Empowering African youth to thrive against all odds, Asante Africa Foundation pioneers change through education, leadership, and a shared vision for a brighter future. In this episode, Erna Grasz, CEO of Asante Africa Foundation, takes us through the evolution of an organization that’s changing lives in East Africa, one community at a time. Erna reveals their pioneering model, a Global Alliance of local nonprofits working in harmony to empower individuals from ages nine to twenty-four. Through education, life skills, and livelihood development, Asante Africa equips youth to drive change within their communities. With a remarkable track record of impacting over a million lives and engaging with nearly 500 schools, the organization’s achievements are inspiring, to say the least. Erna also explores the concept of “good philanthropy” and how mutual trust and co-creation drive lasting change. Join the vision of a future where African youth lead the charge toward economic empowerment and innovation. Tune in now!
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Asante Africa Foundation With Erna Grasz, CEO
I am thrilled to bring you a conversation with a friend, a mentor, and one of the people in this world I look up to the most, Erna Grasz, who’s the CEO of Asante Africa Foundation. Erna was one of the first guests on the Discovery Pod, Episode 6. You will hear us reference the conversation we had in April of 2019 a couple of times. Erna shares her journey of building an organization that was big in ambition and small in impact to one that has impacted more than 1.1 million lives in East Africa as we are doing this.
Erna talks about the importance of transitioning leadership to shared leadership, what good philanthropy looks like, and how to empower communities to be their champions and bring their success. Erna is one of those stories of humanity overcoming great challenges and she has done it with a team of people that deserves all of our respect. As leaders, we aspire to set a standard for others to follow. I believe there is no standard higher than Erna Grasz. I look forward to sharing this conversation with you.
Welcome back, Erna. It’s great to have you back on the show.
I am so excited. A lot has changed since our first conversation.
Episode 6, April of 2019. A few things have happened in the world. A lot of things have happened at Asante Africa Foundation and I want us to get into that. Some of our audience, I’m sure we have a dedicated audience who have tuned in to every episode since and remember us very well in our conversation. Maybe you could start with a brief overview of what Asante Africa is and some of the great work you have going on now.
Asante Africa is a global alliance of four local nonprofits that work with a common strategy, a common impact measurement system, and a common coordinating body. What we do is prepare young people from the ages of 9 to 24 for life. Whether that’s tackling whatever challenges they will take place in their lives. We strive for them to be able to thrive economically, both locally and globally. We are super excited that they become the catalyst of change within their communities. We do that through education, life skills, and livelihood skill development.
Since you started the organization in 2007, you have impacted more than 1.1 million lives. You have run projects in 487 schools, almost 500 schools. There are lots of tremendous stories and anecdotes that I know come along with it. If I can make this personal, make this show about me for a minute. I have a daughter. I am very interested in the world that she’s growing into and the education that she’s receiving to be able to meet the challenges of the world she’s growing into. I thought we could start a conversation with you describing what life is like and the challenges facing the thirteen-year-old girls who are in Asante Africa programs in East Africa.
One of the things that’s super interesting about the world Asante Africa works in is we work in communities that are miles off the paved road. What that means is, that if we go back in time to Canada and the US to the pre-wars, we are living in a context where community matters. It was very agriculture and horticulture-related. Every family needed every set of hands working the land and working their homes. The community that we serve is that community. Many are not educated. A thirteen-year-old child, boy or girl, would be looked at as either you will be marrying soon or you will be working the land soon. A thirteen-year-old girl has to be very courageous in wanting to seek education.
Also, the parents in Africa want their children to be educated because everyone knows that will lift the whole family. We had a young mother call our office and the teacher of her daughter who’s on scholarship with us and tell us, “Please do not send her home for Christmas. Her father is in the midst of preparing for her marriage and is brokering her dowry. If she comes home, she will be female-circumcised, she will be married off, and this will be the end of her education.” The mother said, “Please don’t make it known that I made this phone call.”
