A journey toward ending extreme poverty

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Africa Bridge focuses on transforming communities by helping them to move from subsistence agriculture to a sustainable, entrepreneurial economy. (Photos courtesy of Africa Bridge)

Barry Childs was “born into a world that no longer exists.” He grew up in Tanzania in the years after World War II, part of a white British colonial family at a time when the United Kingdom governed roughly one quarter of the world’s territory. Over more than seven decades, his life’s journey has taken him from there to South Africa and later to places as far-flung as London and Portland, Ore., and most recently, to Fairport.

Along the way, he worked in sales and management positions at a couple of the world’s larger corporations, Exxon and Abbott Laboratories. He continued to travel widely, but never to the country of his birth.

In 1998, Childs returned to Tanzania for the first time in 35 years. “The people were the same,” he recalls. “And the country—it is a beautiful country.” But Tanzania had changed too. The country’s population had mushroomed from about 10 million to more than 30 million. (Today, its population tops 60 million.) The HIV/AIDS epidemic was raging, with no treatment available for most Tanzanians. And he was struck by the poverty he’d never been conscious of as a child.

On the fourth or fifth day of his nine-day visit, he woke about three in the morning, and picked up his journal.

“I just wrote in my journal, ‘I’m going to do something.’ And that was it,” he says. “I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do, who I was going to do it for, it was just I’m gonna do something.”

Out of poverty

That something became Africa Bridge, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower poor Tanzanian families. Launched in 2000, Africa Bridge has enabled more than 10,000 children to escape extreme poverty, and boosted the economic prospects of more than 70,000 people through projects in nearly 40 villages, Childs says. Its model focuses on transforming communities by helping them, without a large capital investment, to move from subsistence agriculture to a sustainable, entrepreneurial economy.

The heart of the Africa Bridge model is the concept of the “most vulnerable children.” In an unpublished manuscript coauthored with British writer Phillip Whiteley, Childs observes that “the focus on the welfare and prospects of the children has had multiple benefits, direct and indirect. It doesn’t only improve health, housing and education for the children directly helped, it gives hope to the whole community. It is an investment in the community’s future—helping society, the economy and families simultaneously.”

He also writes that the model has produced clear results: the proportion of families eating three meals a day has soared; children have gone from eating protein a few times a month to several times a week. For the first time, many children attend school regularly and take part in a health plan.

“We (are) helping people pull themselves up; it’s a hand-up, not a handout,’ says Childs, who in 2010 received the $100,000 Purpose Prize, awarded nationally to Americans older than 60 for innovative efforts to solve society’s most pressing problems.

How Africa Bridge works

Africa Bridge’s integrated village development approach, delivered under the policy umbrella of the Tanzanian government, has six parts:

Up-front community engagement. The starting point for each Africa Bridge project is close consultation with local officials to identify wards, or clusters of villages, with the biggest needs and fewest outside resources. After a ward is selected, the five-year project period begins with intense community engagement, starting with a three-day Future Search process with children, ages 10 to 20, from all the villages in the ward. The agenda they set is the foundation of a three-day Future Search with adult stakeholders. (In a culture that is patriarchal, Africa Bridge insists on equal representation of men and women.) The result is a five-year project plan guided by a ward steering committee.

Most Vulnerable Children committee. In each village participating in the project, a Most Vulnerable Children committee is created. It identifies village households caring for vulnerable children and develop plans for those households and children. Africa Bridge staffers provide support to the committee, ranging from training and planning to budgeting and banking skills. The nonprofit also distributes grants to address various short-term needs. The volunteer members of the MVC committee both serve as community leaders and function as social workers, each visiting a caseload monthly. 

Agricultural cooperatives. Converting the local economy from subsistence agriculture to cash-crop farming is a key goal. To do so, Africa Bridge establishes up to three agricultural cooperatives in each village. Africa Bridge provides loans to co-op farmers—all guardians of vulnerable children—so they can purchase assets like cows, chickens or avocado seedlings, and provides knowledge and support. Loan repayments—a calf, chicks or cash for avocado seedlings—are passed on to another family caring for a most vulnerable child, who become a new co-op member. Each co-op member also must make a payment to the village MVC committee so it can help other needy families. But co-op members own the assets they received and all future wealth generated.

