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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

Pencils of Promise is 'successful because we are driven by the head of a for-profit and the heart of a nonprofit,' says Adam Braun, who once seemed destined to become a Wall Street trader. Instead, he helps educate children in developing countries. (Courtesy of Anand Rao)

Adam Braun hands out pencils – and hope

By Anand RaoTruthAtlas / 04.18.14

[This article first appeared on TruthAtlas is an online news source featuring multimedia stories about people and ideas making the world a better place. Learn more at]

 This story could have been an artsy movie from the 1970s, where a smart and young American goes to India seeking a spiritual reawakening, and transforms his view of the material world.

Thankfully, the protagonist here applies his eclectic experiences, an Ivy-League education, and abundant intelligence to become a globally recognized social entrepreneur and bestselling author. After abandoning a promising career as a management consultant, 30-year-old Adam Braun has taken on the massive challenge of providing infrastructure and resources for educating over 57 million children in the developing world with his organization, Pencils of Promise (PoP).

At his sunny office in midtown Manhattan, Adam sits at his desk, tapping his feet to a pop song on the radio, looking totally relaxed.

“Nonprofit is an inaccurate description of what we do. We are more of a for-purpose organization,” he says with a sparkling smile matched by the beaming faces of children on a giant poster behind him.

The genesis for PoP began after Adam watched the non-narrative documentary, Baraka, and was fascinated by the surreal images of exotic locations, especially the dramatic shots of the Ganges River.

“I was going through a spiritual reassessment at that time, and desperately wanted to go to Varanasi, India,” he says. After joining the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program in 2005, he set sail to visit the places he’d dreamed of—little knowing what he’d encounter when a young child on a street in India asked for a pencil in response to the question “What do you want most in the world?”

The incident struck a chord with Adam, unraveling the stark reality that the basic amenities he’d always taken for granted did not exist for millions of children. He thought about it while returning to the US, completing his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, Economics, and Organizational Development from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, before going to work for Bain and Company, one of the top management-consulting firms in the world.

While learning the ropes of building organizations and earning a six-figure income, Adam was consciously building on the ideas he had developed for a social enterprise focused on quality education.

After deciding to leave Bain, Adam founded PoP in 2008 with an investment of $25, and has not looked back since. He has visited hundreds of small towns across six continents, handing out pencils to thousands of children. Today PoP has built over 170 schools in Ghana, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Laos, and continues to expand to newer territories.

Without any major donors during his start-up, Adam went about building a community of people who believed in his cause. After going to his circle of friends to build a large online community, PoP has nurtured more than 35,000 fundraisers and corporate connections.

“We are successful because we are driven by the head of a for-profit and the heart of a nonprofit,” Adam says. “By training I know how to build a great business, but my desire is not to create personal wealth. I want to bring the best practices that enable individuals to accumulate wealth, and apply them to tackle the world’s most challenging social issues.”

That philosophy marks a distinct shift from Adam’s ambitions while growing up with his brother and sister in the extremely affluent town of Greenwich, Connecticut. His father was a dentist and his mother an orthodontist, and his home was secure and stable.

“Still, the wealth disparity in my town was enormous,” he says. “There were people at the highest and the lowest end of the wealth spectrum, and I just wanted to become extremely wealthy.”

Adam opened his first E*TRADE account at 13, worked with hedge funds at 16, and seemed destined to become a Wall Street player like many of his wealthy neighbors – but it wasn’t just his desire to get rich that governed all his decisions. He was also deeply influenced by his family, who believed in giving back to society.

“My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and my parents worked very hard for everything they achieved. Every Hanukkah we set aside a certain amount to donate to a charity,” he says.

Adam was always looking for answers to questions about meaningful existence, and his travels made him think even more about why he had access to quality education in a safe environment while millions of children all over the world lived without basic needs like water, electricity, health care, and access to education.

“The people I met in the developing countries gave me a better understanding of what my purpose was in the world,” he adds.

Adam still makes it a point to ask, “What is the one thing you want in this world?” wherever he travels. Though the answers vary depending on the culture and country, most of the adults tell him that they want the best education for their children, and the children repeatedly aspire to fulfill big dreams.

A firm believer in the maxim that “Where you start in life should not dictate where you finish,” Adam has taken these answers and shaped them into a mesmerizing book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, published in March 2014.

The book’s title says it all.

“All your material possessions will one day go away,” Adam says. “What you leave behind is a legacy. Your story.”

In San Francisco and New York new businesses can rent 'pop-up' retail space from Storefront. The businesses test their products on customers without the expense and complexity of buying or leasing a location. In turn, the new businesses bring vitality to the neighborhood. (Courtesy of Shareable)

Pop-up stores help new businesses test the market

By Rob PooleShareable / 04.17.14

Recently I walked into a new storefront in San Francisco’s Upper Haight neighborhood called Second Act, a space featuring five culinary vendors, each of which are on three-year leases and conduct their business out of 100-square foot spaces.

