Brian Singer, who taught high school math in rural Tanzania when he was in the Peace Corps in the 1990s, came to love the country.
After earning a degree in international development from Johns Hopkins University and working in small-business lending for the Neighborhood Development Center in St. Paul, he decided to do more.
In 2000, after visiting Tanzania, he pledged to underwrite the education of two young orphans whose family he knew. A year later, he and wife, Karen Stupic, formed a nonprofit called Project Zawadi to fund more students.
Education is not free in the country, and it is especially hard for working-poor parents to afford even a primary school education. Kids often have to work on their parents' subsistence farms or shops.
"I found them to be amazing people," said Singer, who is fluent in Swahili. "Humbling in their hard work, their happiness and how difficult are their lives. They deserve more.''
Three years later, the entrepreneurial Singer, now 51, launched a safari business in the country, leveraging his relationships in the stunning land of Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti.
The venture called Access 2 Tanzania worked, thanks largely to 20-plus Arusha-based staff and tour guides. Revenue was $3 million in 2019.
Then the pandemic hit — and the travel shut down. The jobs of 40 African employees of Access 2 and Project Zawadi were on the line.
Singer and his wife made a combined $100,000 from the business in 2019. They turned to unemployment insurance and other relief to cover their St. Paul mortgage and other expenses during the pandemic. The Tanzanian employees didn't have a safety net.
Singer told the Access workers that he could afford three months of severance pay.
He also set up a GoFundMe account, notified his past customers and raised $114,000 in 2020. Meanwhile, the customers and past donors nearly doubled contributions to Project Zawadi for 2020 to $537,000.
Singer sobbed in his home office in St. Paul when he realized he would both avoid layoffs and offer a record number of scholarships that were so needed during the pandemic. Fundraising efforts continued in 2021.
"I know every single employee and most of their families," he said. "Our business is coming back, but we won't recover fully, I don't think, until 2023."
It's not the first time Singer leaned on past customers to help the nonprofit. In fact, that is part of the pitch. Come on a safari, learn the country's needs.
Project Zawadi funds scholarships and also partners with government to train public-school teachers and build classrooms, water systems and housing. It raised about $250,000 in 2019 from grateful Access safari customers and other donors.
Access is managed in Africa by part-owner Michael Musa, the oldest brother of one of the first students helped by Zawadi. The safari company charges an average of $600 per person per day for six- to 12-day all-inclusive tours.
"Most revenue goes for hotels, employees, park fees, meals, vehicles and taxes," Singer said. "We invest in Tanzania. When we profit, we invest in the business and Project Zawadi.''
Diane and Gary Rumsey, retirees from Oklahoma City, are Access tour veterans and Zawadi supporters. They "adopted" the family of their guide, Ray Gervas, a decade ago. The Rumseys underwrite school for the four Gervas children and also helped Gervas develop a more profitable family farm through the purchase of chickens and pigs.
"Our lives have been amazingly enriched by that African family," said Diane Rumsey.
They increased their financial support to Zawadi during the pandemic and soon will again visit the country and the Gervas family, who named a son after Gary.
"We are essentially the grandparents to their four children," said a proud Gary Rumsey. "Ray is a super-resourceful entrepreneur with a six-degree education.''
Zawadi pays for several years of public education and university tuition for the best students.
Jeni Soimo, 29, was raised on a subsistence farm by grandparents who couldn't afford school fees after second grade. She received Zawadi scholarships through high school and an associate degree in office management and administration. She's now working in a job and toward a bachelor's degree.
And she built a new house for her grandmother.
"The knowledge I acquired from school [helped me] become an example to my community," she said in an e-mail. "Anything is possible if you're committed."
Project Zawadi-trained educators are training 300 teachers this year who teach 26,000 children, and focus on raising expectations.
"Many Tanzanians, particularly in rural areas, are raised in a way that makes them think they cannot succeed," said Singer, adding there are colonial-historical traditions still in place. "They don't see a lot of success. It's a patriarchal and hierarchical society."
Access 2 Tanzania and Project Zawadi positively project America through business that benefits employees, students and community.
"I am big fan of Brian and impressed by his commitment to Tanzanians and innovation," said Mike Temali, founder of Neighborhood Development Center. "He's an impressive person in our community and in Tanzania.''