Tackling Sustainability Goals with Social Innovation in Liberia

Smart Liberia

Around the world, one in nine people are undernourished. It’s not just a hunger problem we face, but getting the right foods that provide necessary nutrients. Poor nutrition causes 45 percent of deaths in children younger than 5—every year.

It’s why the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals includes targets to end hunger in the next 15 years.

And, it’s why Taylor Quinn moved to Monrovia, Liberia, in 2015, where nearly 1 million children suffer from malnutrition.

Realistically Pursuing Idealistic Goals

Having worked in Liberia for nearly two years, Quinn understands the significant issues impacting the country’s food systems and, ultimately, causing malnutrition. “Too many organizations are working on symptoms of problems and not broader systems,” he said. “So how can we design an incredibly nutritious local food using local crops that tastes good?”

To tackle this issue, Quinn is working with local women to create a nutritious food product, with plans to integrate educational components throughout the business. “Sustainability goals won’t be accomplished through charity,” he said. “People are consumers first and foremost, they’re just buying really terrible food. We need a culturally relevant product that’s available in local markets.”

In addition to tackling nutritional challenges, Quinn hopes to empower resilient, creative Liberians and build the capacity of entrepreneurs in the food industry.

The foundation for Quinn’s work in Liberia came, in part, from his experience in Babson College’s Global Leadership Development Experience (GLDE), a program that convened students from around the world to learn about social enterprise and on working towards systems-based change. GLDE took students to the United Nations for consulting work with the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) office. Participants were then tasked with spreading awareness of PRME among their peers around the world.

The global nature of GLDE—students came from countries like Tunisia, China, Pakistan, India, U.S., and Canada, to name a few—resonated most with Quinn, who noted how easy it is to form a mindset that only allows you to see the world one way. “The program highlighted entrepreneurship from the global landscape,” he explained. “You saw how differently entrepreneurship is defined and approached depending where you are in the world. It’s greatly impacted my work now.”

The program aimed to shape students into business leaders who go beyond the bottom line to use global rules for business behavior. “Too often, business is on the side of perpetuating and violating human rights,” explains Elizabeth Swanson, one of two Babson College professors who led the GLDE program.

To illustrate this concept, Swanson would place a chocolate bar on a desk in the middle of the classroom and say: “Between you and that chocolate bar is a child who was enslaved to produce this. We don’t see that when we buy the finished product. What if the child was sitting there, sitting between us and the bar? How many of you would get it and eat it with any kind of pleasure?”

Swanson wants to make these “invisible” aspects of business visible to her students. “If we keep educating business students the same way, nothing changes in the field,” stressed Swanson. “Businesses too often ‘fix’ things only after catastrophes. PRME helps connect corporations to their impacts  and reorients stakeholders toward justice and inclusion.”

She highlights the importance of the triple bottom line mentality that equally considers social, environmental, and financial impact. “The sustainable development goals are so idealistic—almost to the point of alienating people who think they never can be achieved–but that’s exactly why they can put us into better relationships with one another and with larger goals we share across many differences” explained Swanson. “GLDE sparked that idea in students and showed them we have opportunities to create more positive connections, versus getting into unethical business relationships with people we don’t know.”

“GLDE combined theory and practice,” explains Swanson. “It was a cool launching pad for students to feel empowered to do the types of things Taylor is doing now.”

Conquering Global Challenges with Education

Quinn’s goals mirror those of Marvin Tarawally, a recent graduate of Babson College and one of the founders of nonprofit SMART Liberia, an organization that develops innovative solutions to empower promising young Liberians to be change-leaders. It makes sense, then, that the two were connected by Swanson and have since worked together during the first-of-its-kind education summit in Liberia and continue to share ideas.

“[Taylor and I are] natural partners in terms of the work we’re doing—acting entrepreneurially in a nonentrepreneurial environment,” Tarawally said with a laugh.

Since its inception in 2012, SMART Liberia has worked with more than 500 students from 30 schools. Now, Tarawally and his team are working to turn SMART Liberia into a social change community where Liberian youth can launch careers, start businesses, or go to college. This hub will focus on equipping youth with the skills, opportunities, and network needed to create social change. “There are very smart people coming out of the University of Liberia with finance degrees,” Tarawally uses as an example, “but they can’t build an Excel income statement or budget. Everything they do is with a textbook. We’re developing programs to get these promising students up to speed.”

Tarawally and his team of volunteers run SMART Liberia with little to no funding, but still feel a responsibility to “make things happen.” The work isn’t easy; they’re sometimes in the office from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., but as Tarawally said, “The problems we’re trying to address aren’t going to change unless we work.”

He uses the quote, “If we want what we’ve never had, we have to do what we’ve never done,” to explain the shifts he’s bringing to his organization—as well as students and schools impacted by SMART Liberia. They’re bringing bootstrapping to the next level, learning to do what they can’t afford to pay others to do, including building a website, shooting photos and video, and accounting properly.

“I’m so lucky to have an entrepreneurial mindset,” he said. “Part of my work has been moving the concept of entrepreneurship back to my team and the people we work with.”

And, while there’s no denying Tarawally’s upbeat passion for his work, he also conveys a deep understanding of the urgency of change. “Education is the first key. Willful ignorance should not be a thing,” he emphasized. “If you just open Facebook, and you follow the right sources, you see what is going on in the world every day. Watch videos, get educated, build that empathy that we’re all equal human beings. That’s where we need to go.”

We All Play a Part

For Tarawally, it’s not about solving the issue of education for millions of people. It’s about tackling the problem for the hundreds or thousands within his sphere of influence. “If we can build a drone to deliver a burger, why not use the same technology to deliver healthcare access to rural communities where infant mortality rates are high?” That’s the mindset shift Tarawally is looking to create.

“I want to use this amazing education I’ve been given to impact more young people that look for these kinds of opportunities every day and crave for it,” he said. “TED talks, government—everyone cares about improving lives in Liberia, but you read and talk about it—you don’t see it happening. You’re not going to be short of problems, challenges, or needs when you get to Liberia. We need entrepreneurial, passionate young people that can identify these things as very interesting opportunities. That’s who will change Liberia.”

Swanson agrees. “Unfortunately, I think more often people have to push companies to change rather than companies push people,” she added. “Today, we have the tools to know what’s going on and push back. Keep pushing, and you can influence a corporation.”

Many people, Swanson said, wait until something directly affects them. As she explained, “We think things that are happening ‘over there’ are supposed to happen over there. What makes us think we can be invulnerable to the suffering of the rest of the world?”

That’s the biggest lesson for Tarawally: that everyone plays a role. “We all can contribute even in the smallest ways. Whatever you’re passionate about, figure out a way to get educated about what’s going on around you and how these things affect everyone. You can’t say you can’t do anything,” he implored. “It’s important that we start to do things now that signal to rest of world that we care about the world we want to live in.”

Featured photo provided by Smart Liberia

Posted in Entrepreneurial Leadership

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