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Meet 17 Inspiring US Women Social Entrepreneurs Who Have built Game Changing Enterprises Impacting Africa Positively

As part of Lionesses of Africa’s month-long celebration of social entrepreneurs who are making a real difference in Africa, we are profiling some of the women social entrepreneurs from the US who have stood out for us over the last year. Their passion for the continent, combined with their desire to solve some of the biggest challenges in Africa, can be seen in the real impact that these women social entrepreneurs are making. Often collaborating with inspirational women on the ground in countries across the African continent, they are creating new and exciting business opportunities for women artisans, stimulating micro-entrepreneurship ventures that empower women in local communities, and improving and uplifting people’s lives. We salute all these inspirational social change-makers and the women they collaborate with!

Today, the rise of social entrepreneurship is being driven by passionate individuals and their companies and organisations who want to make a real difference when it comes to finding solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the world today. Here in Africa, there is a growing ecosystem of social entrepreneurs committed to promoting, supporting, and building powerful networks designed to make the world a cleaner, more-equitable, healthier, and better-educated place – my own organisation, Lionesses of Africa, is part of that ecosystem. There is tremendous excitement and energy in the world of social entrepreneurship today, and with that energy comes real opportunity for sustainable change. A number of highly committed, innovative and high-impact women social entrepreneurs from the US are bringing their global expertise, specialist knowledge, powerful networks and solutions to the table here in Africa, and working with like-minded inspirational women on the ground across the continent, to make that change happen.

Today, the rise of social entrepreneurship is being driven by passionate individuals and their companies and organisations who want to make a real difference in Africa. 

Each one of these women social entrepreneurs share something in common – a passionate and unwavering belief that through their innovative and sustainable business approaches, they can make change happen for the better. Whether the challenge is to find solutions to key health issues on the continent, or to create new job opportunities for struggling communities in rural Africa, or to address the continent’s significant energy and power problems, these US women social entrepreneurs are practically demonstrating that they have a key role to play in a part of the world still characterized by severe socio-economic challenges. We love what these and so many other women social entrepreneurs are doing here in Africa and, as a result, we are celebrating just some of those who have caught our attention over the past year. Each of them is leading a new and vibrant charge in helping to find innovative and lasting solutions to many of the challenges which exist today on the continent. Where others see insurmountable problems, these inspirational and smart social entrepreneurs see only possibility and potential. They are the catalysts for innovative solutions to be created to address these challenges and to bring about new ways of thinking to solve the many social crises impacting Africa. Their practical response is to build strong and sustainable companies and organizations which bring to the table a host of new inventions, groundbreaking technologies or radical new approaches to solving a host of social problems on the continent. They are also great collaborators and find like-minded women in Africa to work with and collaborate with on each of their ventures.

Meet some of the most inspirational US women social entrepreneurs making a difference here in Africa:

Katherine Lucey, founder of Solar Sister

Over 1000 Solar Sister Entrepreneurs spreading light, hope, and opportunity.

Katherine Lucey is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Solar Sister. After a 20 year career as an investment banker with expertise in the energy sector, Katherine retired from banking and turned her attention to finding a sustainable solution to the energy poverty that causes suffering to a quarter of the world’s population. Katherine determined that a practical, grassroots, locally generated solution was needed. Today, Solar Sister eradicates energy poverty by empowering women with economic opportunity, creating a deliberately woman-centered direct sales network to bring the breakthrough potential of clean energy technology to even the most remote communities in rural Africa. The vision for Solar Sister is to bring light, hope, and opportunity for everyone, everywhere. Solar Sister believes in a world where women, girls, and their communities have access to the sustainable energy they need to create a prosperous life. To find out more about the inspirational work of Solar Sister, visit their website: www.solarsister.org

Miki Agrawal, founder of THINX

For every pair of THINX you buy, they send funds to their partner, AFRIpads, to help girls and women in Uganda.

Serial entrepreneur Miki Agrawal’s company, THINX, is disrupting the $15 Billion feminine hygiene sector starting with a beautiful pair of underwear with hidden patented technology. Nearly all women on earth require feminine hygiene products for the better part of their lives yet there has been little to no innovation in this industry in over 50 years. THINX launched its first patented innovation which is a gorgeous undergarment that is absorbent, leak/stain-proof, anti-microbial and moisture-wicking (all hidden discreetly in the undergarment). The company’s next patents are going to replace existing wasteful tampon applicators (patent already approved) and uncomfortable pads (in patent process) to more current, environmental and thoughtfully designed products. Miki and THINX also recognise that feminine hygiene is a big issue in the developing world and is causing millions of girls to drop out of school. With her partners, Miki teamed up with AFRIpads in Uganda to fund 7 reusable cloth pads for every underwear sold to get millions of girls back into school. www.shethinx.com

Nisha Ligon, co-founder and managing director of Ubongo

Entertaining kids in Africa to learn and love learning, via the technologies they already have.