As I navigated my way through the enticing aromas, I came to a back room with several tables, each advertising a different locally made product. PopUpsters, a new business connecting artisans with temporary spaces, organized the event.

I was surrounded by "pop-ups," and I loved it.

The idea behind pop-ups is to allow new businesses to test their products without having to invest in expensive long-term leases and infrastructure. The principles behind this business model align well with the sharing economy.

Opening a storefront is not easy. Finding the perfect space, processing reams of paperwork, building out the interior, paying for the space, finding the right insurance, and getting the right services to launch are formidable tasks. On top of that, most people can’t afford to pay for a long-term lease, particularly small-business owners.

This is especially true in expensive cities like San Francisco and New York. So it makes financial sense to share the costs of space with other vendors and keep vacant storefronts active with pop-ups.

And then there is the synergy that can result from having many complementary businesses located closely together. Business owners can identify new product ideas and collaboration opportunities by working in a community instead of in isolation. These interactions can strengthen local economies.

That’s the idea behind Storefront, an online retail marketplace. The company started in late 2012 and now has 300 retail space listings in San Francisco and 200 in New York. If you’re a small business owner selling products online, but want to test the waters offline, Storefront can help you find a brick-and-mortar space to allow you to run your own store for a short period of time.

A lease can last a couple of months, a few weeks or a day. And a space can be a whole store, a portion of it, or even a bench outside. What was once out of reach now becomes accessible.

An offline presence, even a temporary one, can create personal connections with customers that are difficult to develop when selling online exclusively, allowing vendors to get a better feel for their customers.

Storefront co-founder Tristan Pollack believes that creating the opportunity for temporary spaces is a key to strengthening local economies.

“Believing in vibrant cities is what drove Erik [Eliason, Storefront co-founder] and I to create Storefront,” says Pollack. “I think the urban core is human interaction at its finest. You might have an amazing maker in your apartment building. They sell on Etsy or Storenvy and do well for themselves because their products or art is so unique. But you don't know about them.

"Now fast forward to Storefront being in your city. That maker has an opportunity to find affordable retail space in his or her own neighborhood. Then you discover them, and can't believe they've been right underneath your nose this whole time. You become a life-long customer, support local economies and local makers. It's a huge win to be able to access retail locally.”

Pop-ups can also serve as powerful agents of change in neighborhoods. 

Popuphood is a small business incubator aiming to revitalize neighborhoods one block at a time by nurturing pop-up retail in vacant spaces. The organization has garnered much attention from their work in Oakland, where they are working to create vitality in a neighborhood with little daytime foot traffic.

Popuphood’s program currently gives businesses six months of free rent in formerly vacant spaces, with the hope that the stores will become self-sustaining afterwards.

Since Popuphood’s inception, foot traffic has increased in the downtown district, and three of the stores are now permanent fixtures in the neighborhood.

Popuphood co-founder Sarah Filley talks about the importance of cultivating the urban ecosystem when discussing her approach. Oakland’s nightlife has grown steadily over the years with the presence of new restaurants and bars, but daytime life has been lackluster, she says.

But by bringing retail to the city, a steady flow of activity throughout the day has pumped money into Oakland’s local economy.

• Rob Poole works at the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, a small nonprofit that advocates for the creation of new housing for all levels of income in San Francisco.

This article was originally published by Shareable, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

'One dangerous assumption is that the global market is homogenous,' says Heather Fleming, founder of Catapult Design, which works in impoverished areas. 'It’s not. Even less so in developing economies.' (Courtesy of Global Envision)

Heather Fleming wants to solve poverty through better design

By Megan GerardGlobal Envision / 04.16.14

Heather Fleming spent her childhood summers collecting water. Growing up near the Navajo Nation, where many families did not – and do not – have running water, electricity, or plumbing, Fleming understood the precious gift of water.

Later in life, as Fleming became involved with Engineers Without Borders, she empathized with families struggling to access clean water around the world.

Frustrated by the inequality she experienced as a Navajo, and the corporate limitations of the Silicon Valley design firm she later worked for, Fleming founded Catapult Design to build new products and service models for impoverished communities.

Understanding real consumer needs and knowing the country and landscape is the most critical piece of the design process, Fleming said in an interview with Global Envision.

“One dangerous assumption is that the global market is homogenous,” Fleming said. “It’s not. Even less so in developing economies.”

Since its founding, Catapult Design has re-designed handwashing stations to drive better sanitation in Kenya, created a methodology to enable energy innovation in Indonesia, and prototyped water storage tools. What all of these projects has in common is an intent focus on knowing the consumer.

