Eleven Social Entrepreneurs Across East Africa Win Prestigious Ashoka Fellowship

December 5, 2013

NAIROBI, KENYA – 2013 proved to be a record-setting year for Ashoka East Africa with the election of eleven leading social entrepreneurs into the global Fellowship. Rejecting mere incremental improvements for more comprehensive fixes, each solution invites a new conversation for how that sector goes about doing its work in the future.


Jason Aramburu is adamant that it is possible to break the downward spiral of chemical fertilizer use, degraded land quality and decreased crop yields in Africa. To prove it, he has revived and updated a centuries-old Amazonian practice of burying biochar in the soil, a practice which drastically improves that soil’s ability to retain water, nutrients, and beneficial microorganisms and not just for that planting season, but permanently. And through Jason’s innovating, the process of creating biochar has been simplified such that farmers can produce the carbon-rich, charcoal-like matter from the crop wastes on their very own farms. The 2,000 pilot farmers currently using re:char’s technology in Western Kenya have already boosted crop yields by an average of 144%.

Joseph Nkandu is proving that coffee farmers do not have to exit the value chain at the production phase, as has long been the case. Instead, he has helped these previously marginal players see their role as owners of an extremely valuable commodity who merely contract others to add value to it along the way for a fee similar to someone who builds their own house and pays others to paint it or add on a specialty roof, but ultimately retains ownership and receives the bulk of the profit upon selling. Key to this reconfiguration has been NuCafe’s ability to show coffee processors that in this model they actually earn more revenue because farmers are incentivized to produce much larger quantities than in the previous, disempowering system. Indeed, this new way of doing business has allowed previously non-operational processing plants in Uganda to come online after years of underutilization. And over 600,000 farmers across the country have seen their incomes and dignity multiply.  

Jamila Abass has created an accessible, easy-to-use tool that enables farmers to not only access price information in real time from their mobile phones, but perhaps more importantly, it allows them to directly find buyers who have logged their purchase requests on the same platform. With M-Farm, now farmers can plant specific crops based on real demand and say how much of the bulk order they can each individually meet, while knowing if the price being offered is indeed competitive. Farmers also have the services of one of Jamila’s agents to help them think through the smartest inputs and planting methods necessary to successfully fulfill their pledge.

They then have their final harvest checked for quality right at the farm gate, and once approved, they are paid on the spot. This new level of transparency has great promise to erode the distrust and complacency currently plaguing smallholder agriculture. Indeed, the 7,000 farmers who signed up for the pilot of this new kind of entrepreneurial, data-driven farming saw their profits double in the first harvest. 

David Mupenzi is unlocking the potential of Rwanda’s sluggish dairy sector by facilitating the application of a price differentiation program that allows dairy farmers to know exactly how much more money they will earn if they invest in producing higher quality milk. And through his Dairy Quality Assurance Limited (DQAL), David is simultaneously creating the infrastructure that will enable previously underperforming farmers to produce such high quality milk on a consistent basis. This includes the creation of Rwanda’s first dairy-focused extension services system and the establishment of a laboratory which offers milk testing services at 10% of market rate.

Edward Mukiibi’s work is based on the understanding that, in Uganda, the stigma surrounding farming is heavily reinforced in schools as teachers consistently use agricultural chores as punishment for bad conduct and/or poor academic performance. To turn this around, Project DISC has partnered with schools across the country to make sure that agriculture now becomes one of the coolest experiences young people have throughout their primary and secondary school years. For the first time students get to be in the driver’s seat in schools by participating in the design of a new school garden, as well as picking the crops they would like to grow. They host fun food parties, which include cooking and tasting workshops. The monotony of the school day is further broken up with visits to 1) the farms of successful farmers to learn new techniques, 2) visits to research labs to get exposure to the work that goes into developing farm inputs, and 3) visits to restaurants, hotels, and supermarkets to better understand how food ends up there. Students even get to represent their schools at agricultural fairs where they not only get to showcase their products but also interact with a wide spectrum of key players in the sector. This exposure to the dynamism of the full agricultural value chain is changing young minds across Uganda and recasting what is too often considered work of the poor and uneducated as a dignified and profitable career of the future. 