The awesome thing about being a part of these communities for many years is we put together a game plan and we found that girl a rescue center to live in on term breaks. She’s still in school and she’s one of the smartest in the class. It takes a village to enable young children to continue their education, particularly between middle school and high school, so it’s different.
That’s such a compelling and powerful story of the work that you do. One of the things that’s so impressive to me and to anybody who’s watched the organization over several years is how you have grown, how you support these communities, and how you support students. Maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the first investments in community grants you are involved in, the projects you are involved in, and how that has evolved to something in many more countries infecting many more people.
As you know, I’m an engineer by training and this was not on my career path initially. This organization exists because I believe in the crazy big vision of a Tanzanian woman who wanted education in her rural community and a Tanzanian school principal who was fighting for little girls to stay in school. Initially, in the early years, it was all about education, scholarships, and girls’ toilets. I will never forget a nun who was the school principal in Kenya, she said, “If you want your girls to come to our school, you are going to build us a girl dormitory.” We are like, “Okay, we will.” That enabled 180 girls to get to come to that school, which was a safe space for those girls.
Since then, as our children have grown in the scholarship program, we have begun to recognize where are the pain points, where are the challenges come in, what these young people need, as well as what their families need to keep them on this learning path to success. The 2 critical transitions are between what’s known in Africa’s upper primary, so class 7, and class 8, transitioning to high school. That’s an incredibly difficult pain point where even in 2023, the probability of a rural child making that transition is less than 36%.
The second transition that’s critical is as they are exiting high school because it’s extremely scary when you are the most educated person in your household. Suddenly, everyone looks at you and says, “How are you going to take care of our family?” If these young teenagers have not been prepared with skills, they will immediately think about migrating to the urban slums because that must be where all the jobs are. A huge part of our investment is how we build the skills, resilience, and self-reliance for middle teens or adolescents, so they know how to save money, so they know how to ask for what they need, and so the brothers know how to support their sisters.
As teenagers, children deserve the opportunity to think about, “This is how my skills and my talent could help my family long term. I might be able to get a job in A, B, C. I might be able to start a family business in D, E, F. If I can’t afford university or advanced education, maybe I can get a digital certificate in salesforce and make lots of money in the digital economy.” Every child needs those options as they are starting to think about graduating high school and what’s next. That’s where we put our energy now in addition to staying in school.
In addition to latrines and dorms.
We have graduated a little bit.
What is so remarkable to me in having known you for so many years is the way that you are able to talk about system change for these children in rural areas in East Africa at the level of the individual or all the parents, the village, the community, what that means, and what that represents. Often, we see organizations with these big visions about what transformational system change looks like.
We use phrases like, “This is what people should do to change the way their lives go.” I don’t believe I have ever heard you say “should” as it relates to the people that you serve. How do you think about maintaining that connection and those relationships at the level of the individual when you are working across three countries and so many programs at the same time?
It’s important. I never refer to anyone that we work with as a beneficiary. They are active participants in everything that takes place. I fundamentally believe young people need a seat at the decision-making tables. They have big ideas. They do not yet see brick walls. They may see rocks in their road, but we are teaching these young people how to crack those big rocks into smaller ones and how to navigate around, up, over, or through.Young people need a seat at the decision-making tables. They have big ideas. They do not yet see brick walls. Click To Tweet
What energizes me is not when the organization is recognized, but when our young people are recognized. I’m going to give you one of my awesome highlights from 2023. We, in Tanzania, are working in this rural community six hours off the paved road. We got a phone call from the Amal Clooney Women’s Empowerment Committee saying one of our young women, Zamana, has won the Global Women’s Empowerment Award. I said, “How did that happen?”
You said, of course, but let me know the secret.
This young lady started a Big Sister Little Sister Program in her rural community. Just because of Asante Africa, one of the teachers had written a recommendation for her for this award. The next thing we know in May 2023, she is meeting the king, she is partying with the Amal Clooney, they have given her a university scholarship, and now she’s only a sophomore in high school. They have given her this opportunity, now she is coming back to Tanzania. She is the biggest role model for every child in her village right now. She’s destined to do amazing things. For me, I get so pumped when the young people represent the success that we are chasing. That’s one example.