For example, in Ruli, Rwanda, Catapult Design worked to understand how the local community could tackle malnutrition by producing its own fortified porridge. The imported brand was too expensive for most households, so families would make their own at home – but lacked the ability to fortify it with nutrients and vitamins, a critical step toward reducing malnutrition.

Catapult learned the entire system – the price of milling grains, how women prepare the porridge and their portioning patterns, farm production capabilities, and how the movement of goods was coordinated locally.

Deeply understanding the community’s needs and systems already in place led Catapult to produce a guidebook to help smallholder farmers start and run a farm-to-fortified flour operation in their community.

Sharing experiences like these with other designers and developers is essential to sparking more creativity to solve poverty. In a white paper and accompanying website,, Fleming and a team of partners, including Global Access to Technology for Development and Alana Conner Communications, documented best practices.

The team focuses on six principles of common business practices and translates them to meet the needs of developing markets:

  1. Understand who the customer is, what they need, and how cultural values may affect adoption.
  2. Learn from existing products and services in the market and improving design.
  3. Market to different communities with varying literacy rates and find trustworthy information sources.
  4. Guide commercialization with the appropriate local, national, and international partners to navigate regulatory issues.
  5. Leverage a variety of capital sources to support growth without subsidies.
  6. Use metrics to improve operations and show stakeholders the desired environmental or social impact.

“I'd root my approach in understanding real customer needs, and then make no assumptions about a solution’s ability to scale,” Fleming said. “And also recognize that part of your job is to create demand through marketing, education, and a sweet design.”

As more companies look to the developing world for new customers, Fleming hopes local designers will grow with support and encouragement, noting, “Innovation is born everyday out of constraints and necessity."

By using their creative wits, people can produce solutions to survive and thrive that could leapfrog anything designed in Silicon Valley, said Fleming. Businesses must learn how to cultivate these creative individuals to support development in emerging economies.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

Women fasten young seaweed plants to rope in preparation for growing seaweed. The practice provides a steady income for rural women in India, who can't be away from their families long enough to take up fishing. Valuable chemicals extracted from the seaweed can be used in products such as skin care lotions, fertilizers, toothpastes, and ice cream. (Photo courtesy of Ganesh Vishwanath/AquAgri Processing)

New source of jobs for India's rural women (hint: it's in your shampoo)

By Shilpi ChhotrayYES! Magazine / 04.15.14

Among the rocky beaches, mudflats, and lagoons that line the southeastern tip of India, it’s not unusual to see a group of women working together around a bamboo raft. These women are tending to young seaweed plants that, in just a month's time, will grow to five times their current size. One raft's harvest of seaweed is worth more than a fisherman’s daily pay.

People are used to seeing seaweed in miso soup or wrapped around a sushi roll. But many don't realize that the real drivers of the seaweed industry are byproducts extracted from the plants. These include substances known as alginates, agar, and carrageenan, which give a soft, jellylike consistency to products like skin care lotions, fertilizers, toothpastes, ice cream, soymilk, and fruit jellies.

Analysts predict that the seaweed extract business will reach $7 billion by 2018.

That impressive figure is especially interesting because fishing—the traditional industry of rural coastal India—has not been a welcoming place for women. Fishing requires a great deal of capital and long hours at sea—that's a problem for women responsible for household tasks including taking care of children, collecting drinking water, and gathering firewood.

But women often play a large role in seaweed farming, which in many cases is the only source of cash income available to them and the first paid work they've ever had. Seaweed farming works well for women in places like rural India because it doesn't require a lot of money or expensive equipment to make it work, and requires women to be away from home for no more than 4 to 6 hours of the day.

Typically, a group of six to 10 women will grow a crop of seaweed in six weeks. The majority of the work is done on land, where women work together stringing small young plants through ropes, which are then tied to sections of bamboo that form a raft. When the assembly is complete, the women move the rafts into shallow water. Women will typically plant and harvest one raft a day. Both fresh and dried seaweed is sold to seaweed-processing companies at a fixed rate determined by the farmers themselves at the beginning of each year.

During a recent trip to India, I witnessed this process firsthand. Many women in coastal villages have turned to seaweed farming, bringing them economic opportunities while contributing to their families' income—not an easy thing to do in a male-dominated society.

And this is not just any income. Women earners are more likely than males to save their money or spend it on their families, according to government officials and seaweed industry insiders.

Since the 1960s, agricultural crops cultivated by farmers in hard-to-reach villages in India have tended to go through a number of intermediaries, or “middlemen,” before getting to the market. Historically, farmers have struggled with middlemen taking advantage of their role and pocketing more than their fair share of earnings.

