"We're trying to start a revolution. Our goal is to transform development," dynamic duo Nyla Rodgers and Amy Vaninetti, the founder and operations director of Africa-centric nonprofit Mama Hope, tell me as I settle into the one spare chair in their small, sparsely decorated office in downtown San Francisco. Blonde-haired beauties with sparkling white smiles, they look more like supermodels than superheroines. But listening to these vivacious, well-connected women tell their story, it seems that if anyone can succeed, they can.
Most NGOs operate according to a top-down model, Nyla and Amy explain. Officials decide what the locals need. The NGO builds the project and then leaves. Often projects are abandoned six months later because the community never took ownership of them.
Mama Hope works in just the opposite way. Nyla, Amy and their volunteers spend time getting to know people in communities where they've been invited to help. They confer with the locals to determine what projects would most benefit the village. And while Nyla and Amy raise the micro-development funds for, say, the community garden, school or hospital, they involve the locals at every phase, from planning, to sourcing materials, to construction, to long-term management.
Nyla explains, "When Amy and I travel to Africa, we see people born into difficult circumstances living with tremendous hope, love and happiness. They are eager to give back to their communities. Mama Hope seeks to empower these innovative, driven and capable people by providing them with the minimal resources they need to get their projects started."
Mama Hope has gotten 13 projects up and running, benefiting the lives of over 76,000 people in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Uganda. In Moshi, Tanzania in 2009, through hosting a series of town hall discussions, they discovered that locals wanted a school. In the course of making the villagers' dream a reality, Mama Hope created 700 jobs and sourced all building materials locally. Together with the community, they came up with a solution for covering the school's ongoing operating expenses: two thirds of the children, the ones whose parents could afford it, would pay tuition; the other one third would attend for free. Today, the school has educated over 200 students at no cost to their families. It is managed completely by locals, who take tremendous pride in what they've created.
Nyla says, "They own it, and they know it. These are not our projects. At end of day, if most of the villagers don't even know that Mama Hope was involved, then we're happy. We want to be like angel investors, not CEOs."
Amy adds, "In fact, we're so committed to this vision that we've set up a training program to teach the next generation of nonprofit leaders our approach. We want to generate systemic change."
"Changing the world isn't about a sound byte," Nyla chimes in again. "The key to sustainability is ownership. We'd like to see a lot more NGOs adopting this approach."
I ask them how they got started. Nyla, who founded Mama Hope, tells me her touching story. She grew up with a single mom in California. "It was just the two of us. My mother was a complete powerhouse and an amazing role model. She had been a musician who never finished college, and she worked as a dance teacher, writing teacher, whatever the hell she wanted. We never had much money, but she made enough to take care of me. It was an unconventional life."
After completing her undergraduate degree in international studies at UC Santa Barbara, a masters in Austria, and living in Bosnia working at a nonprofit for peace, Nyla returned to the Bay Area. Soon after, her mother got sick with cancer and died six months later, at the age of 54.
"I was so entwined with my mom that when she died, I had a really hard time figuring out who I was in the world," Nyla says. "I was so angry that I lost faith in everything."
Nyla's mother had always dreamed of going to Africa to meet an orphan she had sponsored there for years, named Bernard. So when coincidentally, right after her mother's death, Nyla got an offer to work at the U.N. office in Nairobi, she took it, fully intending to visit Bernard.
The day she arrived at Bernard's village, Nyla was shocked to find hundreds of villagers lined up to meet her -- to honor her mother. It turned out that long before Kiva popularized the concept of micro-finance, Nyla's mom had donated $1,000 to various local women to start their small businesses. As a result, they had been able to put their kids through school, pay for AIDS medications and reinvest in their village. These micro-loans had impacted the entire community.
"I was so overwhelmed when I found out all that my mother had done," Nyla says, her eyes brimming. "I'd been in a pit of despair, having lost my mom who was my whole family. I'd been wondering, 'What do you do with your love for someone after they're gone?' This community showed me what to do. I had to give back to others, just as my mother had, in order to honor her."
Thanks to her mother's actions, Nyla also had a clear vision of how to proceed. She explains, "My mom had no agenda of her own. She just asked the villagers what they wanted and gave it to them. I'd been working with high-powered, well-funded NGOs in the developing world for six years at that point, and had never seen them have such a profound impact on a community as my mother had with a thousand dollars."
Nyla soon found a village in Kenya that wanted a health clinic built. When she returned to the U.S., she got a job waiting tables to pay the bills. Then she wrote an email to everyone she had ever known asking for contributions. Within two months, she had raised the necessary $30,000, which she turned over to the villagers. They rallied their community to build and operate the clinic.
"I saw that I was really onto something," Nyla says. "That's when Mama Hope came to life."
"What does it mean to you to live the Life Out Loud?" I ask.
Nyla says, "I speak out. I see myself as a renegade. I want to see things change in the nonprofit world. So I lead by example."
Amy answers, "For me, it means standing up for what you believe in. We're trying to solve one of the most fundamental problems in the world today: how aid is delivered. I'm a doer who believes that being fearless is living out loud."
Photo credit: Bryce Yukio-Adolphson