That’s a good one. Very subtle name-dropping. Well done. In the other piece, I reflect on this. We have had the chance to work with a number of organizations that are dealing with youth mental health. One of the strong themes that come out of work is peer-to-peer or almost peer-to-peer. You have got kids 3 or 4 years older who have been through working as support and mentors for those younger than them. A couple of times I thought, “Asante Africa figured this out a long time ago. That part of empowering people isn’t just themselves, but it’s empowering them to give back.” Maybe talk a little bit about how that started in your organization and what it looks like right now.
We call it paying it forward. It started because I as a teenager was growing up in a home that was in need of charity. My parents were divorced. My mother worked double shifts. My sister and I were raising ourselves, the typical latchkey kids. We were wearing hand-me-downs. We were going to food banks. What I remember my mother telling us was, “It does not matter how rich you are. It does not matter how big your house is. What you can share with the person coming along behind you is what’s important. You will do that because it takes all of us supporting each other to lift each other.”It does not matter how rich you are or how big your house is. What is important is what you can share with the person coming along behind you. Click To Tweet
When we work in these rural communities, we never work from a point of deficit or helplessness. We always work from a point of, “What knowledge and skills do you have that you can share? What knowledge and skills might you need?” You then support each other through matchmaking those needs and assets.
What that does, I see it firsthand even with 4th graders and 5th graders, is everyone lifts their shoulders and everyone lifts their chin, “I am worthy of teaching my mom what a budget is. I am a contributor to my family learning how to make more money off the cucumbers we are selling. I can help my sister figure out how not to get pregnant. I can speak to my father as a young boy that my sister needs sanitary pads and that this is a normal part of life.”
When young people find their worthiness and identify their gifts and talents, they become more confident and they become a resource to their families and their communities. One story about that is early on, we were working within the Maasai community and this father had goats and he was going to the bank. He took his daughter who was in fifth grade with him because he couldn’t read, he was illiterate and she’s the one who caught, “They left a zero off your deposit slip.” Suddenly, he’s like, “The education of this little fifth-grade girl saved me thousands of showings.” Very quickly, the adults began to see the benefit.
It’s this resilience of no one’s helpless. There’s a phrase that, “If you say I will help you, it infers that you are helpless. If I say I can fix it, it’s inferring brokenness. If I use the language of, ‘I will serve you and you will serve others,’ it infers that we are stronger together than if we stand alone.” I’m very intentional with my language, particularly when I’m with young people. In the peer-to-peer model, I have seen we are all old people compared to teenagers.
When you take a 20-something and they are mentoring the 17 or 16-year-old some things, and then the 17 or 16-year-olds are mentoring the 13-year-olds, they are the rock stars. It creates this culture of each of us has a gift to share. That’s where it comes from and a brilliant story that’s happening in real-time in our world. We don’t work in Ethiopia as an organization, but there is a group of Kenya alumni from our leadership and entrepreneurship program that is now started in Asante Africa, Ethiopia because they are teachers in Ethiopia and they are bringing all of our programs into their schools. I’m like, “That’s success when the mantle is carried by others.”
When I met these two women in Tanzania and Kenya, they had a vision. They knew their community and they knew what needed to be done. They didn’t need help. What they needed was someone to believe in their vision and help connect the dots and open doors to funding, opportunity, and maybe skill-building, and then enable them to do it their way, which they knew worked within their community. When the three of us decided to start Asante Africa, we wanted a name that fairly acknowledged the talent and brilliance of Africa and that those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are partners and guests. It acknowledges the brilliance of Africa because it means great gratitude to Africa.
We sat down at a table and we said, “How do we create a structure where we all have equal power and we all have equal decision making?” How do we make this a round table? When we added Uganda, they became the fourth partner at the table. It’s tricky because we have four boards that all operate autonomously.
