Snapshots from the Field
Spending time this summer with our students in the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, we want to share with you a glimpse into their daily lives.
Snapshot #5: Tycoon for Kids
Iringa, Tanzania: It’s late Monday evening and I am sitting at a small table with Fuad Abri, still trying to get the truth out of him. Successful beyond most Tanzanians’ wildest dreams, this director of an 800-acre, 60-employee dairy farm will talk all evening about his company, ASAS, his family, and The School Fund. But he continues to sidestep the one question that has burned in my mind since I first hear about him: Why should he care about our kids?
An advisor to The School Fund, Fuad has secured lodging for our group in Iringa, waited at the bus station with industrial-sized vans to transport us there, and met us at Ummu Salama School next morning to begin work with our students. Everyone at the high school knows him, because he chairs the board there. As we make our way around Iringa, we see ASAS signs and kiosks on several corners, and people greet Fuad by name on every street. And they smile.
A third-generation Tanzanian whose family hails back to Yemen, Fuad grew up in Iringa. Hs family owned a dairy farm that was producing excess milk in a country that “historically, is not a country that consumes much milk.” They brought in pasteurizing equipment, developed a yogurt product so sweet that “people thought it was ice cream at first!” and built both market demand and supply. “You see, we live in a place where for 6 months there is rain and much milk, and then for the next 6 months, it is dry and there is much less milk.”
Their factory processes 7-8,000 liters per day into butter, flavored milk, milk in pouches, and yogurt that even out the year-round supply. “We run tests for antibiotics, tuberculosis, protein, fat, and other factors. We try our level best to have superior quality, higher standards than what’s required by law.”
This 31-year-old husband and father of two has a decade to wait till his own daughters start high school (they are 6 months and 4 years old), but he currently serves on the boards of 3 local schools. He sponsors a family whose parents are both blind, who have 1 biological and 4 adopted children. His company launched a scholarship program to help university students learn dairy technology. And since he met The School Fund in 2009, he has contributed significant time and resources to us as well.
“It was really funny when I met Matt,” Fuad recalls. “He was looking for my older brother, Salim, whom he’d met in town the summer before. He told me who he was and what he was thinking about for his project. I was really impressed.”
Yes, I ask him again with slightly different words, but why does he—this busy executive landowner who has no student of his own or need of help with school fees—give so much of himself to our cause?
“The opportunity The School Fund provides is what motivates me,” he answers. He looks down at his hands and fiddles with his car keys. “I wished I could have started something like The School Fund myself. But I thought, if I cannot, then at least I can collaborate, take Matt around, do what I can to help.”
So for two years now, Fuad has helped The School Fund through communication and contacts, spreading the word locally about our work and introducing us to the heads of Lugalo and Ummu Salama schools. He has advised us through the learning process of setting up, monitoring and evaluating, critiquing and improving our sponsorship of students managed by their teachers here in Tanzania (unlike elsewhere, where our local partners oversee student performance and journaling). This week, he takes us around to government officials whom we lobby for support, invites an experienced NGO director to discuss whether we can leverage our missions together, and brings local business leaders to an information night on The School Fund in Iringa. He even invites our group to tour the dairy farm and share dinner with his family Saturday evening.
“I really rely on Fuad to give me the Tanzanian perspective,” Matt comments. “He’s been an inspiration to me: someone who has been so successful in Tanzania but has not forgotten the people who need him. He has such a big heart.” In fact, Fuad means heart in Arabic.
With coaxing from both of us, Fuad finally talks about his philanthropic side. “Growing up here, I didn’t have friends who were rich. My life has been with poor people. It’s difficult really to know, when a person says they are hungry, what is the pain they are feeling.” Fuad, who firmly believes that “you don’t live alone in this world with just your own family,” was feeling “a pinch.” He ached for a pragmatic way to help those around him thrive.
“If others develop, then I will develop too. It’s like in business: I cannot grow unless others grow too. You are doing a good job [with TSF] to help students in government schools. My desire to help comes, really, just from thinking. I cannot play and enjoy soccer if someone else is hungry. What I really enjoy is this: seeing others with a smile on their face.”
Access to television and the Internet has given Fuad a broader view than many of his impoverished compatriots who lack electricity and computers. “Through both of these, I can really see the difference between developed and developing countries,” he says. “Also, at my previous school, I met American and European volunteers who had already finished high school by age 19. Here in Africa, and in Tanzania in particular, education is difficult.”
He lists several ways: developed countries offer free education; they employ qualified teachers; and they enjoy access to the Internet for reading and studying. He believes their students want to learn for the sake of knowledge, not “just for cramming for tests,” like students here. He has seen that American and European students have definite ideas about their career choices later: not so for African students. Tanzanian students also suffer a disadvantage by not being exposed to English until high school. He wishes for widespread English and full-scale school sponsorship. “If everyone in Tanzania had school fees sponsored, you would see a lot of change here in a very short time,” he insists.
“By the way, finishing secondary education is not sufficient,” Fuad adds. He wants adult education for all. “Imagine if a farmer can read and write; he can learn to keep accounting and study more efficient methods of crop and livestock production. Or a plumber—he can be cheated if he cannot read numbers. Education can reduce poverty across many segments of the population.”
Now Fuad has forgotten himself again (“I really like volunteer projects, but whatever I do for others, I easily forget”) and is on a strategic roll. We order dinner and several TSF team members pull their chairs nearer to Fuad as he sketches out next steps with Matt.
We ponder ways to tap into the next segment of learning, creating links between our secondary students and local university students, and perhaps hiring a local college intern to assist with monitoring Iringa students’ academics and journaling. We flesh out an idea these two like-minded men have been thinking about across Africa and the Atlantic: building a communications forum for students from India to Iringa to discuss socio-educational topics. Aside from the journaling that our students must do, they could engage in realtime, direct conversations with one another and friends around the world, to share cultural traditions, school projects, and social issues directly with one another.
Fuad suggests utilizing mobile-phone payments for school fees, which dovetails nicely with our new project for texting journal entries from remote-Internet-access schools. He wants to solicit in-kind donations from businesses from Tanzania to Thailand. And, always thinking of ways to sponsor more students, Fuad wonders aloud about 2 initiatives that could raise serious funds: philanthrotourism for large groups to learn about our students in 11 developing countries, and a “Million-Dollar Donors’ Campaign: $1 times 1 million people.” Since Fuad has 200 friends on Facebook, he figures he could begin by making a pitch there, while we leverage our networks in the U.S.
“Education is an asset,” Fuad concludes. “If you give someone education it is better than money, because they will have it all their life. You cannot take it away.”
Here’s what we know clearly as we scale to 10,000 students and build a global forum for cultural and educational exchange: We get to where we are going through the devotion of such individuals as Fuad Abri. Visit us, fundraise for us, sponsor a student or a school. Join our network of care.
Suzanne Skees, director of Skees Family Foundation, traveled with The School Fund to write about what our mission looks like as real students and teachers implement our program on the ground. Suzanne donates her time pro bono, as does the entire TSF team. Additionally, the Skees Family Foundation provided a grant to support our students’ school fees and our filmmakers’ travel expenses. She writes about organizations working to end poverty and extend equal opportunity, and blogs for the Huffington Post.