Nicholas Hitimana is reviving Rwanda’s battered agricultural sector by demonstrating the principles upon which any strong industry is built. Recognizing that a landlocked country with underdeveloped transportation infrastructure and constantly diminishing plot sizes needs a high-value, low-volume crop, Nicholas introduced the cultivation of indigenous essential oil crops - such as geranium, patchouli and lemon grass - into Rwanda. Indeed, he set up the full value chain, including production, processing, packaging, and marketing right on Ikirezi’s farms, demonstrating how best a country can retain the most value from agriculture. And to empower ordinary farmers to be a part of this more sophisticated way of thinking about agriculture, Nicholas invites them to work at Ikirezi’s model farm, where they receive practical training on modern farming methods and commercial agriculture. Now many farmers, who previously saw themselves as mere subsistence farmers, have not only gone on to start their own essential oil crop farms and supply Ikirezi, earning much higher incomes, but have also started commercial farms specializing in crops like tomatoes, cabbages, and pineapples, and the adoption of modern organic farming practices has allowed these farmers to command a higher premium for their produce. 


David Auerbach’s team at SANERGY has created the first high-quality toilet that can fit in the small spaces available in dense slum communities and has brought down the cost and time of construction of a toilet to a fraction of what traditional toilets require. But the technology is only the starting point. David taps into the social fabric of the slum settlement to spread the idea. Through a franchise model in which local entrepreneurs own and operate profitable, branded Fresh Life Toilets, Sanergy creates economic opportunity that is community owned, incentivized, and sustained. And by showing that human waste can be transformed into highly valuable and in-demand resources such as energy and organic fertilizer, Sanergy is creating incentives for other players to provide sanitation and waste management services in slum settlements and hard to reach areas. 


Paige Ellenson is equipping unemployed young people in Africa to develop as professionals and leaders, and to create new economic opportunities by tapping into the multi-billion-dollar global wellness industry. The very process of engaging young people in the expansion of the yoga market in Kenya includes a one-on-one professional development model that incorporates self-discovery to unlock these young people’s innate capacity to transform themselves and their environment. Indeed, by empowering them to actively develop the market for their skills, the Africa Yoga Project demonstrates how young people, deemed unemployable in the current job market, can be empowered to create employment for themselves and others. 


Ella Peinovich is making it possible for Kenya’s local artisans, who are too often at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of tourist presence, to cultivate a steady, web-based clientele, thus, leapfrogging into the global 21st century economy. Key to this is Shop Soko’s technology platform which allows these small producers to advertise their goods and collect payment via their mobile phone, while allowing the consumers of the developed world to shop as is increasingly becoming the norm: online. Paired with back-end support such as updates on market trends, advice on the quality of the photos of products being advertised, and coordination of the delivery of those products to the buyer, the artisans, most of whom are women, finally have the opportunity to excel on a larger stage based on the merits of their individual creativity and entrepreneurship. 


Vickie Wambura is unlocking the potential of ex-prisoners in society and reducing their rate of recidivism by redefining the role of prisons as safe spaces for reformation and professional and personal development. She engages citizens, including teachers, corporate professionals, students, university professors and well-wishers, as voluntary resource persons in each step of this process, and in doing so, her Nafisika Trust is not only enabling prisons to bridge a stifling human resource gap, but is also debunking common stereotypes held by society about prisoners throughout Kenya.


Ian Craig has dedicated the last thirty years of his life to making sure that community-based conservation takes hold in East Africa. And it seems to be working. Guided by Northern Rangelands Trust, groups of once-warring pastoralists have embraced wildlife conservation and are organizing their communally held lands as private conservancies. In a model developed by Craig, these democratically governed conservancies are funded through a blend of philanthropic, government, and earned-income sources and – as their numbers grow – are transforming lives, securing peace, and conserving natural resources across the continent. 

We couldn’t be more encouraged by this class of Fellows. Their game-changing solutions truly showcase what can be achieved when one decides to put changemaking at the core of his or her identity,” said Simon Stumpf, Ashoka’s Representative for East Africa. 

These eleven leading social entrepreneurs join more than 60 other Ashoka Fellows from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda elected since 2001, and more than 3,000 Ashoka Fellows globally.