If rural women are benefiting from the seaweed industry, what's happening to make sure that money is secure? The answer, at least in India, is quite a lot.

Engaging in contract farming ensures the entirety of a farmer’s harvest will be sold directly to a company at a prearranged price, without going through middlemen. According to a recent report by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 5,000 rural poor from a single southeastern district alone engage in farming, transporting, and selling seaweed through contract farming.

Their efforts are supported by private investors, industries, NGOs, and financial institutions like the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and the National Fisheries Development Board. The Indian government has also been proactive in encouraging environmentally sound and socially responsible seaweed farming.

On the private industry side, the company AquAgri Processing has helped lead the effort to provide rural women with seaweed growing contracts. AquAgri was created when its current managing director, Abhiram Seth, left PepsiCo—which had initiated the contract farming model for seaweed farming in India in 2000—and started his own company in 2008. Currently, women comprise 75 percent of AquAgri's workforce.

AquAgri also works directly with farmers to make sure the money it pays out goes into local hands and helps to build long-term livelihood. Through its "Growers Investment Program," the company deducts, saves, and matches 5 percent of each seaweed worker's pay. This is especially helpful for farmers during the monsoon season, when for three months the seas are too unpredictable for farming.

Policymakers around the developing world are often stumped when asked how to ensure that rural women have access to income. As the demand for seaweed-based products increases, they might consider learning from what India has done with this industry.

• Shilpi Chhotray wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shilpi is a consultant at Future 500, a global nonprofit organization specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds–corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others—to advance systemic solutions to environmental problems.

Jeff Kirschner's website Litterati lets people tag photos to help identify those brands and products that generate the most litter. He hopes to use this data to work with companies and organizations to find environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions to littering. (Courtesy of Talking GOOD)

Jeff Kirschner uses social media to fight littering

By Dan CohenTalking GOOD / 04.14.14

Jeff Kirschner believes litter should be approachable, noticeable, and a spark for thinking about how we look at packaging and trash. He is an evangelist for the power of consumer engagement and education.

He is also a believer in our shared impact using social media – including its built-in metrics – to change public perception and stir public action.

All of these beliefs led him to create Litterati. (Click here to find the original article with audio clips from Jeff Kirschner.)

In Silicon Valley and the entire Bay Area, we are used to hearing about simple ideas that can change the world – mostly in the field of consumer and business technology. But what if a simple idea could help change an entire planet’s perspective on trash and packaging for consumer goods? That’s the good that Jeff Kirschner sought to create.

Here is Jeff’s idea: Use Instagram to photograph, geotag, label, and then dispose of litter. 

Jeff believes that we can make consumers more mindful and actually “see” packaging as the precursor to litter. And that can drive companies to reevaluate the packaging they use. I think he’s right. Notably, among the top 10 items tagged are Marlboro, Starbucks ,and McDonalds. 

Jeff’s theory is that it is valuable for these companies to know that their packaging is likely to end up as litter. And if it does, what could/should they do about it? And what would it mean to their consumers if they did?

That is the essential and simple idea Jeff put behind Litterati, and as it turns out thousands are following his lead.

For more visit Litterati

The 10 questions


To leave the world better than I found it.


It has opened my eyes. Litterati has changed the way I see my surroundings, but more directly, it’s changed my purchasing habits. I stay away from single-use packaging, buy milk in glass containers rather than plastic jugs, and purchase in bulk whenever possible.


A  sense of fulfillment at having made a difference in someone else’s life.


Elon Musk. “How do you shoot for the moon while remaining grounded in reality?”


More people joining the Litterati community.


What would get you to pick up more litter?


One Piece at a Time


I’m currently writing a sitcom about a Jewish preschool. That, and I’m ticklish under my armpits.


It’s okay to start small. Connect with like-minded people, build a community, and give it space to grow.


QUESTION: What’s one of the most valuable life experiences you’ve had? ANSWER: Backpacking around the world for a year. It opened my eyes to how other people live and taught me the importance of empathy. 

Dan Cohen is Founder and Principal of Full Court Press Communications. He’s a recovering political consultant, lawyer, and big-brand PR guy who now uses his skills to help make social change through strategic communications (mostly in California). His article was originally posted at Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. To nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview, visit this link.

'I'm not going to rest until we've seen an end to extreme poverty by 2030,' says Hugh Evans, co-founder of The Global Poverty Project. Live Below the Line (April 28 to May 2) asks people to experience poverty personally by spending only $1.50 per day on food and instead contributing to charitable organizations. (Courtesy of The Global Poverty Project)

Could you live below the line?

By Staff writer / 04.11.14

In America, laying out $1.50 might buy a cup of morning coffee – if you find a bargain.