Mentoring and local capacity building. In each ward, Africa Bridge provides intensive training to MVC committees and co-op members. The nonprofit also supports “empowerment facilitators”—more highly educated community members who serve as mentors, data gatherers and troubleshooters. And in some cases, Africa Bridge also provides other support like HIV peer education for primary and secondary school students and training focusing on the legal rights of women and children.

Partnerships with local government and the private sector. Each ward project involves close, ongoing partnerships between Africa Bridge and district, ward and village officials. All key stakeholders sign a five-year collaboration agreement.

Independence and sustainability. At the start of each project, Africa Bridge conducts a baseline survey, which is used to measure progress and make necessary adjustments. At the end of the five-year period, the community “graduates.” Africa Bridge says its model keeps MVC committees funded over the long term, and provides continuing opportunities for more families to join the agricultural co-ops.

In 2021, Africa Bridge funded a study by researchers from the University of Texas and MarketShare Associates, which evaluated the effectiveness of the five-year project completed earlier that year in Kisondela. A community in southwestern Tanzania near the Zambia and Malawi borders consisting of six villages with a combined population of more than 11,000, Kisondela is marked by more extreme poverty than the average for rural Tanzania. The study found significant improvements to living conditions and savings, and reduction in hunger and extreme poverty. Among the key findings: extreme poverty cited as a problem in caring for children declined from 74 percent to 46 percent; the share of households reporting food shortages fell from 95 percent to 33 percent; and the proportion owning livestock jumped by 300 percent.

“The results of the Kisondela Wellbeing Survey demonstrate that the Africa Bridge (model) has the capacity to transform the lives of Tanzania’s most vulnerable and impoverished children and significantly alleviate extreme poverty,” MarketShare Associates concluded. “This study found that Africa Bridge’s focus on supporting Most Vulnerable Children (MVC) via a pass-on model is uncommon, and potentially unique, in Tanzania.”

An African childhood

While Africa Bridge resulted from Childs’ return visit to Tanzania in 1998, the seed of the idea traces to his childhood there. His father was a British agricultural adviser who helped Tanzanian farmers improve crop yields and British settlers find crops they could grow profitably. In his manuscript, Childs describes his childhood, part of which he spent in the northern port town of Tanga near the Indian Ocean, as “idyllic.” He writes: “My parents’ comparatively liberal, certainly laissez-faire, attitude meant that they were relaxed about me playing with the local Tanzanian children. For me, equality was as natural as breathing.”

Barry Childs

When I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago in the Fairport village home he shares with Kathy Cloonan, he told me that his parents “loved and trusted the local people who embraced outsiders, unlike our society, where we teach children to be wary of strangers. There, a stranger, a newcomer or a stranger in that community, is more or less revered and celebrated. So, I was something special, because I wasn’t Black. Everybody else was Black, and I was white.”

His father would conduct “walking safaris,” going from village to village, teaching agriculture. From the age of four, Childs would go with him. In one of the villages, the chief gave them a gift. “It was a white goat. … It was for me. I got one of my first pets.” He adds: “So, I think the hallmark of my childhood was being treated with love by strangers, and being just terribly free.”

Childs says though his parents genuinely loved the Tanzanians they knew and worked with, they did not invite any into their home.

“It used to puzzle me sometimes with my father, because I’d hear him talking in the pub to other white people,” Childs recalls. “The behavior there didn’t match the behavior when he was with the locals. You know, there was more respect and camaraderie. And yet, in the pub, it was all about how dumb (they were), you know, all white prejudices.”

Childs went to high school and earned a degree from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa, where his mother was from. In 1968, dissatisfied with his job as a department store training manager in Johannesburg and eager to leave South Africa—“I just couldn’t stomach apartheid”—he sold his possessions and bought a one-way ticket to London.

