How Do Children End Up as Child Soldiers?

Ishmael Baeh was 11 when his country, Sierra Leone, fell into a brutal civil war. At 12, he was separated from his family and abducted by a government militia that trained him to kill and kill often—in the most inhumane ways possible. In his memoir, A Long Way Home, Baeh wrote that killing became “as easy as drinking water.” The savagery continued till UNICEF intervened and took Baeh and other child soldiers away from their commander, offering rehabilitation and a life free from guns.


Some 300,000 children around the world have been swept up into a life of violence, according to UNICEF. They are used as instruments of war; boys are trained in combat, and young girls are forced into marriage or sexually exploited.


In 2002, 159 countries signed an international treaty, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the involvement of children under 18 in conflict. As a result, crimes pertaining to child soldiers can be tried in the International Criminal Court—as in the case of Dominic Ongwen, a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, who was abducted at 10 by the LRA and forced to fight.

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Farmers Are Sharing Tricks of the Trade Across Continents Via SMS

WeFarm is Wikipedia for farmers, or as its founder describes it, “Internet for people without Internet.”

More than half the world still doesn’t have regular access to the Internet; WeFarm uses SMS to let farmers exchange information across continents.

“I wanted to make a platform where farmers could share information with other farmers and create solutions for themselves, rather than being prescribed what to do,” says Kenny Ewan, cofounder of WeFarm, which debuted this January in Kenya.

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Photo Courtesy of Subject

The model is simple: A farmer sends a question to WeFarm. That question is translated and shared with other farmers—in the same country or beyond. The goal is to have farmers come up with their own solutions, and WeFarm helps them achieve that by using a peer-to-peer platform. And it’s not limited to answering questions; the start-up encourages farmers to share advice and ideas. For instance, a farmer in Kenya might offer a tip: “Manure from cows, goats, and sheep adds nutrients to the soil.” That would be shared with other farmers in Kenya and beyond.

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How World Bicycle Relief Plans On Funding A Million Bicycles In Africa

In 1987, at 23, FK Day co-founded what would become one of the largest bicycle parts companies in the world, SRAM. Last year, they had over $500 million in revenue.

In 2005, he began building his next venture: a social enterprise that sells (and gives) bicycles to folks in Africa. In 5 years, he estimates, they could be looking at giving and selling, collectively, 1,000,000 bicycles on the continent.


FK Day (left) on a field visit.  Photo Courtesy of World Bicycle Relief.

Unlike other philanthropists, Day wants to make World Bicycle Relief, the non-profit, completely self- sustainable. What does that mean?

“There’s no reason we should have to be fundraising in the future,” he says in a phone interview from Chicago where SRAM is headquartered.  He wants the for-profit arm, or the the social enterprise, to finance World Bicycle Relief’s non-profit projects.

In the social sector, there has been an intense debate (and divide) between for-profit and nonprofit ventures.  The former come with revenue streams; the latter rely on fundraising.  Both parties are quite passionate about which one is the ‘right’ way to go.

World Bicycle Relief presents a hybrid approach– selling bicycles to co-ops and individuals, which can help the finance charitable programs for school kids and healthcare needs.


A farmer transport milk via bicycle — one of World Bicycle Relief’s programs to help dairy co-ops move more efficiently.  Photo Courtesy of World Bicycle Relief.

Currently, the organization is donating and selling about 300,000 bicycles, cumulatively.  But in five years, that could be closer to a million, Day says.

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First Ladies of the World, Unite!

GFLA line up


First Ladies, from Beijing to Washington and Amman, are often in the news for their sartorial choices—we’re obsessed with Michelle Obama’s sheath dresses, Valerie Trierweiler’s French flair, and Peng Liyuan’s fabulous overcoats. But the focus on their fashion often crowds out talk of their passion projects—they’re iconic for their appearance, but what about their impact? Obama’s muscular arms have surely inspired as much ink to flow as her White House garden and her push to tackle childhood obesity. Likewise, we remember Laura Bush as much as for her perfectly pressed red power suits as for her literacy projects and her work on HIV/AIDS prevention.

Former RAND analyst Cora Neumann, for one, was fed up with this focus on fashion. While First Ladies may be “accidental” leaders—who land in a “job that has no description,” Neumann jokes—they have clout and potential. As Betty Ford once quipped, they have “the power of the position, a power which could be used to help.”

This power to help is what Neumann wants to tap into—to help First Ladies address needs in education, health, literacy and economic development in their countries.

But First Ladies often have fewer resources to deploy than their husbands—particularly in developing countries. That’s why in 2009, Neumann and her colleague Anita McBride concocted the African First Ladies Initiative, which connects the First Ladies of the U.S. and the U.K. with First Ladies from other parts of the world to mentor, advise, and provide resources. The First Ladies’ staffs get training as well, in an affiliated school. Given that Obama, Bush, Sarah Brown and Cherie Blair have all participated in this do-good mission, it’s clearly a bipartisan affair. The focus is on impact, not politics.

