Interesting developments continue to sprout from an ambitious venture in central Africa. It’s Asili, a multiyear clean water-health-agriculture development designed by Congolese collaborating with the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC) in a part of Democratic Republic of Congo still devastated by a 15-year civil war.

Most recently, Minneapolis-based RSP Architecture designed for free a medical clinic at the Asili site that opened this month. It was built by locals and is staffed by local health professionals.

“For a relatively small effort on our part, we feel we made a substantial impact in a health crisis,” said Derek McCallum, RSP design principal. “It’s not big. We’re in the habit of designing a half-million square feet at a time. We have a commitment. They intend to build more health clinics, if the Asili model works over three years, and can monetize itself. We hand the keys to the locals.”

RSP was connected to ARC, located about a mile from each other in northeast Minneapolis, by John Griffith, an ARC-supporting businessman. ARC focuses on refugee-and-grassroots redevelopment in tough parts of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It challenged USAID several years ago to match it dollar-for-dollar in developing several “Asili zones” to demonstrate that local people could increase their health and wealth through small-scale agriculture, clean water and health services that ultimately will be entirely operated by local folks.

ARC CEO Daniel Wordsworth said the Congo project is the world’s first “social enterprise strip mall.” The new clinic is the latest addition in the second of what will be four pilot sites in Congo’s eastern South Kivu Province.

In five weeks, RSP architect McCallum and his team, working with ARC here and in Congo, designed the modern facility that serves far more people than the earlier clinic. The new clinic has more room for doctors and patients, contains a pharmacy, is always clean and has clean drinkable water.

“Our first clinic … was made from a recycled shipping container and it felt like we were reusing and being efficient,” Wordsworth said. “But to someone living [there], it looks like a rundown warehouse. … We needed RSP to design a space that’s efficient, that works well for health care, and that’s meaningful for Congolese people.”

The Asili business champion is ARC board member Ward Brehm, a retired insurance-firm owner who has a heart for the Congolese, including six-figure donations to Asili by his family, and many trips to the area. He and Wordsworth continue to bring new Minnesota stakeholders to the project.

Asili agricultural specialists work with hundreds of small-plot farmers 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. The Obama administration has stretched USAID foreign aid dollars by partnering with nonprofits and businesses that bring capital and expertise.

Wordsworth said the “Asili” brand, which means foundation in Swahili, is embraced locally as positive and enduring.

McCallum, who has signed up for more work, said: “This has purpose. I’ve never worked on a project so small and simple that was so impactful.”

State report says economy will grow this year

Minnesota will experience steady economic growth in the Twin Cities and northwest, southeast and southwest parts of the state, according to an economic report by the St. Cloud State University School of Public Affairs Research Institute, in partnership with the office of the Minnesota secretary of state. The northeast, home of the Iron Range, will continue to struggle, even as the first months-shuttered taconite mine reopens this spring.

“These economic reports provide small-business owners with the data, trends, and insights to better understand their region’s current and future economic environment,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon.

“We see steady growth for the first half of 2016 in most parts of the state, including the Minneapolis-St. Paul region,” said King Banaian, co-author, dean of the School of Public Affairs at St. Cloud State and a former legislator.


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at