Saul Garlick

Guest Post: ThinkImpact Offers A New Approach to Catalyzing Rural Entrepreneurs

In 1992, Rashida Begum used to look out over her small farm in Bangladesh every day hoping for rain. Unlike farmers who could irrigate their crops, Rashida had no means to access well water, and she depended on fickle rain. She was not alone in her reliance on rainwater for irrigation.

As I write this, about 2.5 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihood, and this means that access to water for irrigation is essential to almost half of humanity – and yet many still don’t have access to the technologies necessary to control irrigation. That year, Rashida bought a treadle pump. The pump was a simple, hand-powered device; and it changed her life. With steady flowing water, she could grow more crops and sell some for profit. She sustained a family of five, diversified her crops, and recently realized her dream of buying a small retail store. You can read Rashida’s remarkable story, along with others like it, at the International Development Enterprises website. As IDE reports, “simple, affordable technologies enable the rural poor to become entrepreneurs, creating a path out of poverty that is both sustainable and replicable.”

Bringing affordable technology to rural farmers is IDE’s mission, and they deserve our thanks and praise. Their mission is part of a larger objective: helping rural entrepreneurs access income opportunities. Rashida is an entrepreneur, a self-sufficient businesswoman, as are millions of other Bangladeshis who have bought treadle pumps.

The most innovative and helpful advances in development work in the past three decades have pivoted around the question: How do we unlock the innumerable income opportunities at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP)?

I started ThinkImpact as a vehicle to find answers to this question. ThinkImpact builds social businesses to end poverty. We host a 10-week Innovation Institute Scholars Program in rural Kenya and South Africa, taking America’s brightest young social entrepreneurs to live and work with community entrepreneurs and identify and develop social innovations borne in the community. Our scholars learn through an asset-based community development curriculum, and consider ways to unleash the potential at the BoP, creating jobs, products and services that change lives.

An example of a business that is currently taking flight as a result the Scholars Program is Mungano Soap, based in Kayafungo, Kenya. Alexandra Crosson, who graduated from Central Michigan University, helped the Kayafungo Mungano Women’s Group, which comprises some 35 women from villages across Kayafungo to start a soap business. Alexandra realized that her community partner, Grace, knew how to make soap, and after some research, Alexandra found that all the ingredients necessary were readily available in the area. In the pilot run, Mungano Soap produced 250 bars of soap from local materials and sold them in the community market, improving access to sanitation for approximately 500 people. Every single bar of soap was sold during the first business day. Today, Mungano Soap employs a dozen women and soap sales are growing.

We are calling on extraordinary young Americans who want to be part of the solution. Applications to join our Innovation Institute Scholars Program are now open. Prior to leaving for Africa, selected applicants convene in Washington, D.C. for a pre-departure training workshop. Once in country, scholars engage a comprehensive curriculum that includes language classes, a homestay experience, market research, business development and excursions. The ten-week curriculum culminates with scholars working on developing social businesses with a community entrepreneur.

The journey to Africa for many of the most talented students in the country will begin when they apply in the coming months. Selected applicants will be eligible for a full ride scholarship on for the summer of 2011. Apply now or spread the word.