Wouldn't it be great? - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Kyle’s small business development course at the American Corner Mwanza, Tanzania.

While waiting for my kids to get home one day, a little girl in a hijab who had befriended my daughter motioned for me to talk to her. Who knows how long she had been waiting outside our house. I bent down to hear her better as she almost whispered, “My mom needs a job, sir. Please, our life is very hard. Can you give us money?”

That same week, someone reached out via social media when they discovered that my wife was working at a school for kids with developmental disabilities. “My child has Down Syndrome and I can’t afford to take care of her. My family has disowned me. (Disabilities are sometimes shunned in East African culture.) She is living in the village while I work in the city, but I don’t make enough. I need more money. Please help.”

After nearly four months of living in Tanzania, one discovers that these types of stories and pleas are not uncommon. As I struggle to wrap my head around the magnitude of need and to understand some of the root causes of poverty, I oscillate between American solutionism and despair. There are no simple answers to any of this.

Somebody recently asked me, “Kyle, why don’t you just give money to people who need it and then they can solve their own problems.”

This is a fair point, and we have actually done this several times. However, we continue to learn (sometimes the hard way) that simply handing money over can actually hurt more than it helps. For example, if you give money to children begging on the street, it might encourage them to not go to school. If you pay for a community initiative on your own, you might be undermining valuable community cooperation that is seeking to accomplish the same initiative.

This is not to say that financial help is not needed. It most definitely is. But how it is implemented, by whom and within what context are of paramount importance. As the book When Helping Hurts poignantly observes when discussing mission work, “If we treat only the symptoms or if we misdiagnose the underlying problem, we will not improve their situation, and we might actually make their lives worse.”

Kyle teaching

I recently taught a small business development course that was free and available to anyone who was interested in starting a business or who wanted to learn some new skills. The makeup of the class varied considerably. There were young and old people, Muslims and Christians, men and women. There were university finance students who knew more about calculating the cost of capital than I do, out-of-work single mothers with business ideas, and some local non-profit managers who are trying to create economic engines so they don’t have to rely so much on foreign aid. The latter group learned some difficult lessons during COVID as outside donations plummeted and nearly killed their organizations.

I created the business course because I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about small enterprise over the years and to learn more about the local startup ecosystem.

It is not easy to start a business in Tanzania. The interest rates on bank loans are suffocating, hovering between 16 and 40%. Population growth exceeds employment growth, so it is difficult to find work and especially difficult to obtain the types of jobs that allow someone to improve their overall economic condition. Most people with jobs work six to seven days a week, but the average wage is only $2 per day. You can imagine how the wheat shortages from the war in Ukraine or global commodity inflation might affect people here. Despite the best of intentions, it is very difficult to meet basic needs, let alone start a business.

I’ve also observed that the education system tends to reward rote memorization and abject conformity. Risk taking is not readily embraced as a societal norm. Of course, anyone who has ever done a startup or pursued higher education, or a better paying job knows that risk is part of the equation. But what if you fail? Here, failure can literally mean starvation or at a minimum can bring great shame to one’s family.

The good news is that the paradigm is changing. The median age in Tanzania is 18 years (the 15th youngest in the world). The 25 countries with the lowest median age in the world are all African. Startup energy abounds on the African continent. It is fueled by significant need and opportunity, youthful energy, and expanding social networks of would-be entrepreneurs. Investment capital is starting to flow into Africa at faster rates and what’s more is that many of the young Tanzanians I talk to want to do it right. They don’t just want to achieve wealth just because. They want to create a stronger Africa that preserves its culture, protects the environment and helps lift the masses out of poverty.

Kyle with some of the course participants

The term “social enterprise” (which means a business that puts people and the environment ahead of profit) is sometimes an anathema in Western culture. Among the youth that I’ve spoken with in Tanzania, there is no other way to logically do business.

As a missioner in Africa with business experience, I must ask myself: How can I support this? I can hold a hand to show solidarity in suffering, for a moment. I can offer a handout to alleviate hunger, for a moment. And these moments are sometimes needed and always have value. But I can also provide a hand up that will help people help themselves and empower them to help others as well.

This is clearly the harder thing to do. It takes time, resources and perseverance. In the U.S., about 50% of all new businesses fail within five years. In Tanzania, the challenges are even more significant, but so too is the desire to succeed.

Thinking back to the little girl whose mom needs a job or the overwhelmed mother who needs a better paying job so that she can support her special needs child, I wonder what can be done to help? Wouldn’t it be great if they could be hired by a successful social enterprise or given financing and mentorship for their own business?

Economic development wasn’t really what I had in mind when we left the U.S. to serve in Africa for three and a half years, but it is what I am seeing as potentially the best way for me personally to help those in need.

Kyle Johnson
Kyle Johnson provides entrepreneurial training to vulnerable populations as well as leadership and management training to two rural Catholic hospitals. He and his wife, Anna, and their three children, are based in Mwanza, Tanzania.