- A U.S. Air Force serviceman and former Congolese abductee start a joint venture to end extreme poverty.
- They believe that business, not charity is the solution.
- Eastern Congo is one of the most dangerous regions in the world. That’s why they chose it.
- The pair see unrealized human potential in the region and are facilitating economic progress.
Be warned. Locking eyes with a stranger across a room can lead to great things. In the case of U.S. Air Force serviceman Daniel Myatt, who was sitting in a South Korean church service one Sunday, it was the eyes of David Masomo, a Congolese national who was in the country to pursue a Master’s degree in Agriculture and Rural Development. It was 2013 and Myatt was on active military duty in South Korea, a country that spends every day looking nervously North towards its hostile neighbor.
Myatt and Masomo struck up a conversation and over the months discovered a mutual passion for development, especially the kind that helps create stability in the world’s most fragile states. Good intentions don’t grow sitting on a shelf, so they decided to swing into action.
Over a plate of traditional fermented vegetables, called kimchi, at a Korean BBQ restaurant the pair decided, “Let’s do this!” They formed Mavuno in 2014 – that aims to help alleviate extreme poverty in eastern Congo through a community-driven, grassroots approach. The pair couldn’t have hoped to launch in a more dangerous country. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the site of the deadliest conflict since the second World War, with over 5.4 million deaths.
“It was a natural place for us to start, because it’s David’s home,” says Myatt. “The unique thing about Mavuno is that it’s co-founded by an American and a Congolese. This wasn’t me parachuting in with some good ideas,” says the former Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer.
The organization’s theory of change is based on the premise that the best way to prevent conflict is to end extreme poverty. Much research already points to this: 14.5% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty. In fragile and conflict areas, that number rises to 43%. Since 1990, more than 700 million people have moved above the extreme poverty threshold, which the World Bank currently pegs at $1.90 a day. Yet despite this improvement, the number of people living in extreme poverty within fragile states remains unchanged at 400 million. The needle hasn’t moved.
“If the international community is serious about eradicating extreme poverty, it can only happen if work is done in the hard areas,” says Myatt. “That’s where you’ll find us,” he adds. Mavuno’s approach is to listen to people without prescribing any formulas, help them identify good ideas and then provide training around financial literacy and market research – and then exit.
“We’re ultimately trying to kick start a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Myatt. Their aim is to become self-sustaining through business, free of philanthropy and donations. The pair think they can ultimately reach one million people in eastern Congo with their idea.
But what of the dangers of growing a social enterprise in one of the most dangerous places on earth? It’s a question Myatt gets a lot. Like many pioneers who are brave enough to cast the status quo view aside, there are always surprises, and experiences that disprove the hysteria and drama of international, mainstream news reports.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to 75 million people and is the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi. There’s a great amount of diversity and much of the conflict happens in the east of the country – an important fact to consider when defining the country as a whole. “And yes, the east is where we work,” grins Myatt, true to form. Masomo was abducted by a rebel group as a young man, and with Myatt’s military background, they both have unique insights into the nature of working in conflict zones, and what it takes to succeed.
“The correct path may be littered with personal hardship, but that’s the path you should take every time,” says Myatt. “A leader takes care of others before themselves – you eat last, go to bed last, pay others first. This may come at great personal expense, but this is how you earn trust. That’s what real leaders do.”
Part of Mavuno’s vision is to unlock human wealth and potential. “We see fertile soil in a climate that can grow a staggering diversity of crops,” says Myatt. “We see women with amazing strength as leaders of families and villages. We see men with a commitment to hard work. We see a resilient people with resourcefulness and ingenuity, whose creative minds hold ideas that could end extreme poverty. Our approach is to focus on assets, not problems,” he says.
The United Nations also focuses on assets in the Congo, but not as Myatt and Masomo see it. The U.N. maintain the most expensive peacekeeping force in the world in eastern Congo – at a cost of $1.4 billion a year. “Our venture is high risk,” says Myatt. “When we talk to investors looking for minimum risk we’re usually not a good fit. Mavuno is high risk, high reward. We can’t wait for 100% stability before starting – that day may never come. It’s important to establish economic growth, however small, to prevent a slide back into conflict.”
“Mavuno doesn’t have a ‘thing’,” says Myatt, “Some projects dig wells, distribute books, provide healthcare – we have an approach. We start with people, not projects.” Despite the lack of focus on a ‘thing,’ Myatt and Masomo are adamant that business is the way to do it, not charity. “Enterprise is the primary vehicle for humans to flourish,” he says. “Millennials sometimes have a negative perception of business, but we should rather be criticizing the perversion of business, because business is ultimately the biggest force for good. Want to solve problems in the world? Begin learning about economics,” says Myatt.
What are your ideas on how business can help solve social problems? Let us know in the comments below.