social enterprise

On the road: Self-sustaining school in Paraguay

On Thursday I traveled an hour out of Asuncion, Paraguay to a small town called Cerrito where I spent the day learning about Fundacion Paraguaya's financially self-sufficient school. Since we are developing V3 of the Ushahidi platform with Fundacion Paraguaya as a partner and deployer of the product, I wanted to get a stronger understanding of all their initiatives to understand their technology needs and how we can help the most.

There are about 150 enrolled students in the school, ages 15-19, who study the core subjects (math, science, history, Spanish, English, etc.) but who also get an in depth education in vocational topics such as agriculture, hotel management (hospitality), and culinary arts. In addition to vast amounts of farmland, the campus boasts dorms, offices, outdoor gathering areas, banquet halls, a large kitchen, a canteen, and even comfortable lodging for 150+ visitors. 

The students rotate through the various vocational tracks their first two years and select an area of concentration in the third year. The students are also immersed in entrepreneurial classes where they learn how to run a small business. When I asked about some of the difficulties the organization faces in running the school, one of the directors said, "There are challenges. You're dealing with teenagers. Also, pigs die, chickens die, crops rot. But these are real world problems and these kids get to experience them in a safe, controlled environment."

Many of the students at the school are children of Fundacion Paraguaya's micro finance clients. In most instances, the kids do not have access to proper education in their villages, and come to the Escuela Agricola San Francisco for an opportunity to escape long term poverty.

I spent the day walking around the 97 acre campus, interacting with and watching students garden, care for chickens, wash pig pens, and lay traps for insects. The harvest vegetables, and spend equal time in the classroom and in the field learning the ins and outs of sustainable farming, from crop rotation techniques to environmentally friendly fertilizer recipes. 

The students sell the fruits of their labor every Tuesday in an Asuncion market, learning how to price items and balance accounts, in addition to gleaning sales skills. Upon returning from the city they analyze the day's sales, delving into market trends based on seasonality. The students also gain several other marketable skills in this endeavor around sales, communication, and confidence.

Like this, the school generates its own revenue through product sales and lodging/hotel facilities. I was lucky enough to have lunch on campus, a meal that was entirely comprised of foods from the school, including a delicious cheese cake with honey for dessert.

Fundacion Paraguaya recently introduced a computer science program and the organization is excited to involve interested students in the Ushahidi deployment. Students are already eagerly pursuing engineering projects on campus, such building chicken feeders and solar powered grills for cooking. 

I was personally very excited about the school as I am a strong proponent of practical, sustainable education. "One size fits all" doesn't work when it comes to growing and developing young minds. Fundacion Paraguaya has recognized a void in their community and is tailoring education to best meet those needs. The graduates from Escuela Agricola go on to pursue a variety of professional paths, from attending university to opening small businesses back in their hometown. Fundacion Paraguaya has expanded this self-sufficient school model to Tanzania and is eager to spread the methodology to any region that needs it. Students flock to Escuela Agricola from not only neighboring countries, but from as far as Haiti. With the growing demand, they've opened two more schools in Paraguay and continue to inch closer and closer to their goal of tackling poverty from all sides. 

Is poverty an emergency?

I met with Martin Burt, the Executive Director and founder of Fundacion Paraguaya a few days ago and he said two things that left me contemplative. The first was that poverty is an emergency, and the second was that perhaps the most important factor in achieving something is a belief that you can.

Consider the first point. The widely accepted understanding of an emergency is something that is urgent and needs to be addressed immediately. At Ushahidi we pride ourselves in being able to provide the technology that can assist in that moment of need. If I asked you to give me a few examples of emergencies you would probably refer to natural disasters or life threatening medical situations. Very infrequently do people consider poverty as an emergency.

But when Martin said it, it immediately made sense to me. Poverty is a life threatening, society threatening phenomenon that must be addressed immediately. If treated and prioritized like the bleeding gun wound it is, maybe we'd be faster to eliminate it. Chronic, festering poverty has become a standard all over the world. Martin and his team are unwilling to accept the status quo. I'm excited to be implementing an instance of the Ushahidi platform in this new and necessary definition of emergency, and look forward to other similar usages of the product. 

Martin's second point, said with reference to his methodology of empowering the poor with the tools and perspective they need to help themselves fight poverty, resonated with me when thinking about women and underrepresented minorities in tech. Many of us have heard stereotypes stated as facts ... Men are more logically wired, Asians are really good at math, women are better at the soft skills, etc. Imagine a little girl, told from an impressionable age that it's okay for her to be mediocre in math and science because that's what nature intended. It is highly unlikely that this girl ever believes that she could be good at those subjects, and very likely that she will be alienated from them for life.

I was honored to think and talk through these ideas with Martin and his team, and am eager to see the far reaching implications and effects of his work.

On the road in Asuncion Paraguay

Well, I'm off! Saturday was the beginning of several weeks of UX research as I traverse across the globe in preparation for Ushahidi's V3 platform launch. The Ushahidi platform is an open source tool for data management and visualization. It's highly customizable and we've seen people use it for a variety of different instances, from election monitoring to water point tracking. You can see some examples here.

We're developing technology to enable local developers, community leaders, and organizations to manage information most effectively leveraging the existing technological infrastructure. So as we consider the V3 feature set, we find getting feedback from the people who will be using it a no brainer :) I'm not going to pretend that one week with users gives deep insight into the social, cultural, and technological fabric of a community. But that's exactly why we work with the community and with those who work, live, and experience the reality on a daily basis. We're building tools for them.

My first stop is Asuncion, Paraguay. I arrived on Sunday and spent the day getting acquainted with the city and with the oh so elusive goddess of sleep. I left my notebook (the paper kind ;)) at home and had to purchase one in a local store with my broken Spanish. I successfully walked away with a child's notebook that poignantly describes me as 'sweet and innocent' ;) 

I spent yesterday working with a partner organization that identifies and maps poverty in Paraguay, Fundacion Paraguaya. I am impressed with their understanding of poverty as a multi faceted problem, and inspired by their approach of working with individuals to find sustainable solutions. We're excited to build them software and to supplement their existing tools as we humbly become a part of their journey as they work on reducing poverty.

Yesterday I also observed some interviews with workers at a tea production factory. The company has partnered with Fundacion Paraguaya to better understand its workforce. The survey was in Spanish so I spent most of the time observing and paying attention to physical response and application interaction. Today I was in rural Paraguay to shadow more interviews and look forward to really digging into their software pain points.

More from me later, ciao!