For the full story, please go to DailyBeast/Newsweek.

Solar Power: In Small Doses



THE business of promoting solar energy in the developing world has become a lot brighter since the days of merely selling solar lanterns to the poor. Many firms that started off by marketing portable devices with small photovoltaic panels to the 1.2 billion people who are not connected to a power grid have realised that solar is not just about running a light bulb, but also about creating electrical systems for households and finding clever ways to finance and maintain them.

Household demand has switched to other things, not least to charging mobile phones. “There are more mobile phones than toothbrushes in the developing world,” reckons Ryan Levinson, the chief executive of Sunfunder, a start-up based in San Francisco that helps solar companies raise financing. Cash-strapped customers usually cannot afford the upfront costs of a full household solar-power system, so firms have innovated by offering financing for smaller systems. M-KOPA, which is based in Kenya, sells solar “home systems” that include solar panels, three lights and a cellphone charger, for around $200. The firm, which was founded by the folks who pioneered M-PESA, Kenya’s popular mobile-money platform, is as serious about its payment model as it is about providing the hardware, says Chad Larson, its head of finance. M-KOPA’s customers can pay as little as 50 cents (40 Kenyan shillings) a day to keep their solar-powered devices running. After 360 days they have usually paid off the entire cost of the system.

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Retail in Developing Countries: Selling Sisters

IN THE late 19th century “Avon ladies” started to knock on America’s doors to sell beauty products. In the early 21st century “phone ladies” began offering phone service to rural Bangladesh by renting out their mobile phone. Now a growing number of women entrepreneurs in poor countries are combining both distribution models to sell everything from soap and nutrition to medicine and solar lamps.

Most get their wares from social enterprises. Living Goods, which operates in Uganda, offers a smattering of 70 products, including clean-burning stoves, anti-malarial drugs and toiletries (see picture). Also in Uganda, Solar Sister has women sell solar lamps in rural communities. And in India InVenture hires “maitris” (“trusted friend” in Hindi) who get a commission for signing up locals to use InSight, a money management program that uses text messages (it also helps users to build a credit score, which makes it easier to get a loan).

Chuck Slaughter started Living Goods in 2007 after working for a charity in Kenya that runs small shops on street corners selling medicines. He realised that conventional storefronts can only reach a limited number of consumers, especially in rural Africa. “Distribution is often the missing link between design and impact,” explains Mr Slaughter. One of Living Goods’ products is Sprinkles, a mix of micro-nutrients designed for anemic children. Although widely acclaimed when it was invented in the late 1990s, only a quarter of the 300m of the children who need the product worldwide have access to it.

Another advantage of the Avon model is that it is based on trust. “By having people at their doorstep from the local community, people they can relate with, telling them about this new product, they’re more likely to consider it,” says Shivani Siroya, founder of InVenture.

Women entrepreneurs can also top up their income—and decide themselves how much they want to make. “Solar Sisters”, for instance, are not pressed to sell as much as they can. If a sister’s needs are met by selling four solar lamps that month, she does not need to sell more, says Katherine Lucey, the founder of the charity.

Although the Avon model has proven to be a success, its adopters are already trying to improve it. In August Living Goods, for the first time, hired male entrepreneurs in a pilot project to see whether they will perform as well as women. It has also introduced a mobile service to help its agents manage payments and communicate with their customers. Nearly half of Living Goods’ female entrepreneurs now use the technology, for instance to send text messages to remind customers to take the medicine they have purchased.

Using the AVON model for solar

Originally appeared on


Photo courtesy of Solar Sister


One-year-old start up, Solar Sister is using cosmetics company AVON’s model to distribute solar energy in Uganda, Sudan, and Rwanda.  To learn more about the “business in a bag” model that’s giving rural African women an income and a renewable light source, Dowser spoke to Katherine Lucey, Solar Sister’s founder.

What was the problem you saw and how could you fill that need in a unique way?

Lucey: Problem: Gender-based technology gap in rural Africa.  When I was doing work for a nonprofit that was installing solar energy in schools, clinics and rural homes, the maintenance of the project, the adaptation of the solar wasn’t very good because we’d return a year later and find that 50% of the systems were not functioning.  It was a very high fail rate.

In rural Uganda, where 95% of the homes don’t have electricity, solar technology is a distributable energy source; so, it’s a very good solution to clean rural energy or actually, rural energy period.  It just happens to be clean as well.

Also, the technology that we were using – the solar panel, the pvc, etc., was very ‘techie’ and we were in homes where there was no technology.  So, the women didn’t have a comfort zone with the technology that we were bringing into their home.

