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Africa

Allegra Itsoga with the children of the village of Koar, to whom Le Korsa provides school supplies

Like most college students after graduation, women’s studies graduate student Allegra Itsoga wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a career. Her inspiration came from one of her economics professors, who was from Ghana and talked positively about being taught by Peace Corps volunteers. With a B.A. in French and development economics from the University of San Francisco, as well as an interest in Francophone countries, Itsoga’s transition to Peace Corps volunteer made sense. The Peace Corps is a service opportunity for driven innovators to immerse themselves in a community abroad, working side-by-side with locals to address challenges of today.

In 2003, Itsoga, a native of Watertown, Conn., joined the Corps and was sent to Gabon, located in Central Africa, where she spent 27 months living with a host family. During those months she developed and implemented English as a Second Language curriculum for children, ages 11 to 19, and organized and implemented an AIDS Awareness March with 5,000 students, as well as increasing levels of AIDS education and awareness. “Because of my fluency in French, I was able to immerse myself in the culture really well,” Itsoga says. She loved the experience so much, she decided to stay an additional 14 months.

Living abroad for Itsoga was easy; the harder part was coming back to the States. Her time in the Peace Corps ignited her passion for social justice and made her realize that interacting with communities and individuals was a must for her future employment. “After an experience like the Peace Corps, I knew I couldn’t work for a for-profit company,” she says. She found her next opportunity at the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, where she started as a customer service representative and worked her way up to events management. Itsoga believed in the mission of public broadcasting, which is dedicated to providing diverse communities with a mix of entertainment programs and services.

After CPBN, Itsoga worked at Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), which is focused on funding Type I diabetes research. Itsoga’s focus at JDRF was event fundraising with families who had a member with Type I diabetes and were passionate about funding research. Both at CPBN and JDRF, Itsoga enjoyed the development more than the fundraising, but was skilled at both. “It’s all people skills, “ she says. “It’s all identifying the right people and working with them to make them feel passionate about the cause that you’re working for.”

Currently, Itsoga is director of Le Korsa, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving human lives in Senegal, Africa. Korsa translated from Pulaar, a Fula language spoken mainly by the Fula and Toucouleur peoples in the Senegal River valley area, to English means, “love from respect,” and it shows in the work Le Korsa does. Le Korsa is unique because it works directly with the population to determine what the people want, and then designs projects around those wants.

“Most NGOs do a cookie-cutter project and keep repeating it over and over in other areas,” Itsoga says. These fly-by-night organizations might build a hospital and be gone the next day, leaving the population with no knowledge or funding to run such an operation. “Community-centered development is the only development that is sustainable,” she says.

One such project Itsoga led was the Women’s Health Initiative, which resulted in the Keur
Djiguene Yi Women’s Health Center in Dakar, the first free, government-sanctioned women’s health care facility in Senegal. Itsoga thinks of herself as a facilitator; the real heroes, as far as she’s concerned, are the people she’s working with: The doctors that choose to stay in Senegal and work for practically nothing, the teachers that go into these tiny villages and live without power to help children, the farmers who are growing food and then giving it to the community, and the women who are getting together to do outreach.

Itsoga with Dr. Juliette Faye, the director of the Keur Djiguene Yi Women’s Health Center in Dakar

With the creation of the women’s center, Itsoga realized she needed to further her education to learn more about why, precisely, projects like the women’s center are so vital. “I knew I wanted to get my master’s, I just wasn’t sure in what,” she explains. Knowing that Itsoga wanted to pursue women’s studies, a friend of hers recommended Southern’s master’s program, where one of the most highly regarded professors in the field, Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, teaches.

Itsoga joined Southern’s women’s studies graduate program in fall 2017. While it’s challenging balancing work with her master’s program, Itsoga says, “the unique thing about the women’s studies department is that they get what it’s like for working women.” Her work at Le Korsa and the curriculum of her master’s program don’t always intersect, although her most recent thesis, on how the patriarchal funding structure of NGO’s disenfranchises small, women-led organizations, is inspired by her nonprofit work.

