Last month, Ward Brehm, a Minneapolis business guy with a big heart, drank the sweetest glass of water of his life.
Brehm and a few Americans and hundreds of Congolese men, women and children who effectively are his partners as well as his friends over several years in South Kivu Province, broke into applause and laughter to celebrate completion of the 13th clean-water shop in a neighborhood where one in six kids dies of waterborne diseases by age 5.
They are constructed and staffed by local workers, as are nearby health clinics.
Brehm, 63, built a successful insurance business over 40 years that he sold in 2013 to his partners. Now, he’s focused on the capstone venture of his career. He and his wife, Kris, have invested hundreds of thousand of dollars and many trips in the effort.
And he’s not looking for a personal financial return.
This venture is something of an act of faith. And business. And collaboration. The Republican businessman collaborates with Democrats, a key nonprofit and the Obama administration in Africa. And he is happy to see the Congolese people — three years into the enterprise — take ownership of these “social enterprises” of water, bright and well-stocked health clinics staffed by Congolese health professionals, more-productive farmers, and tiny food processors.
About 10,000 of the world’s poorest people are making a better living and healthier lives in a rural part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, under the banner of “Asili, ” the Swahili word for “foundation.”
“I am busier than ever trying to continue to answer this … call to Africa,” said Brehm, who made the first of 45 trips in 1993 at the urging of his pastor. “God has opened many magnificent doors for me and made connections critical to Asili’s success.
“My wife, Kris, and I have committed to [another] $200,000 over the next three years to Asili. I believe it will be the very best investment we will ever make. The dividends will be dignity and respect to those now able to purchase clean water, basic medical care and improved nutrition. I consider those basic human rights.
“The employees, working and making money, are from these communities. The guy who runs Asili is African. We are trying to deliver aid differently. And I am convinced that the only “sustainable’ way to eliminate poverty in Africa is through the free enterprise system. And we are proving in the first Asili ‘zone’ our concept. It’s up and running.”
To be sure, there’s not a lot of investment capital washing around a former war-torn zone that is one of the poorest places on Earth.
Brehm’s partner, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit, American Refugee Committee, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have fronted hundreds of thousands of dollars. That is kind of the seed investment for planning, infrastructure and construction.
And in fairness, Germany, after World War II, wouldn’t have built one of the world’s most powerful economies without the today-equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars from the West to rebuild its country and economy.
Brehm, a longtime ARC board member, and others, including USAID, have rethought “foreign aid,” which accounts for about 1 percent of the U.S. budget. There will always be food, water and medicine for victims of war and disaster. But the vexing part is building a sustainable economy and improving incomes to get to the virtuous circle of work-to-wealth that produces income and consumption and improved housing and education for children and a better future.
Many African “aid” projects were giveaways with no local ownership and little self-sustaining economic opportunity. Or the aid money was grabbed by corrupt governors and crony capitalists and never reached the people.
The Obama administration and USAID, under just-departed administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, have stretched public dollars over the last several years by partnering with nonprofits and businesses who bring their capital and expertise to bear in unified projects.
Brehm and ARC CEO Daniel Wordsworth persuaded Shah three years ago to invest $1 of USAID money for every $1 they could raise to prove their model in East Congo, plagued by 15 years of civil war that mostly killed civilians.
Asili agricultural specialists work with small-plot farmers of an acre or so to diversify the staple crops of banana and cassava with vitamin-and-mineral rich potatoes, with a longer shelf life, that have tripled yields to an average of $250 per harvest from about $50. Over 600 farm families are involved. More produce is going to local farmers markets.
Brehm talked a friend, Ashish Gadnis, an IT professional, into a developing a simple business-management system that can be used by individual proprietors in the Asili cooperative through cellphones and which also collect the individual data and aggregate them into “big data” that is being collected and studied by Stanford University’s Center for Global Innovation and USAID.
“I had sold my technology-consulting business and was looking for volunteer work and Ward talked me into going to about the poorest place on Earth, and I’m kind of the geeky data guy who is the IT project leader,” Gadnis said. “Ward and ARC and the model and these [Congolese] people are amazing. We help them manage their business through a cellphone.
“There is a good chance we can help them work their way out of poverty.”
ARC and USAID also have set up what Wordsworth calls a “Medicaid” system for the elderly and those who can’t afford to buy water, health care and food. The whole system is somewhat subsidized so far but everybody owns a piece through a cooperative-business model. And individual farmers directly own their land. People get paid for work. Incomes are rising modestly.
“These people have the voice and we are simply their advocates,” Brehm said. “I have the utmost respect for people in poverty. They have great dignity. And we are working together on a solution.”