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Social Entrepreneurship Program Expands to Africa

Expanding their microfinance practices across the globe, the University of St. Thomas Social Entrepreneurship Program traveled to Africa in January to identify potential projects and collaborations in Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.

A group of two UST faculty members and four students – Dr. Linda Pett-Conklin, Dr. Rogelio Garcia-Contreras, Thomas “Paul” Barnes, Lindsay Phend, Stephanie Coleman and Hiba Haroon – spent the latter part of the winter break from January 5-20 in Africa.

The trip to Tanzania was generously sponsored by Bruce Wilkinson, retired CEO of McDermott International and member of the UST Board of Directors. Beginning in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, the group toured the Lieberman School, which Wilkinson helped build. They also met with members of the Kipawa Parish, His Eminence Polycarp Cardinal Pengo and bank officials to discuss the possibility of starting a microfinance program to create sources of sustainable income among the parishioners. In Malawi, the students assessed the possibility of a number of projects including granting microloans to a co-operative of HIV positive women and agricultural ventures to diversify current farming practices. In Mozambique, the group met with officials of the International Council of Universities of Saint Thomas Aquinas (ICUSA) including Father Joseph Mawala, President of the Universidade de Sao Tomas, Mozambique .

“It was a wonderful and enlightening experience, and we are confident we will be able to develop, establish and coordinate pilot projects with many new partners,” Garcia-Contreras said. “The opportunities are endless and the need is huge. We have the opportunity to do a great deal of good through our loans and our students’ expertise. Our students can become the instruments for real and positive change not only in the lives of others but in their own lives as well.”

Both Barnes and Haroon said this was their first time to travel in Africa, and it was an eye-opening experience.

“I was struck by the contrast between the three countries we visited,” Barnes said. “Malawi had few paved roads and little infrastructure but there were these serene, beautiful vistas of fertile farmland. Tanzania was very developed, and there were cars, buildings and traffic everywhere. There seemed to be such a huge disparity of wealth, where so many of the poor could benefit from microfinance to help them reduce their dependency on foreign aid.”

Haroon, who graduated in December, said the trip helped dispel many of her preconceived notions of poverty in Africa.

“Our visits really reinforced the need to communicate effectively with loan recipients,” Haroon said. “We learned so much from the people we met. I saw a real sense of empowerment that already exists among the people. They didn’t need us to tell them how to enhance their current practices; they already know what they need. Our job is to listen and brainstorm with them about ways to get started.”