November 10, 2014

Students Build Businesses in Panama, Rwanda through Social Entrepreneurship Program

El mes del hambre, the month of hunger, was quickly approaching in the town of El Cocal, Panama. Yet hundreds of mangoes lay rotting on the ground, left to decay during the overly abundant mango harvest.

Struck by the contrast between hunger and food waste, Do Kyung Yun (SFS’16) began developing plans for a food preservation business when he arrived in the village in July 2014.

A GU Impacts scholar, Yun received funding from Georgetown to create a social entrepreneurship project based on the strengths and needs of the Panama community. Inspired by the excess of mangoes, Yun worked with community members to successfully produce mango jam, juice, frozen treats, and flan and provide additional income to community partners. 

A First-Hand Look at Development

Since 2012, GU Impacts has sent dozens of Georgetown undergraduates to work on summer entrepreneurship projects in Africa and Latin America, in collaboration with ThinkImpact and Social Entrepreneur Corps.

GU Impacts is now under the administration of the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation, founded in February 2014 through a $10 million gift from philanthropist Alberto Beeck and his wife, Georgetown alumna Olga María Beeck (SFS’81).

Sonal Shah, the executive director of the Beeck Center, said GU Impacts teaches students about the difficulties of development work. “It takes a long time trying to convince someone that what they’ve been doing for 50 years is different from what they should be doing,” Shah said “They have to see for themselves that it works, and it’s a long-term process.”

The program focuses on asset-based community development, or the idea of seeing the strengths and assets within the community as a means for sustainable change and embracing community members as equal partners in the development process.

“You come with your ideas, but they might not necessarily be the ideas of the community,” Yun said. “They live there, so they know best. You have to repress your thoughts in order to give more power to the community.” 

Seeking Solutions with Rwandan Communities

Kyra Hanlon (SFS’16) and Mikaiah Mohler (COL’16) spent the summer in Rwanda through sister organization ThinkImpact. After an orientation in the capital, Kigali, they traveled to the Eastern Province village of Binunga to implement a social entrepreneurship project of their own.

After conducting 40 interviews and workshops with community members, Mohler and Hanlon began to understand the most pressing social challenge facing Binunga: land scarcity. The Georgetown students assembled a “design team” with local representatives and brainstormed ways to use the limited available land more efficiently.

The team initially considered creating kitchen gardens, raised vegetable gardens built on top of firewood. Yet the expense of the firewood proved prohibitive, forcing the team to think of alternatives.

During a weekend trip away from Binunga, Mohler and Hanlon turned to the internet for inspiration, ultimately landing on a Pinterest post that featured a vertical garden built with water bottles.

“It was kind of worlds colliding,” Hanlon said, “we had zero internet access in the village where our local community was living, and then we go away for the weekend and find this solution on Pinterest.”

Back in Binunga, the community team created their own model for vertical gardens using jerrycans, large plastic containers left over from storing oil, which were common in the village.

Transforming Communities and Students

By focusing on a community’s natural resources, as well as incorporating community members into the development process, the social enterprises that Georgetown students help to create can be long lasting.

“We create a business together, but in the end, it’s their business,” Yun said of his work in Panama. “Our goal was to give them everything so that when we left it could still be sustained. In that sense, I think we were successful.”

The social entrepreneurship projects also have a profound impact on Georgetown student leaders. In conversations with the recent class of 16 GU Impacts scholars, Shah said that all reported a change in the way they approached issues in their classes and in the larger Georgetown community. Some, like Hanlon, even began to make career plans.

“I realized that I’m really interested in social entrepreneurship,” Hanlon said. “I’m interested in living and working abroad and that whatever I do in the future, I want it to be sustainable.”