“When I got to London, it was the Beatles and miniskirts,” he recalls. “My plan was actually (to) explore Europe for a bit, and then go to Canada and become a lumberjack.”

Instead, after traveling around England, Wales, Scotland and Scandinavia with a small group of friends, all South Africans, including Hazel, who would become his wife, Childs let go his bohemian dreams and secured a “proper” corporate job. He worked in sales at petrochemical giant Esso, now Exxon.

In the 1980s, Childs, his wife and their three children moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, where he took a leadership development role at the European headquarters of Abbott Laboratories’ Diagnostics Division. At the end of the decade, they relocated again when he assumed a new role at Abbott’s headquarters in Chicago, running a corporate training program and helping to implement total quality management in the 1990s. He later was promoted to director of learning.

By the late 1990s, his satisfaction at work was declining. After reading “Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership,” by Joe Jaworski, Childs attended a series of seminars and meetings organized by the Synchronicity movement.

“That book had a huge impact on me,” he says. “I was at a crossroads in my career. And that really made me think deeply about what I wanted to do with myself.”

At a leadership conference, Childs met a young woman who had just returned from Tanzania where she had been working for Mark Jacobson M.D., a missionary doctor at the Selian Lutheran Hospital located near Arusha, where Childs had attended school as a boy. She asked him to contact Jacobson and offer to help Selian to acquire medical equipment.

“So, I got him some diagnostic equipment for the hospital, and various other things,” Childs recalls. “And then Mark said to me, ‘Barry, why don’t you come to Tanzania, you haven’t been here for 35 years; you need to come.’ And being a typical Westerner, I said, ‘Well, Mark, what do you want? I can do a seminar on leadership, total quality management or whatever.’ And he said, ‘Barry, you’ve forgotten how to be African. Just come. … I’ll give you one agenda item.” I said, ‘OK, what’s that?’ He said, ‘I’ll meet you at the airport.’ So, I went.”

The 3 a.m. journal entry Childs made during that trip was the birth of Africa Bridge. It took a few years, though, for the idea to come to life. In spring 2000, he and Hazel attended a private retreat attended by followers of the Synchronicity movement. “We talked about how the West and Africa could learn from each other,” he writes in his manuscript. “This prompted the metaphor of a bridge. It is a connection with two-way traffic, a pleasing symbol of equity and interchange.” Another retreat participant, Dorothy Keville, a Washington, D.C.-based HIV/AIDS activist, offered to help Africa Bridge get off the ground.

Around that time, Childs was invited to a talk in Toronto by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He and Keville secured a short meeting with the archbishop, who later wrote to express his support and approval.

Roughly a month later, in late June 2000, Childs took a retirement package from Abbott and established Africa Bridge’s inaugural board: Childs; his wife, Hazel; Keville; Jacobson; Reola Phelps, founder and president of Headwaters Leadership Group in Denver, and Curt Kirkemo, a director of research at Abbott Laboratories. Within six months, Africa Bridge secured charitable status.

“It was very tough (in the beginning), because it was a brand-new idea,” says Phelps, who describes Childs as “a visionary, he’s a dreamer. He’s very emotional, and I mean that in a good way. He’s very in touch with his emotions and they guide him. He’s intuitive. And he cares so deeply about Africa.”

Learning from experience

Of launching Africa Bridge, Childs has said: “I had to jump off the cliff and figure out how to build the wings on the way down.” After a long corporate career, he now was running a nonprofit headquartered in the third bedroom of the house he and Hazel lived in.

“(If) something went wrong with the computer, I reached (to) phone IT and oh, shit. I am IT! … So, that was a huge challenge—how to get stuff done with very limited resources.”

There were missteps and hard lessons as the nonprofit developed its model. The first initiative—an orphanage—proved to be the wrong approach and was shut down. Phelps, who managed the program from the U.S., says “we had 50 kids in the orphanage and they were just thriving. … But it started to become a difficulty because everybody in that town wanted their kid in the orphanage because those kids, the orphans, were doing better than others. … You could see there were just so many other kids that could be served.”