But for 1.2 billion people in the world, about $1.50 is all they have to spend in a day for … everything, including all their food and beverages.

It's a thought that's nearly inconceivable to most people in the developed world.

That's why the Live Below the Line project aims to help people understand extreme poverty more personally. For five days, April 28 to May 2, people are being invited to spend only $1.50 on food and drink per day and use the money saved to make donations to poverty-fighting charities.

"We want it to be a challenge people take on in the workplace, at home, at school, or in their faith community," says Hugh Evans, the co-founder and chief executive of The Global Poverty Project, which is sponsoring Live Below the Line.

The annual event has been held since since 2010 and has already involved 50,000 participants in more than 70 countries, raising $10 million for charities around the world. Charitable partners in the United States include the Global One Foundation, Kiva, Heifer International, Opportunity International, The Hunger Project, and the World Food Program USA.

Equally important to fund-raising is the goal of getting Americans and others in wealthy countries to think and talk about extreme poverty – and how to end it.

Mr. Evans, an Australian, has been passionate about the subject since his teenage years.

"I started when I was 14 years old," he says. "It's definitely a life's calling for me. By the time I was 22 years old I'd lived in developing communities all over the world."

He now has a simple goal: "I'm not going to rest until we've seen an end to extreme poverty by 2030."

Eliminating extreme poverty for 1.2 billion people in the next 16 years might seem like a daunting task. But Evans points to the remarkable progress that has been made in recent years: Just since he was born, extreme poverty was halved from 52 percent in 1981 to 25 percent in 2005 and, most recently, 23 percent.

"I really believe that every generation is called upon to leave a great mark on this planet," he says. In the late 20th century Nelson Mandela endured decades in prison on his way to ending apartheid in South Africa. For 27 consecutive years in the early 19th century, British politician William Wilberforce introduced a bill in Parliament to end the slave trade: It was rejected the first 26 times.

"No one ever said that the job [of eliminating extreme poverty] was going to be easy," Evans says. "If it were easy, we'd have already seen an end."

While Live Below the Line might seem to be a five-day fast, Evans is sometimes amused at how people find clever ways to feed themselves.

"You're allowed to buy your own seeds and plant your own food," so those who plan (and plant) ahead can use their gardens as a food supply, he says. And families or other groups can pool their $1.50 per day allotments to buy in bulk. "You hear all these amazing stories about how people have tackled the challenge," he says.

The charities associated with Live Below the Line provide models for how to defeat extreme poverty, Evans says. He sees the way forward as "the six and the three."

Six changes need to be made: improve and expand food security, education, health care, water and sanitation, micro-finance and other job-creating programs, and empower women. The three ways to achieve these goals are through humanitarian aid, trade, and good governance within nations.

"If you have these six and three, I believe you can make a big impact on extreme poverty," he says.

As individuals, Americans "have a wonderful tradition of philanthropy," says Evans, who now makes his home in New York City. But the governments in places such as Britain and the Scandinavian countries are far more generous than the US government in terms of giving as a percentage of gross national income.

Evans would also like to see more engagement in charitable giving from America's new wealth, such as in Silicon Valley.

"I think it's crucial that the tech community and the new generation of wealth in America steps up," he says.

• For more visit and

Shelter worker Grace Lambila poses with Fundi, a street kid who would like to return to his hometown to live with his mother. (Courtesy of Kem Knapp Sawyer/Pulitzer Center)

Providing a safe haven for street kids in Congo

By Kem SawyerTruthAtlas / 04.10.14

[This article first appeared on TruthAtlas is an online news source featuring multimedia stories about people and ideas making the world a better place. Learn more at]

The boy is crouched over in the back of a van. Drops of blood from the cut on his head stain his shirt—he’d been hit with a bottle when he got into a fight. Stanislas Lukumba, a tall, good-looking, fortyish nurse, checks for shards of glass as the driver shines his cell phone on the wound.

For the last eight years, Stanislas has made nightly runs in the van, a mobile clinic that operates in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He stops in neighborhoods where street kids hang out, and those in need come inside the van for help.

Kapeta Benda Benda accompanies him, but his mission is different. When the van stops, Kape, as he likes to be called, gets out and talks to the street children he meets. He asks them how they spent their day, what they had to eat, what their problems are. If they want to talk, he listens.

Tonight Grace Lambila, an intern, is with him. She meets Fundi, a 13-year-old boy who tells her he was born and raised in Lubumbashi. A year ago his mother took him and his sister to Kinshasa where she planned to join the children’s father, but they discovered he had taken another wife.

Fundi’s mother returned to Lubumbashi, leaving the children with their father, but after being mistreated, Fundi’s sister went to their uncle and he ran away to live on the streets. Fundi hopes his uncle will raise enough money to send them back to their mother. He likes school, especially math, history and science, and is eager to return to his eighth grade class.

