Norman Beaulieu has an innovative business approach to community development in Africa, regenerating degraded land and providing solutions to mitigate climate change.
Mesmerising childhood tales from a Mombasa-based aunt and a visit to South Africa’s Alexandra township two decades ago forged a passion for Africa in Norman Beaulieu, who now wants to change the fortunes of impoverished people living in rural communities across the continent.
Boston native Beaulieu is the founder of Village Corps, a community development business which aims to use bio-energy, agriculture and modern technology to help overcome poverty and mitigate climate change in some of the poorest parts of Africa.
Already underway in the Akyem Abuakwa Kingdom in the Eastern Region of Ghana, the project has potential across the continent with South Africa’s Rharhabe Kingdom in the Eastern Cape next in line through continued support from the Department of Trade and Industry.
“My aunt was a nun in Mombasa, Kenya, in the early 1960s and as I grew up, she shared all sorts of fascinating stories, many of them about the challenges communities face,” Beaulieu tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Later, I was at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and my resident advisor was South African. We became close friends and when I visited the country for the first time in 1997, we spent a day in Alexandra and I got to see where he grew up.
“I was struck by how my childhood stories of poverty became all too vivid before my eyes. Over 30 years after my aunt left Africa, it seemed like little had changed. I was devastated by the entrenched pattern of poverty, in all its many forms. So I became rather fixated on coming up with a solution to break that cycle.”
What Beaulieu witnessed were NGOs tirelessly implementing their individual solutions, such as drilling boreholes or providing mosquito nets, in as many communities as they could reach, all the while constantly trying to raise money.
Beaulieu, who previously founded Aedi Group, a sustainable project development company in the United States, relocated to Cape Town in 2016 with his wife Kristin and two children to implement Village Corps’ innovative business approach to community development.
“The Village Corps business model is in part similar to a property developer who secures both land and then an ‘anchor’ tenant to create, for instance, a shopping center. The anchor tenant pays annual rent as well as a revenue share to the developer,” he says.
“Similarly, Village Corps secures degraded land via long-term lease from poor communities, yet varies from the conventional model in that it develops the ‘anchor’ business itself through integrated bio-energy and agriculture projects, paying annual rent for land as well as an annual revenue share back to the communities to help address varied community-based needs more systemically.”
“This integrated development model uses an organic agro-ecological farming system to regenerate land that cannot be currently used thereby helping thousands of smallholder farmers establish a more stable and diverse income that collectively creates a more resilient local ecosystem.
“Once established, other businesses can co-locate adjacent to the bio-power facility not only as a source of baseload renewable energy, but also as a source of heat generated by making electricity, which can be used in a multitude of industrial processes.”
In Ghana, Village Corps, he says, is regenerating up to 26,000 acres of illegal mining land, called ‘Galamsey’ land, and approximately 100 kilometers of polluted rivers and streams in its first project.
“Illegal miners dug holes looking for gold, which filled with water and created stagnant pools, so the instances of malaria are extremely high,” Beaulieu reveals.
“The ruined lands had also collapsed riverbanks, polluting rivers and streams, which were sources of drinking water, so deaths from diarrhea and septicemia are also very high in this community.
“We regenerate the landscape and soil in part by planting perennial grasses like cow grass and bamboo to help re-establish riverbanks. The nutritious leaves from these grasses are used for animal feed and the remaining stalks are used to make electricity through steam combustion.”
Village Corps chairman, Kofi Appenteng, is also chairman of the Ford Foundation and the CEO of the Africa-America Institute in New York.
“The Village Corps model uses bio-power to create a more stable and diverse source of income for thousands of smallholder farmers all while delivering appropriate financial returns to funders,” Appenteng says.
“An organized network of farmers producing organic raw materials is compelling for other industries to co-locate within an industrial enclave that has renewable power and a source of heat from the power plant to make their products, this creates many more jobs and tax revenues for the government.
“Over the years of vetting so many approaches to development work, the Village Corps model is the best I have seen.”
Emliano Maletta, a Spanish-based agronomist who is an expert in bio-energy, is also excited about the possibilities across the continent and echoes the view of Appenteng.
“I think that Village Corps projects in Ghana may become an outstanding replicable model with great benefits in Africa and worldwide,” Maletta says. “In terms of regenerating degraded and abandoned lands, this new approach enhances resilient agriculture, agroforestry and perennial grasses which increase raw material productivity at the regional level.
“By combining new farming and agro-industries’ sectors, these bio-refinieries can produce and use local renewable energy sources. A synergy with new value chains including animal feed, food and cash crops, bio-fertilizers and many other bio-materials has the potential to replace fossil-based products that are being imported, enhancing a new local bio-economy with amazing social benefits.”
With the model in place that demonstrated a path to appropriate financial returns, Beaulieu attracted private investors and secured a grant from U.S. Trade and Development Agency through the U.S. Power Africa initiative to conduct the required feasibility studies.
In addition to delivering financial returns, the model has to deliver enduring impact dividends as well.
“Village Corps has inextricably linked their solutions to mitigating climate change directly with overcoming poverty,” according to Bill Reed, who is president of the United States-based Regenesis Group, experts at working with communities to implement sustainable development projects.
“The Village Corps platform is the broadest example of how it is possible to achieve multiple value-adding benefits and impact through a single investment effort. It creates renewable energy through the restoration of degraded land into healthy soil, diverse habitat, and natural water sources in a way that will allow much more productive farming, achieve local food security and a significant reduction in sources of disease.”
From childhood stories of the struggles of the poor in Africa to a business model for community development, Beaulieu has come a long way to realizing his vision of ‘overcoming poverty by cooling the planet’.
And as the program rolls out, he will have the firm backing of Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo.
“The Village Corps platform is being developed as a Presidential Special Initiative by President Nana Akufo-Addo as it aligns with the President’s vision of implementing an integrated rural development approach to creating agricultural jobs for youth, women and ex-miners,” Nana Bediatuo Asante, Executive Secretary to the President of Ghana, tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Regenerating the Galamsey lands and waterways into resilient and productive agricultural systems throughout Ghana will benefit communities for generations to come.”
– By Nick Said
What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?
If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders.
There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.
Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.
It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”
Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.
“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”
Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.
It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.
“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”
Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”
This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing.
“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong.
“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.
Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.
“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”
Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.
“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
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