Her advice to students considering nonprofit work? Do an internship. “You will get so much more as an intern at a nonprofit than doing an internship at a for-profit because nonprofits need interns to breathe,” she says. “We cannot survive without interns/volunteers. So much more responsibility, more interesting projects.” Itsoga also wants to fight negative stereotypes about nonprofits, explaining, “The stigma about no money in nonprofits isn’t true. You won’t be a millionaire, but you can live comfortably. “Plus,” she adds, “you go to bed feeling like you’ve made a difference. Can’t put a price tag on that.”

Allegra Itsoga

Jesse Manning, '18, and Heidi Reinprecht, '17

Recent graduate Jesse Manning, ’18, and his girlfriend, Heidi Reinprecht, class of ’17, are already using their communications expertise to change lives 7,000 miles away in Uganda.

Manning, 22, and Reinprecht, 25, who have started their own film production company, will fly to Uganda July 12-25 to film a documentary on a primary school built from donations that has positively changed life outcomes for more than 550 children from nursery school to 7th grade.

Their hope is that by telling the poignant stories about the value of education through the eyes of the children, parents, and educators, more people will want to donate money and/or time to the cause.

“Making the film will make them grow in ways you can’t imagine,” Reinprecht said of the documentary. “It’s a small, grassroots organization and I don’t know how they do it.”

The school was established through HELP International Uganda, a partnership between HELP International and the Ugandan people in Eastern Africa. The mission focuses on breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and hunger in the small, poverty-stricken Ugandan village of Masese.

Manning, who hails from Trumbull, majored in communication and became enthralled with the cause after a friend, Christopher Martin, who attends Molloy College in New York, returned from an internship in Uganda.

Martin couldn’t stop raving about the beauty of the school’s impact through educating, feeding, and delivering medical care to 550 impoverished children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend school. Primary school in the village normally is not free and so many don’t automatically receive an education. When Martin shared his experiences, Manning felt an instant connection.

“$1 there can help feed a family for a week, $30 can change someone’s life,” Manning said. “I felt I wanted to do my part.”

The couple already has a film company — Little Tree Farm Productions — and the farm in the name is intended to convey that people can “grow their ideas,” Reinprecht said.

Promoting the school through film “felt natural,” said Reinprecht, who noted, “I’ve always wanted to help people,” she said.

The couple has raised $5,000 toward the trip — enough to get them there — but are fundraising about $10,000 more to pay the rest, including insurance, medical expenses such as vaccinations, and production costs.

They are donating their time to make the film.

The pair met in their first film class at Southern and were always paired after that in class.

Reinprecht, originally from Watertown, graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in communication with a concentration in film and television.

Reinprecht says she has sensitive ears and is an audio production specialist, while Manning is a natural with the camera.

“He’s my extra set of eyes and I’m his ears,” she said.

Their approximately 40-minute documentary will highlight the climate of the village before the school was built, what it has become, and an expansion planned for the future.

“We want people to take away from it that they can really help,” Manning said.

Reinprecht added, “The children love this school.”

Martin became involved during his sophomore year of college when he interned with a global justice NGO aligned with the United Nations. Martin’s area of expertise was micro-finance, which included giving small business loans to people in developing nations.

His professor was involved in the school in Uganda.

“We decided to team up to give small business loans to people in the village,” Martin said.

But he fell in love with the school as well, and this summer Martin will make his fourth trip to Uganda in three years, volunteering in the school, tutoring the children, and helping in any other way needed.

“The people there are just so amazing,” Martin said. “They are extremely poor – they live on about $1 per day, but they’re so friendly and excited we’re there.”

Martin is excited about the impact of his friends’ documentary.

“The biggest thing for people who have not seen the project – film might make them want to help,” he said.