Kape and Grace let these kids know they will take them to a shelter if they want to go. The shelter is run by ORPER (Oeuvre de Reclassement et de Protection des Enfants de la Rue), an organization that provides aid, and sometimes a home, to street children. But it usually takes several encounters with Kape and Grace before any of the street kids trust them enough to let down their defenses.

As a boy, Kape was abandoned by his parents, and lived on the streets until he was taken in by ORPER when he was 10. Founded in 1981 by a Catholic priest, ORPER runs “open” centers where children are free to come and go, and “closed” centers where they are watched more closely.

Kape brings boys to an open center on Popokabaka Avenue in the Kasa-Vubu neighborhood, headed by Annette Wanzio, who has worked with street children for 20 years, 12 of them at the this center. The boys, ages 6 to 18, have a place to shower, to eat, to sleep, and to learn.

Many of the children who come to the center have been accused of witchcraft; when fathers take second wives, they often don’t have enough money to feed all the children, and the second wife must make a choice —so she will sometimes make false accusations to get rid of her new stepchildren.

In addition, Annette says, these children are used to living from lie to lie. She aims to create a climate of trust, to get to know them, to teach reading, to organize games. If they go back to live on the streets she tells them they are always welcome to come back, especially if they get sick.
“In Africa,” Annette says, “children belong to everyone—an uncle, an aunt. A child is a jewel.”

She and others at ORPER work hard to place children with their extended families, which can sometimes take years or fail entirely; of every 100 children who come through the center, only 40 return to their families.

“Sometimes families say, ‘Well, they’re doing well, so why should they return to us?' ” she adds.

At the center children are given a decent meal, one they cook themselves under supervision. They can play rugby; sing in a chorus; study reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Christian Matondo takes remedial classes during the day and works in a parking lot at Place Victoire at night. He makes around $3 a day, enough to buy extra food. Ariel Irelle, 13, also goes to Place Victoire to beg. On most days he makes around $1.50.

Other children at ORPER earn money by reselling plastic bags they found in the trash, or work as prostitutes. Some drink alcohol or dissolve Valium in Primus beer, shake it, drink it, follow with cannabis, and repeat the sequence. They do this, Annette explains, so that they can forget.

“We have a problem here,” she adds. “The more we’ve done, the more we have to do. In 2006, there were 13,500 street kids in Kinshasa. Now, according to Unicef estimates, there are more than 20,000.”

Sister Stella Ekka was born near Calcutta and has worked for 17 years at a girls’ closed center, Home Maman Souzanne, also in the Kasa-Vubu neighborhood. She supervises 23 girls, ages 6 to 15.

“I’m not worn out,” she said. “It makes me sad to see children on the road. I must do something.”

A few of the girls at the center suffered from physical or sexual abuse and had run away from home. Some were abandoned by parents too poor to support them. Still others had been accused of witchcraft after falling ill.

At night the girls sleep in two rooms under the watchful eye of a night guard. Sister Stella says they desperately need mosquito nets. The girls have few possessions—a change of clothes, a school uniform. They share 30 books, some crayons, a doll, and a game of Scrabble. One room has a TV.

Sister Stella takes great pride in the girl who got a job in a bank, the one who married a doctor, and a young woman who went to another country. “That makes me happy. That encourages me,” she said.

Another girl who is now at the center also gives Sister Stella reason to hope—a girl who barely said a word when she first arrived.

T. lives at the center and goes to the afternoon session at the Lycée Kasa-Vubu, where she studies French. She is in 10th grade but is unsure of her age. She came to the center on her own four years ago after some other girls on the street told her about it.

When she lived with her mother she was accused of witchcraft and often beaten, sometimes for no reason and once for breaking a porcelain plate while doing the dishes. In the evening her mother would leave her and her brother alone, giving them both medicine to make them sleep so that she could work as a prostitute.

After T. came to the center her mother died of AIDS. Her brother now also lives in a closed center. They do not know who their father is.

At Home Maman Souzanne, T. helps prepare the food for the girls, and she goes to the market to buy vegetables and fish. She washes clothes and takes care of the young ones.

“I want to be a TV journalist,” she says, “so I can report on my country’s living conditions.”

'There was 2-1/2 years of screwing up.… We did a lot of things wrong,' says Anish Thakkar, co-founder of Greenlight Planet, describing how his company learned to market and distribute its solar lights to low-income families in rural India and Africa. Some 2 million of the lights have been sold. (Courtesy of Greenlight Planet)

Sun King wants to brighten life for rural poor

By Staff writer / 04.09.14

To those living in developed countries, Sun King solar lights are pretty cool little gadgets. Once charged using a small solar panel (included) they provide a good source of light for up to 30 hours. Or they can be used to recharge up to two cell phones at a time. They could be a fun item to take on a camping trip or use during a power outage.