Childs later found he needed to rethink the Future Search meetings. It happened during a meeting with the first village council Africa Bridge worked with.

“I was sitting in this stuffy little office with no windows on benches,” Childs recalls. “And a bunch of kids came running by, laughing and screaming. And I thought, I’m think I’m talking to the wrong people. There’s lots of pompous bullshit because I was the white guy and I had money. So, I said, I’ve got the call of nature, I need to go in the woods. So I walked off in the woods. … And I thought, you know what, we should have a Future Search meeting with the kids first. Because that’s what it was all about.”

Starting a strategic planning process with children was unheard of. 

“The kids told us everything—about the sexual practices, the drinking, and the impact that had on them,” Childs says.

The session with the children resulted in flip charts, “and it was all the stuff that they’ve been telling us,” Childs says. “And I thought, holy Christ, we’re going to have a bloody revolution at the (adult) meeting because they’ve spilled the beans. We debated whether we should edit it or not. And then we decided no, just trust the process.”

At the adult meeting, the children described their reality, what they dreamed about, and how those dreams might be achieved.

“I was sweating bullets; I thought I’ve screwed this thing up,” Childs says. “The adults, I guess, quickly went through the stages of grief. They were angry that these kids would stand up and tell us, talk about (this) in front of these white people (and) government officials. And then it finished up with pride, that their children had the balls to stand up there and say what it was, and tears; a lot of people cried. The adult meeting was superb, because there were no hidden agendas. Nothing was under the carpet.”

Money was another enormous challenge. Childs says the cost of a five-year ward project is about $1 million, and it is front-loaded; more than half of spending goes to animal and crop co-ops and access to education. For more than a decade Abbott’s foundation was a significant contributor. In 2008, Africa Bridge received a nearly $400,000 grant from Rotary International and then, along with Rotary clubs worldwide, raised some $700,000. Another family foundation, Vibrant Village, has donated more than $1 million. Most of the funds to date, however, have come from individual donations and smaller family foundations.

By raising $300,000 to $750,000 a year, Africa Bridge has been able to start a succession of five-year ward projects. But, Childs says, “really to be sustainable, we need to be raising $1 (million) or $2 million a year.”

In 2021, Africa Bridge embarked on a three-phase growth strategy. The MarketShare study was part of phase 1. The goal of the second phase is to demonstrate the scalability of the Africa Bridge model. In the final phase, Africa Bridge wants to make its model available to NGOs, charitable foundations, and governments in countries other than Tanzania.

“The only place where there’s extreme poverty in the world now is Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s been alleviated everywhere else,” Childs says. “If (our model) works, and it’s actually low cost, compared to other attempts at poverty alleviation, then it needs to be done in large gobs. Now, Africa Bridge doesn’t have the capacity or competence to do that. So, you need to share it. I mean, it needs to be like Linux (the open-source operating system), a shared platform.”

But first, Africa Bridge must fully recover from a setback that threatened the future of the nonprofit.

In early 2018, the organization discovered a “fraud (that) nearly sank us,” Childs says. A country manager for Africa Bridge had been misappropriating funds. The money lost was less significant than the “emotional consequences.”

“We had a really good board, and a lot of them just were totally disheartened,” he says. “And I think felt really guilty. And so, we lost just like the whole board. And we lost a lot of diversity.”

Funding also took a severe hit. Form 990 filings show that contributions plunged from $689,336 in 2017 to $269,492 in 2020 before climbing back to $318,498 in 2021.

Childs rejoined the board—he had left for three years after Hazel was diagnosed with ALS and later died—and several others played key roles in digging Africa Bridge out; among them were Phelps, who now chairs the board; Sharon Brabenac, director of marketing and communications; and John Worcester, a former board member who returned as temporary executive director.

“We did a whole lot of cost cutting,” Childs says. “The monthly costs went from about $25,000 down to $8,000. And we finished up last year much better than expected. We’re finishing up this year much better than expected.”