We realized that the women are responsible for the solar panel – it’s a household utility.  So, there’s a gender gap there for technology.  And that’s not specific to Uganda.  It’s an issue here at home as well when you look at the gender ratio in science and math.  It leans towards men.

That’s how I started thinking about how we can close that gap.

And the solution? 

The AVON model for solar energy.

At the time that I was developing this idea, the design of the solar lamps became micro-solar.  These are designed for specifically for BoP application.  They’re rugged, very intuitive to use, affordable, and readily available.  And it’s not as ‘techie’; it’s really just a light.  So, the gap bridged.  All of a sudden it’s a lot easier for women to use.  You stick it out during the day; you bring it in at night; you flip a switch and you have light to read, cook, and even a source to charge your phone.

It’s also one-tenth the cost of a home solar system so it’s within the price point of these homes.  They can range from $15 USD to $50 and when you’re already paying $2 a week for kerosene, it’s an investment that will pay off in a few months because you’ll no longer have to pay for an energy source.  They use those extra funds then for better food, health care, and schooling fees.

And the price continues to drop as the technology evolves.

Did Solar Sisters pair with an micro-finance institution (MFI) to provide women entrepreneurs the initial capital needed for this ‘business in a bag’ model?
No. Rather Solar Sister uses a ‘micro consignment’ model versus micro franchise.  These women don’t have to pay the franchise cost up front and we don’t work with MFIs.

For example, we had a lady, Viola, who signed up to be an entrepreneur.  But she had just had a baby so was not able to sell immediately.  If she had taken out a loan then she would have had to start paying back within a week or so.  That would have been difficult in her situation and put her collateral at risk – her home.

Rather, we want them to sell and our intent is not to make money off the interest rates.  So, we extend a loan ourselves by providing them the inventory.

In handling the finances, do you utilize mobile banking or other forms of banking?

Yes!  In Uganda, 5% of people in rural Uganda have electricity but 80-85% have a phone.  Not only do they have one phone but four phones for different calling plans and mobile carriers to get the cheapest rates.  In fact, with solar energy, many women are able to charge the phones of their neighbors for 25 cents and provide a service.  So, it’s another source of income.

And yes, we use mobile banking and SMSs to communicate with the entrepreneurs and streamline funds.  It makes the operation much more efficient.

Have you had any default cases?

Yes, we’ve had women who have sampled it and decided it’s not for them so they’ve bought the lamps themselves that are in inventory or returned them to us and that’s alright.   That’s not a problem.  We understand.

What propelled you to focus on this particular issue – energy poverty?

My background was in energy so I was sensitized to the idea that energy is fundamental to development.  My work experience was on a much bigger scale though – developing large plants and big scale economic development.  But as I left that post, I knew that the same principles apply at the home level, the grassroots.

I was really interested in microcredit and how it was giving access to financial services.  But I saw that there was this same need on the energy side- access to energy in a way that they could do it at the grassroots level.  The will of government wasn’t there; waiting for the government to solve the rural energy problem was not the answer.  We needed a solution that was closer at hand.

Solar is the most democratic – we all live under the sun.  Energy is free and the equipment is a one time cost.  Compare that with cost of burning wood or kerosene and health issues involved. The cost is extremely high.  That’s why I went with solar.

When you come back to the States, do you wonder why can’t we do some of these ideas on a more grassroots level at home?

For those in Uganda, the cost of solar is much cheaper.  They’re paying 20-30% of their income on energy already.  We don’t pay that much.  And if we were to put in solar equipment, it would require us to spend a bit more.  So, we think of solar as a luxury, which makes it harder to implement here.

You’ve been in this startup mode for a year, any hiccups along the way?

Oh yes.

We met this one lady who seemed like a great businesswoman, had a lot of potential, and we thought she’d make a great entrepreneur.  But after the initial box of lamps she took from us, we never heard from her again.  So, we got back in touch and asked her how the experience was.  She told us that she’d sold the box and it was a wonderful opportunity.   But why didn’t she ask for more lamps?   She, responded, that she thought it was just a one-time opportunity.

So, I found myself wondering how did we not convey this correctly that this is an ongoing business opportunity, not a one time thing?

Sometimes, such simple details make you realize flaws that you couldn’t have conceived because we just assumed that these ladies would come back to us when they wanted more inventory.

With these lessons in mind, what do you say to other budding social entrepreneurs?
Be committed and open to learning.  That’s the key.  Just stick with it and be open during the process of developing your idea/organization.

You’re working with Ashoka as a changemaker.  How do you see this model as being scalable?
We’re partnering with women’s groups who have been working in the community for 10-20 years.  By doing such partnerships, we’re able to use their foundation and their local knowledge.  The biggest challenge in scaling is actually identifying funding partners: should it be a developing impact investor, philanthropic organization, or some other entity.  So, what we need to do is really become the experts in our business.  Women can sell a lot of items.  Solar energy is one of them and it’s one mode to economic freedom.