Ubongo is a groundbreaking social enterprise dedicated to creating unique interactive edutainment for kids in Africa, using all the technologies they already have. The company is the inspiration of visionary social entrepreneur and passionate educator, Nisha Ligon, CEO, and her amazing co-founders, all of whom are talented creatives, educators and techies who share a passion for education and producing innovative animated content. The company is dedicated to creating great edutainment, made in Africa, for Africa, creating interactive content that makes learning fun, and transforming the learning experience of 440 million kids in Africa. www.ubongo.co

Kate Woska and Mary Miner, co-founders of Atikus

Democratizing opportunity. One loan, one business, and one entrepreneur at a time.

Social entrepreneurs, Kate Woska and Mary Miner, are the inspiration behind Atikus InvestmentsIncorporated. They chose Rwanda as the perfect place to start their business because the country is serious about financial inclusion and developing at a rapid pace. Atikus develops meso-level interventions committed to democratizing opportunity and improving financial inclusion for un(der)served demographics, among which women, youth, and rural/agricultural workers are core groups. The company intends to achieve these goals through a suite of products that leverage technology, data, and risk transference in an effort to reduce lenders’ investment constraints and facilitate the introduction and acceptance of more un(der)served clients to the formal financial services industry. In 2016 Atikus will run a twelve month pilot in Rwanda. Post pilot, Atikus will launch full scale operations across Rwanda targeting the country’s 516 micro, small and medium enterprise lenders as well as exploring new market opportunities. Future markets are currently being considered across Africa and other regions. www.atik.us  Read our startup story on Atikus.

Toni Maraviglia, co-Founder & CEO of Eneza

Eneza’s on a mission to make 50 million kids across rural Africa smarter through the use of ubiquitous mobile technology.

Social entrepreneur Toni Maraviglia is on a mission – her company, Eneza, aims to make 50 million kids across rural Africa smarter through the use of ubiquitous mobile technology. Eneza offers a virtual tutor and teacher’s assistant – a way for both students and teachers to access valuable courses and assessments while interacting with live instructors – all through a low-cost mobile phone. Students can access locally-aligned tutorials, tips, and assessments, as well as a leaderboard, Wikipedia text and live teacher chat through USSD/SMS, an online web app, an offline desktop app, and an Android app. Individual parents, students or teachers can buy a subscription to Eneza’s courses for a low weekly or monthly fee. To date, the company has reached over 460,000 unique users across over 8,000 schools in Kenya. Eneza has also just begun a pilot in Tanzania and will be launching in Ghana soon. Eneza is a for-profit, social enterprise based in Nairobi, Kenya with a team of 15 full-time staff and 40 contracted master teachers. All of the content and technology is original and created locally, and the content undergoes approval by the regulating curriculum authority. Eneza believes in simplicity and access to quality education in some of the most remote regions in Africa. Toni believes the company is democratizing education by providing access to high-quality, highly-sought after content that improves lives and knowledge. enezaeducation.com

Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah founders of STUDIO ONE EIGHTY NINE

Creating social change with fashion

STUDIO ONE EIGHTY NINE is a social enterprise founded by Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah. It consists of creatives that seek to provide a platform to help promote and curate African and African-inspired content through an e-commerce shopping site, a supporting agency, and an artisan produced fashion collection, called Fashion Rising Collection, launched in support of V-Day’s One Billion Rising campaign. The enterprise focuses on creating opportunities for empowerment, education and the employment of artisans and creatives, and represents countries all over Africa and its Diaspora. The mission of Studio One Eighty Nine and the idea for Fashion Rising, took shape following a trip with V-Day in February 2011, through Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda to Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the opening of the City of Joy. It’s mission is to use Fashion as an agent for Social Change, turning challenges on the ground into opportunities. It’s impact can be seen through empowerment, education and opportunity.  studiooneeightynine.com

Stephanie Koczela, co-founder of Penda Health, Kenya

Building a chain of outpatient Medical Centres that offer the highest quality outpatient care  affordable to everyone in Kenya, including for the low- and middle-income population.