Mawano Kambu

Powering through a diet of hot-cup ramen noodles and sleepless nights spent working at his kitchen table, Southern alumnus Mawano Kambeu, ’08, laid the foundation for what ultimately would be recognized by Harvard Business School’s Africa Business Club as the Best New Venture for 2015. “In Africa, it always seems you’re told what you cannot do. You need to stay positive and prove those people wrong,” says Kambeu, founder of the award-winning Dot Com Zambia, one of Africa’s fastest-growing ecommerce companies. The online service provides Zambians with a lifeline to merchandise from both local and international retailers (ranging from bus tickets to popular items from websites like eBay and Amazon.com) as well as fulfillment and shipping services.

Dot Com Zambia got its unofficial start in 2007 after Kambeu discovered that Amazon.com was not delivering U.S. goods to Zambia. Kambeu — who traveled between the two countries — would receive “shopping lists” from family and friends in Zambia, and would return to his homeland with multiple suitcases filled with the requested items.

“The world is getting smaller. We watch the same TV shows. We want the same things,” he says, noting that access to goods and services in Zambia is limited. Kambeu eventually started charging a premium on items he brought back. Meanwhile, his customers began asking for goods from the United Kingdom and China as well. The business expanded, moving out of Kambeu’s home in Derby, Conn., into warehouses in Orange, Conn., and Zambia — and today the company even has a presence in the United Kingdom and China.

A modern American success story, Kambeu worked for UPS (United Parcel Service) loading and doing odd jobs while pursing a Southern degree in business administration. While at Southern, he drafted a proposal for one of Dot Com Zambia’s services, Bus Tickets Zambia, a system that enables travelers to buy bus tickets online ahead of time. The service filled a basic need, says Kambeu, explaining that in Zambia consumers would typically pay for a ticket at a chaotic station or on the bus, and then wait for hours or even days before the bus filled and departed. Kambeu conducted market research and interviewed thousands of people to determine if they were willing to pay extra for more convenient ticketing and service. His “on-the-ground” audience analysis helped Dot Com Zambia adapt its ticketing strategies to the needs and customs of the locals, giving the company an edge over larger, more well-known competitors.

Kambeu’s corporate experience helped him compete as well. After UPS, he moved on to Prudential Financial. He initially sorted papers at the company but quickly rose through the ranks to the position of manager of investment and sales. He says his greatest hurdle was quitting his job at Prudential and moving back to Zambia where he struggled for two years to build the business. “There will always be a headwind,” says Kambeu. “My personal philosophy is to find a way around obstacles.”

It hasn’t been easy, however. Problems with differing social customs, weak infrastructure, and politics continue to be roadblocks for Kambeu and his team, which now includes 23 employees plus additional contractors. But the entrepreneur remains undeterred. “Let’s work on what we control; What’s Plan A, Plan B, Plan C? We want to do what’s good for the country,” he says.

In 2014, Dot Com Zambia brought in $741,000 in revenue, and more recently, has received $500,000 from investors. With growth comes change, and Kambeu now serves as managing director of the company and reports to an executive board.

Meanwhile, Dot Com Zambia’s success is both measurable and motivational. In November 2014, the company was named the runner-up in the Top Start Up category at the Global Innovation through Science and Technology Tech-I competition, led by the U.S. Department of State. The following year, the company was named the Best New Venture in Africa at Harvard Business School, winning $15,000 in support. Kambeu also won the Zambian Government Award and the Zambian Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

He says he’ll never forget his experiences as a struggling student and attributes the foundation of his success to Southern, particularly lessons learned from a practical business writing class taught by Jennifer Lee Magas, adjunct professor of English and the vice president of communications at Magas Media Consultants. As a result of the assignments, particularly the proposal, he felt prepared to follow his entrepreneurial passion, and he has willingly returned to Southern to share his experiences with today’s students.

“Life is a sound bite,” says Kambeu. “From the job to everyday life, it’s all about pitching. And if you love what you do and can communicate your passion, you will find success.”

Summer issue of Southern Alumni Magazine 2016