Building A Path Out Of Poverty One Small Business At A Time
Nearly three years ago, undergrad Mutesa Kabaka was trying to catch up on news about Burundi, the African country he and his family fled during a mass genocide in 1993. He found a YouTube video depicting the hardships many of his fellow refugees faced on their return home.
“They had no land to farm on, no skills,” he says. “There were no jobs available and no way for them to provide for themselves. The video showed a widow with two very young children at home, toddlers. She had to leave them and do prostitution in order to feed them.
“It touched my heart. I remember that situation. I know how hunger is, not being able to provide for children.”
Kabaka, a public policy major, was moved to search for a way to help the poor in Burundi and neighboring countries.
“I wanted to provide these families a means to provide for themselves,” he says. “Not give them a handout, but help them raise their confidence so they’re better off.”
Small Businesses, Big Changes
At the time, Kabaka was participating in an online internship with a solar energy franchising group in Nicaragua for the Georgia State University Chapter of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (NLA). He began researching the idea of using solar energy to help people in Burundi.
“Manufacturing soap was my first idea, but with manufacturing you’re in one location,” says Kabaka. “I found that microfranchising reaches people all over.”
Microfranchising adapts the concepts of traditional franchising to help people start small businesses in developing countries.
Kabaka founded Zetu, an Atlanta-based social enterprise based on the microfranchising concept.
Zetu targets people who can read, write and do basic math – essentially a third-grade education – and who make less than a dollar or two a day. So far, Zetu has helped five people in Burundi start small businesses selling solar-powered lamps and offering cell-phone charging powered by solar panels.
In Burundi, 68 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 90 percent make their living solely on agriculture, mostly subsistence farming. But basic cell phones have become popular.
The problem is that villagers have limited access to electricity and may have to travel up to two hours to the nearest city when they need to charge their phones. For lights, they rely on costly and hazardous kerosene lamps.
“Imagine taking half a day to go charge your phone, sometimes picking it up the next day,” says Kabaka. “They have phones, but not the electricity to charge them.”
Nadia, a mother of three, became one of the first solar entrepreneurs recruited by Zetu. She farmed alongside her husband to grow food for her family. Now, Nadia sees her new enterprise as a way to alleviate poverty not only for her family, but also the fellow villagers who become her customers.
“The reliable source of light that the solar energy lamps supply will make it possible for schoolchildren to study at night, for businesses to operate longer hours and increase their income and for household tasks to extend into the night,” she says.
Coming to America
Kabaka knows what it’s like to struggle.
After fleeing Burundi, Kabaka, his mother and siblings ended up in a Tanzanian refugee camp.
At 16, he and some of his siblings were resettled with their mother in Atlanta, where he began high school although he knew no English.
He graduated and worked in hotel housekeeping for a few years before deciding he should go to college. Now, he is married, the father of two, working full-time and well into his degree program at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.
Kabaka, who is applying for nonprofit status for Zetu, has big plans for the enterprise, which recently received a $1,000 Selfless4Africa Pioneer’s Grant.
He hopes to develop microfranchising models that will benefit the poorest of the poor, people who often don’t have any education.
He is piloting a poultry business that would allow landless and illiterate families to work as chicken farmers, feed sellers, vaccinators or egg producers. Other micro-franchise models he is considering include mushroom farming, fish farming, rural pharmacies and health clinics.
Eventually, he wants to expand to the East African nations of Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya.
He credits an ad hoc board of Andrew Young School of Policy Studies faculty and students and former NLA members with helping him get his idea off the ground. Though he says he’s frustrated he hasn’t been able to help more people yet, he thinks he’s on the right track.
“Micro-franchising has the potential to really uproot the causes of poverty in developing countries, instead of just treating the symptoms,” says Kabaka. “Zetu’s business models spur economic growth and build human capital.”
To learn more about Zetu, visit the organization’s website.
Cover photo courtesy of CIAT/Neil Palmer.