Money remains a “huge challenge,” though. The current ward is slated to graduate in August, and Childs says more funds are needed to start a new five-year project as well as pursue the growth strategy.

Efforts are focused on high net worth individuals who have an interest in Africa and or extreme poverty. Carl Sardegna, retired CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield in Maryland, is helping as a volunteer. “Carl’s got a friend who’s based in Abu Dhabi and is married to a local woman and knows a lot of the sheiks,” Childs says, adding that he and Cloonan are going to go to Dubai in February to “see if we can’t shake some trees.”

If Africa Bridge can rebuild and ramp up its finances, sharing its model will become the paramount objective.

“Africa Bridge would morph into a support organization, rather than an implementer,” Childs says. “Supporting others doing it, creating the ‘book for dummies’ on the Africa Bridge model, videos for YouTube and all that stuff. So, that’s the vision.”

The story of Tunsi

Childs, 78, came to the Rochester area only a few years ago. His eldest daughter, Ruth, lives in Rochester, and after Hazel died, she encouraged him to move here from Portland. Ruth and a friend also set up a date for Childs—with Cloonan.

“So, we’re in an arranged marriage,” he says, chuckling.

Since 1998, Childs has made some 30 trips to Tanzania, often traveling there twice a year until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I asked him if he could recall an experience that summed up what he has tried to achieve with Africa Bridge. He told me the story of Tunsi Belega.

Barry Childs and Kathy Cloonan with Tunsi Belega.

On a trip several years ago, Childs heard about a female co-op member who had become a successful banana trader. He asked to meet her. The next day in Lufumbi, one of the villages in Masoko ward, an attractive, beautifully dressed woman walked toward him.

“I said, ‘Tunsi, is that you?’ She smiled,” he recalls.

Childs had met Tunsi six years earlier and had never forgotten her. She was selected to be a founding member of the Lufumbi Village Corn Co-operative. She was poor and frail.

“Her husband (had) died, left her with three children and no money, living in a single room mud hut. And she looked helpless. And I remember going home that night thinking, what (am) I doing? You know, we’ve got people like this woman who’s destitute and she’s a founding member of the co-op; we must be crazy. This is not going to work. And (now) she’s this freaking banana trader. An entrepreneur.”

In the trading business, which was the domain of men, Tunsi had started renting large trucks to transport plantains to the markets in Mbeya, a distance of 50 miles. Soon, she was serving customers in Iringa, 200 miles away, and then Dar-Es-Salaam, more than 500 from her village.

Cloonan, who was with Childs in Tanzania, asked Tunsi how she had gone from being so poor to having the courage to become an entrepreneur.

“Tunsi said, ‘When we had our co-op meetings, us women would stay on, and talk about doing business, and we realized we were growing better maize than the men were, so then we could do anything,’” Childs says.

“All her children are doing well,” he adds. “Her eldest daughter has graduated from college as a teacher, and her other children go to a good secondary school. Tunsi said, “‘What I enjoy most in my spare time is to sit with other women and discuss how we can be successful in business.’”

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

3 thoughts on “A journey toward ending extreme poverty

  1. I am impressed and intrigued by Barry Child’s work. I know there is a huge need for his type of model to be rolled out in most parts of Africa. I would like to know if any work has been done in Malawi?

  2. A wonderful article, and commendable work by Barry Childs. It started with a journal entry. I had similar start to a smaller project, a book I published in 2018 featuring the impacts of extreme poverty in Rochester and the USA. Perhaps the lesson learned is to get started somehow, no matter how insignificant one thinks the effort is. Childs shows us here where little beginnings may go. Poverty has deadly effects, here and in Africa. It does terrible things to people. And it is very real, here and there.

  3. I don’t understand why this article appears in the Rochester Beacon, consuming limited resources. There are so many intense social service needs in our own community. Hunger is among the top of the list. And there are so many amazing grassroots efforts that can be featured as well. Inspirational stories that will perhaps inform Rochester. I share this with all due respect for the work you do and your commitment to our community.

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