we are strengthening the largest business sector and helping people become self-sufficient, independent and empowered. Empowered people are able to fully manage and develop their nation.

By focusing on microfinance and small business we are building people, nations and fulfilling our mandate. Additionally, there is a strong need for this expressed by the beneficiaries themselves. This type of intervention is also strongly recommended by African governments. This support provides a “hand up” and not simply a “hand out”. Development work of this type is sustainable and the lives of people are empowered and transformed.

Tell us about the school project and the connection with solar energy.

The school project involves a computer lab at a school for disadvantaged and displaced girls in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The school was set up in 1995 during the civil war.

Over the years, Develop Africa has been working as a partner with the school, helping to provide books, school supplies and scholarships. With the help of funds from Chase Community Giving, we set up a computer lab, which was dedicated and launched on May 17th 2011. The computers are equipped with a special educational package, called EduStation. EduStation comprises of a wide range of age-appropriate software that supports self-learning by children on key subjects, at their own pace and in a multimedia environment.

The power / electricity situation in Sierra Leone is currently unreliable. Electricity is not only in short supply but is also rising rapidly in terms of cost. For this lab to be optimally beneficial, we need to make it available for learning on an on-going basis. We are currently in the process of raising support to purchase solar panels and equipment to power the lab. Using solar energy makes sense because of the abundant sunshine in Africa. Solar energy will be used to replace, or partly replace, the electricity requirement for the lab. It will help reduce rising electrical bills and provide significant savings. Solar energy would also further reduce the demand on local power resources and reduce the school’s carbon footprint. The implementation of solar energy would be a tremendous benefit and makes excellent sense.

Is your organization self-funded? Funded by foundations or investors? How do you find these people? What’s involved in securing funding?

The organization is publicly funded by donations from a wide range of individuals, organizations, groups, businesses, foundations etc. We proactively seek funding through fund raising websites, social media and through our website. We are also continually developing relationships with groups, organizations and businesses that are interested in supporting our programs. We are in the process of identifying foundations for additional funding for this and other programs. The photos and stories of beneficiaries enable people to see and experience the impact we are making. This demonstration of the use of funds helps donors connect with beneficiaries and paves the path for additional funding. People love to see and be a part of making change happen.

What role does your website play in your work? Social media?

The website and social media play a huge role in our fundraising, public relations and networking efforts. Through social media, for instance, we were able to win a grant from Chase Community Giving. A large number of people and supporters continue to find us through our website and social media. These channels help to present what we are doing 24 / 7 / 365. People are able to access information and be a part by donating at their own schedule and convenience. Additionally, our website and social media are helping us connect with and raise funds globally. These channels know no boundaries and we receive support from people worldwide. Through these channels, we have connected with many wonderful people that are looking for a great vision and a cause that is transforming lives.

What strategies did you find to be most successful for marketing, especially in growing your email list?

It’s very important to have an updated website and to be active on Facebook – and on as many other channels as possible. These channels have been very effective for us in terms of marketing and growing our email list. Worldwide, people are spending more time online. Being active online and on the sites where people are active has helped us grow.

Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?

The project is currently in the fund raising phase for solar energy. In the previous phases we learned the importance of being very flexible with regard to time. We had assumed that the computer installation phase would happen a lot quicker than it did. However, we ran into delays in several areas. Lesson learned: Be flexible with regards to time and cater for unexpected delays in implementation. Also, for solar installations, keep in mind the power / load requirements when obtaining equipment. Optimize where possible.

What advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?

Be prepared to work hard, keep your goal in focus and refuel for flight often. The journey is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s essential that you frequently refuel your energy and vision. This will help ensure that you maintain the needed momentum.

You can connect with Sylvester via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or his personal website, SylvesterRenner.com.

This post was written by:

Maryruth Belsey Priebe

Maryruth has been seeking the keys to environmental justice - both at home and at work - for over a decade. Growing up adjacent to wild spaces, Maryruth developed a healthy respect (and whimsical appreciation) for things non-human, but her practical mind constantly draws her down to earth to ponder tangible solutions to complex eco-problems.

With interests that range from green living to green business, sustainable building designs to organic gardening practices, ecosystem restoration to environmental health, Maryruth has been exploring and writing about earth-matters for most of her life. Of special interest is the subject of ecopsychology and the role the natural world plays in the long-term health and well-being of humanity. You can learn more about Maryruth's work at www.JadeCreative.ca.

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