One of the things I want to pivot to now is something you mentioned earlier in our conversation, which is that Asante Africa is an alliance of four separate organizations. As someone who thinks a lot about governance and governance structures, it’s not something that we typically recommend to organizations to have four independent boards. I know it’s an essential part of what makes Asante Africa special. Could you tell us how that started and how that operates now?
When I met Emmy and Helen from Kenya and Tanzania, we knew that we wanted a governance model that gave as much autonomy as possible to the implementing organizations while all the voices were being equally heard and acknowledged at the leadership and governance levels. Using this structure is complicated because each country has its own governing body. Every country right now, is comprised of 100% local board members and directors. As well as the organization has always believed that the senior leadership needed to be Africa-centric. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for those of us coming from other parts of the world, but it honors the necessity of leadership that works within that context.
How do the four boards stay connected and united under that shared purpose?
I have heard a phrase called the 3111 model or in our case 4111 model. Four entities, a common governing strategic plan, a common set of impact metrics and what success looks like, and a common coordinating leadership body. That has stuck with me because that is who we are and how we operate. What we have while each country board is managing the legalities and the necessities of their countries, a subset of those members come up to a global alliance board.
That is who I report to as the CEO. That is the group that meets each year to how are we doing against the strategic plan and how we need to revise it. Where are we strong? Where do we need partnerships? That global Alliance board brings together the different contexts and the different approaches in order for us to stay aligned to a common vision. I will say we have a memorandum of understanding of how to deal with parts of the organization that might go rogue.
Which hypothetically might happen at some point down the road.
Good people doing good things can go in different directions. There’s no doubt about that. One of the things that we talked about in the episode in 2019 was what it meant to be the founder of an organization. You were the first founder I asked the question, “Would you do it again?” I have subsequently asked fourteen other founders on the show whether they would do it again. What’s your guess on the breakdown of the answers out of fifteen?
Eighty percent say no.
All but one say no. It wasn’t you. You said no. With time, the scope, scale, and impact of Asante Africa are far beyond what you had imagined when you started. Has your perspective on founding the organization changed over the last years?
I think what I know about myself is that because of the career that I had within Silicon Valley in the engineering world, I was very adept at leading virtual teams in different countries. That prepared me to grow this organization probably in a more fearless way than if I had stepped into it without those experiences. While it’s extremely difficult to find an organization, it’s not something I fear. For whatever reason, getting from point A to point B might be very messy, but I don’t get embarrassed by being messy. I’m comfortable with tackling, changing, and adapting based on the issues the organization faces today or tomorrow.
Adaptability and agility are something that I feel like I have been able to bring to this organization. As we transition our senior leadership roles to Africa, it’s one of the coveted values that everyone wants to make sure we are able to maintain over time. It’s because everyone’s allowed to innovate. Everyone’s allowed to think about it better. What does better look like? Not perfect, but what does better look like?
The experience teaches us a lot and takes some edges off of things. In my experience, it turns things from black and white into definitely different shades of gray. I’m hearing that a little bit in your answer. One of the things that you mentioned there and is important to underline is your commitment to this organization to be led in Africa. Can you tell us a little bit about what that transition is and why that’s so important to you?
When Emmy, Helen, and I founded the organization, I was working a full-time corporate job. I did not have the long-term vision of being the CEO. I truly had anticipated Emmy or Helen shifting into that role. Helen went on to be the director of one of the top-performing schools in Kenya. She decided that was her long-term path. Emmy ended up moving into a profession that took her to work with Asia. I stepped into it with the understanding that no one from the outside should lead an organization that doesn’t come from within that cultural context.
In 2015, we began the transition. We transitioned our global finance officer, we transitioned our global impact officer and we have created a position for digital transformation. As we are moving into 2023, and 2024, we will bring on my successor, which is in progress. There is a role for us to play, for those of us not from the continent. In my pretend, this is where I used the “should.” It should be in a way that we are invited to support these organizations. It should be in a way where the African leaders’ voices don’t get silenced.
Undertaking that process, when you describe it, it seems obvious. That’s the way it should be. Would any other organization see it any other way? Most do not see it that way do not behave that way, and don’t structure themselves that way. Has Asante Africa had resistance to this transferring of these important positions and ultimately the CEO to African leaders?