But in India and Africa, where more than 2 million of them have already been sold, the lights mean much more. In thousands of rural villages without electrical service they mean children can see to do their homework after dark. And families don't burn kerosene lamps for light, which present serious health, safety, and environmental hazards with their smoky fires.

[Editor's note: The original version of this post misstated the number of solar lights that have been sold.]

Designing the technically sophisticated yet durable lights has been a nifty accomplishment for Greenlight Planet, a for-profit enterprise begun in 2005 whose aim is to replace dangerous kerosene lamps with safe and efficient solar lights.

But creating a good product was actually the easy part, says Anish Thakkar, co-founder of Greenlight Planet, which produces the Sun King brand. "The challenge of distributing [the solar lights] broadly, and in a way that is cost efficient and keeps the retail price down, is really the big challenge," he says.

Finding an effective sales and distribution model wasn't easy.

"There was 2 1/2 years of screwing up.… We did a lot of things wrong," says Mr. Thakkar, who is based in Bombay and spoke on a recent trip to Boston. But what emerged is a system they believe can be widely and successfully replicated.

In brief, Greenlight Planet identifies trusted and respected people in each village, perhaps a school teacher, and persuades them to become Sun King sales agents. Most have never sold anything before and need substantial training. They learn how to help buyers set up their solar lamps (many customers can't read written instructions) and return to the buyer's home if there are any problems.

The agents benefit too, through a substantial new source of income.

"[Our] agents increase their income by 40 percent. It's a huge opportunity" for them, Thakkar says. Agents, who reach about 10 new homes per month, actually add to their position of respect in the community. "They become known as the Sun King babu," he says, which roughly translates as  "the big guy, the boss."

The four models of Sun King lights range in price from about $11 to $40. That can be a daunting sum for people living on one or two dollars per day and who have little or no savings. "Do I have the cash in my pocket today is always a challenge," Thakkar says.

Farmers have been good customers. Their income comes in once or twice a year when they harvest and sell a crop. "These are families that save" and understand the concept of buying something, like seeds or equipment, that will pay off later, he says.

The lights pay for themselves within four to 10 months in two primary ways: Families no longer need to buy kerosene for lamps, and they no longer have to travel, sometimes for miles, to pay someone (usually running a small diesel generator) to charge their cell phones.

Even very poor families in India and Africa often have a cell phone, which serves a wide variety of purposes from banking to business deals to being a major source of entertainment, Thakkar says.

Greenlight Planet has chosen a for-profit model for a reason: It wants to view the people it helps as customers, not beneficiaries of charity. Customers who pay for products "vote with their wallet every day," he says, challenging Greenlight to show its products have real value. The company, now in its ninth year, is "getting close" to profitability, Takkar says.

The company's three co-founders had been students together at the University of Illinois. Thakkar was part of a student project that helped set up a bio-diesel generator in a village in India.  

"It was a cool technology," meant for husking rice and other agricultural uses, he says. But upon returning a year later the students found that the village had been strung with wires connected to the generator: It had been converted to generate a little bit of electricity for village homes.

Thakkar marveled at the ingenuity involved. But the incident was "also a slap in the face" for the engineering students, he says: They had decided that the village needed rice husking. The villagers knew they needed household lighting more.

So Greenlight Planet was born to provide off-the-grid lighting in rural villages. Today the units, which include cutting-edge LED bulbs, solar panels, and lithium ferrophosphate batteries, are manufactured in Shenzhen, China, where 25 Greenlight engineers work designing products. The company has grown to 800 full-time employees and 6,000 local sales agents.

With it's expertise in marketing and distributing products in rural villages, Thakkar says, Greenlight may expand its offerings. "We'd like to be that answer for other technologies too," he says. "We're testing those now."

[Editor's note: The original version of this post incorrectly spelled Mr. Thakkar's name.]

The 2014 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, April 9 – 11 Oxford, England

Skoll World Forum – watch live

By Staff / 04.08.14

Now in its 11th year, the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, which takes place April 9 to 11, is the premier international platform for advancing entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s most-pressing problems.

Each year, nearly 1,000 of the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and strategic partners gather at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford in England to exchange ideas, solutions, and insights.

While every session will be recorded and ultimately posted online, the forum is live-streaming its opening plenary, annual awards ceremony (featuring seven new Skoll award winners), closing plenary, and four other sessions.

Sign up to be notified of the live-stream here.

Throughout the event, there also will be in-depth discussions on individual rights in the age of big datathe future of investigative journalism, ending modern slaverythe 21st -century city, and the evolving role of teachers in education, among others.

