RWANDA IN THE FOREIGN PRESS :Rwanda, world social innovation capital in the making

Silicon Valley is still the global tech innovation center, but tiny Rwanda, in the middle of Africa and with its stunning history of genocide, is fast becoming the world’s social innovation capital.

Silicon Valley is still the global tech innovation center, but tiny Rwanda, in the middle of Africa and with its stunning history of genocide, is fast becoming the world’s social innovation capital.

I visited the country for the first time two weeks ago for a book project I’m developing about the journey of coffee from crop to cup.

The book keeps tracks each step in the global supply chain from coffee farmers in Rwanda’s highlands to coffee consumers in Cambridge, Mass. TechnoServe, the US-based economic development outfit, is helping farmer groups build a specialty coffee industry.

When in Rwanda, I ran into people working on some interesting projects there, including one of Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Villages.

But since I have been back I have come across a couple of other projects that are worthy of mention. What is it about Rwanda? I am sure there a fascination on the part of do-gooders with helping to save a country where things got so bad that neighbor killed neighbor on a massive scale.

But another element, clearly, is the role of the country’s President, Paul Kagame. He has rolled out the red carpet for social and business reformers of every stripe.

One of the coolest projects I’ve come across is Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. This is a joint venture of The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the New York-based financial markets firm Liquidnet, Israeli groups, and local Rwandans.

It’s a village in Eastern Rwanda that’s a home and school for orphans of the genocide. The first group of 125 students started classes there a few weeks ago.

The village and school are based on the model of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, was founded in Israel in 1953 to care for Holocaust orphans.

The educational program is being developed with the help of the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential, which has built up expertise in helping traumatized young people prepare for normal lives.

A lot of people and organizations have their hands in this project--which is one of its strengths. But Liquidnet’s role is particularly interesting to me because it shows the kind of impact a relatively small company can have if it focuses primarily on a single socially progressive project.

Most companies spread themselves thin, giving to a lot of causes. Liquidnet puts most of its effort and creative energy into this one thing.

My husband said to him, you know, “What’s the biggest problem facing Rwanda today?” And he said, “In a country where you have 1.2 million orphans, with no systemic solution to deal with them, there’s no future for the country.”

Immediately it struck me that, you know, Israel doesn’t have an orphan problem. After the Second World War, there was certainly a tremendous influx of orphans. And what did they do with them? They built youth villages.

And so I, actually, even at the table that night, said, “You should build youth villages.” And it was just, like, “Yeah, fine.” You know, pass the salt, and dinner went on. But it was an idea that really stuck with me. And I couldn’t let it go.

Liquidnet has donated about $4 million in cash to the project, and 20 employees and their spouses have traveled to Rwanda to help get the village going. “We think social engagement can be an investment for the company,” says Brian Walsh, Liquidnet’s Director of global social engagement.

He figures the company benefits in several ways: It helps with recruiting and retention of millennials, who, apparently want meaning in their professional lives. (Crazy!)It buffs up the company’s image with clients.

And it helps create a positive impression with regulators and investors. “It helps demonstrate through action that we’re a company with integrity and a sense of social obligation,” he says.

I asked Brian why he thinks so much social innovation is going on in Rwanda. Two reasons: Kagame has a vision and welcomes outsiders in to help.