I wouldn’t say resistance necessarily. I would say questions about risk management. I will give you both sides. I was in the country, our Tanzania country director said, “Even if it’s a college White kid standing next to me, I can get a meeting with the government officials over me standing there by myself.” She and I were meeting with a potential partner and they saw me sitting in the lobby with her and they agreed to take the meeting where they wouldn’t have if it was her sitting in that lobby. She’s like, “We have got to have the white skin on our team. We can’t get access without it.”
The opposite is true here. Who am I to represent the organization on what the real needs are and what the real context is when you are with a funder here? It’s a strategic partnership that’s going to create the best outcome. What we are choosing to do is we will maintain a team here in the northern hemisphere who will continue to support marketing and fundraising, but they will report to the global south-based CEO. We are all on the same team, but the leadership will be hosted in East Africa.A strategic partnership creates the best outcome. Click To Tweet
It is a remarkable transition and it is an example that I’m sure others are watching closely, hopefully, we will learn from, it and find ways to do that. I heard elements of you practicing starring TED Talk as we were going through this show. I will look forward to when that happens in the near future. I have two questions that are left and I was trying to decide which one to ask and I have decided I’m going to ask them both. Building off what you said, one of the questions we are getting a lot from board members and organizational leaders is the role of philanthropy in their organization. I heard you described a lot of good philanthropy versus bad philanthropy. We don’t need to dwell on the issues of bad philanthropy. In your mind and from your perspective, what is good philanthropy?
I have so many examples of bad.
I framed this question to talk about good.
Good philanthropy for me is when you are invited into the community that you are serving. You are collectively listening to each other about what the real needs are. Everyone will tell you they need toilets and classrooms, but maybe what they need is skill-building around how to fundraise for their school. Maybe what they need is a PTA entity that will support the school in meeting its challenges. Collectively, doing that needs assessment is so important. Collectively, co-creating what is needed for that specific school or that specific community.
One of the biggest things that I see working and it takes more time is to walk along with the teachers, the club leaders, and the young people to lead the club or to transition the governance from year to year and not “do it for them.” I’m sure for you having children, quite often it’s this trade-off between doing it for them and getting it done fast or allowing them to do it. It’s going to look messy, and it’s going to go slow, but that’s how they learn, that’s how they own it.
To me, that’s good philanthropy. What good philanthropy requires is a lot of trust between the giver of the funding and those of us receiving the funding. If that trust isn’t there, the initial entity is, “You must be eating the money. “You must be using the money for something else.” It takes a lot of trust both ways to be straight, “No, it’s just taking us 18 months instead of 8 months. The elephants are migrating and you can’t get through the fields to turn in the paperwork.” Part of it is having that flexibility and trust. I have been the recipient of good philanthropy with several of our funders and it’s game-changing for the communities that we serve. It is.
“Good philanthropy involves a lot of trust,” is a big takeaway from your answer there. Final question. What are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to personally writing a couple of books. I’m looking forward to a couple of TED Talks. I’m looking forward to our young people serving on one of the UN councils. I’m looking forward to our young people being on the cover of Fortune magazine for the African continent. I’m looking forward to our young digital gurus showcasing how to start a company in East Africa.
I am looking forward to rural communities becoming a part of the middle class and doing it using their skills and talent, not through handouts from the north. Our young people have the skill and the talent. They already have an innate entrepreneurial mindset. We are going to see their leadership and their adaptability to own the continent and lead us globally.
You are an example of the work done well in our sector. What you, your team, and your colleagues have done is special. It has been a great pleasure of my life to know you and watch this organization. It is an equal pleasure to be able to share your story once again with the readers of the show. Thank you so much for being a part of it. If people want to learn more about Asante Africa, where can they go?
They can go to AsanteAfrica.org on our website. They can go to any of our social media handles. We welcome skill, talent, treasure, or whatever people would like to do to be more involved.
Thank you again for being on the show.
Thank you for asking.