Speakers include Malala Yousafzai, education activist, blogger, and author; Sir Richard Branson, founder, Virgin Group; and Jeff Skoll, chairman of the Jeff Skoll Group, which includes the Skoll Foundation.

The full list of 2014 speakers can be found here.

Skoll also asked several speakers and delegates to share their insights beforehand. A collection of their pieces is on

During the event, the home page of the forum will feature ways to participate online and via social media. And throughout the event, Skoll will use the hashtag #skollwf on Twitter.

Below, watch a live stream of events from the conference April 9 to 11:

'Prejudice is a lethal weapon,' says Agnes Vertes, president of the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut. 'We teach that one person can make all the difference. Many of us wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for one person.' (Courtesy of Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut)

Agnes Vertes tells her story as a Holocaust survivor (+video)

By Cathyrn J. PrinceCorrespondent / 04.07.14

Beneath the smile lines and softly creased hands of Agnes Vertes is the child that survived.

“I didn’t consider myself a hidden child because I wasn’t in an attic. I wasn’t in a closet,” Agnes Vertes says. “I didn’t even consider myself a survivor like the few who came back from Auschwitz. It wasn’t until later on that I realized, ‘Hey, I went through hell.’ ”

Ms. Vertes is president of the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut (HCSC). Its members, who were between 2 and 18 during the Holocaust, feel duty-bound to share their stories, particularly with children and teachers. So they crisscross the Nutmeg State speaking in schools, churches, synagogues, and community centers.

But time is short.

“There are fewer and fewer of us. Every year someone dies in our group. We aren’t going to live forever,” Ms. Vertes says.

Of the 6 million Jews who perished in German concentration camps, 1.5 million were children. Its unclear how many children did survive, but they are now well into their 70s, 80s and 90s.

That the ranks of survivors are dwindling is, as the cliché goes, a fact of life, says Dr. David G. Marwell, Director of the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage. “It’s an indication of the passing of history. We can bemoan that or we can do something about it,” Dr. Marwell says.

And so groups such as HCSC and the Museum of Jewish Heritage are reaching out to second-generation children of survivors to tell their parents stories.

Nothing is more effective in making history come alive than an eyewitness account, Marwell says. “It's clear that survivors speaking directly to children is the most powerful and authentic teaching tool we have.”

The testimony of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors has been recorded through Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project and videos such as Vertes’ own “One out of Ten.” That award-winning documentary gives an overview of the Holocaust through the stories of eight child survivors from eight different countries.

In 2003 Vertes also produced “Passport to Life,” a documentary about the thousands of Jews saved from the Nazis.

Vertes and her band of survivors want to educate others about discrimination and the evils of Nazi Germany.

“Prejudice is a lethal weapon. We teach that one person can make all the difference,” she says. “Many of us wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for one person.”

For Vertes that one person was an impoverished Protestant woman.

Vertes was born Agnes Katz in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940. Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944; deportations of the nation’s Jews began in May. Hungarian Jews represented about one half of all Jews murdered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

First Vertes, her younger sister, and her mother lived with relatives in the countryside to escape the bombing. Then her father came for them.

“Not one of those in the villages survived. If I stayed there I definitely would’ve been smoke,” she says, referring to the crematoriums at Auschwitz.

Soon after she and her sister returned to Budapest a woman came and promised their parents she would keep the girls safe.

“The lady said, 'Don’t make a sound, don’t cry.' She told my mother not to follow. My Mom followed. When I got on the tram I saw her, my mother – she was crying,” Vertes recalls.

The woman was extremely poor; her house had dirt floors. She also remembers feeling safe – until the Germans attacked and destroyed the woman’s home.

After that Vertes, her sister, and other children wandered the streets for several days until they came upon a Red Cross home for children. Every day the Nazis came looking for Jewish children.

“I remember one incident. A pair of really nasty Hungarian Nazis came. My little sister, she’d just learned to talk, ran to one of them and tugged on his pant leg,” Vertes says. “ ‘Hey, Mr. Soldier can I try on your cap,’ she said. He picked her up and said, ‘How can anyone but an Aryan child be so cute as this?’ They left. This is how my sister saved 100 Jewish kids.”

Vertes and her sister reunited with their parents in 1945. In 1957 the family moved to the Bronx, N.Y. There she met her husband, Michael. He, too, was a Holocaust survivor.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Vertes decided to share her story. She’d just met a group known as the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut. Since then she’s shared her story hundreds of times, including at The Conservative Synagogue in Westport, Conn.

"We cherish and honor the presence of Agnes Vertes and the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut in our community,” Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of the synagogue says. "This is the last generation that will have the opportunity to hear the stories first-hand, and then the responsibility will fall upon us to keep their voices alive."

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