Penda Health is a Kenya-based social enterprise that delivers a range of high quality medical services and products just for women. Unlike other clinics in the region, Penda charges patients a small fee, not too much that it becomes unaffordable to low and middle income women, but enough to ensure the provision of top quality care, and to make the model sustainable. Co-founder Stephanie Koczela recognised that low and middle income individuals in developing countries are seen as only being able to access healthcare services if they are free, and yet the problem is that the quality of the services available is extremely low. Her social enterprise, Penda Health, believes that by working with factories in industrial areas of Africa, it is possible to increase the client to health provider ratio in such a way that the company will be able to keep costs lower than typical health clinics while also remaining committed to the provision of quality services.  www.pendahealth.com

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Lisa Curtis, founder KuliKuli Foods

Kuli Kuli retails moringa food products in the U.S., sourcing it from women’s cooperatives in West Africa in an effort to help those communities move away from dependency on food aid and towards nutritional self-sufficiency.

Lisa Curtis witnessed the challenges that rural communities in West Africa face as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger. After a few months with limited fruits and vegetables, she found herself experiencing early signs of malnutrition, a condition that affects over 18 million children across West Africa. Then a friend told Lisa about Moringa, a local tree with highly nutritious leaves and handed her a bag of kuli-kuli, a Hausa food made from peanuts, to make a delicious, nutty Moringa dinner. Lisa incorporated Moringa into her diet and began to regain her strength. Lisa saw a solution to the malnutrition and poverty in her village growing in the nutritious leaves of the Moringa oleifera tree. Upon returning to the U.S., Lisa worked with her childhood best friend, Valerie Popelka, to create the first prototypes of what became Kuli Kuli Bars. Jordan Moncharmont and Anne Tsuei brought their web and design skills to the team, and together they formed Kuli Kuli, a mission-driven business. Today, Kuli Kuli’s mission is to provide everyone who wants to access the nutritional power of Moringa with the knowledge and reosurces to do so. All of the company’s products are made with Moringa, one of the most nutritious plants on the planet, and nourish the body as well as the communities around the world where Moringa is grown. www.kulikulifoods.com

Shannon May, founder of Bridge International Academies in Kenya

Building a chain of nursery and private schools in Africa delivering high- quality education for just $6 a month on average.

Shannon May is the co-founder of Bridge International Academies, the world’s largest education innovation company serving the 700 million families who live on less than $2 USD per day. The company strives to provide the highest quality education products to the 100,000+ students who attend Bridge’s more than 400 nursery and primary schools across emerging markets in Africa and shortly also in Asia. The company is data-driven and technology-enabled. Using smartphones and tablets, its “closed loop” Learning Lab enables the monitoring of teacher and student performance in real time, constantly reviewing and revising to ensure a world class education that will prepare students for the 21st century. Outside of the classroom, the company works with governments and civil society organizations to create customized teacher training modules, English Language Learning curricula, and “pop up” schools for refugees and other vulnerable populations. Thanks to economies of scale, Bridge is able to charge just $6 a month per pupil on average with academies reaching operational sustainability after just one year. The first Bridge International Academy opened in the Mukuru slum in Nairobi, Kenya in 2009.  Today there are hundreds and Bridge continues to expand across Africa and Asia.  With a mission of Knowledge for all, Bridge plans to educate 10,000,000 children across a dozen countries by 2025.www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com

Jodie Wu, founder of Global Cycle Solutions (GCS) in Tanzania

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Increasing access to quality technology for rural Tanzanian villagers through local micro-entreprneurs.

In 2008, MIT mechanical engineer Jodie Wu returned from Tanzania frustrated that technologies weren’t reaching the people who needed them most, the local villagers. Determined to do something about it, Jodie founded Global Cycle Solutions, a social enterprise that develops and distributes life-changing technologies to bottom-of-the-pyramid customers. The first product she engineered was a bicycle-mounted maize sheller which removes corn kernels from their husks to later be ground down or otherwise eaten or sold. Designed to be powered by the rider, it was the foundation for what would become a profit-driven, socially conscious startup, with two primary goals: provide useful, affordable products for a rural, East African market, and create badly needed jobs for local Tanzanians. In 2009, GCS won the Development Track and Audience Choice Awards of the MIT $100K Business Plan Competition and placed second at Tanzania’s Nane Nane Agricultural Fair. Today, her company employs over 20 Tanzanians, includes a network of over 150 GCS village entrepreneurs, and has reached over 30,000 families. Jodie has also been recognized as a TEDGlobal Fellow, Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s America’s Most Promising Entrepreneurs, and Forbes’ 30 under 30. In the past few years, GCS has begun offering a solar-powered lantern, the company’s new top seller, and a solar-powered cell phone charger.  www.gcstz.com

Ella Peinovich and Gwendolyn Floyd founders of Soko

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Offering market access and training to expand economic opportunity for artisans, the majority of whom are women in underserved communities.

Ella Peinovich, Gwendolyn Floyd, and Catherine Mahugu co-founded Soko in 2011 after recognizing a global need, as well as a global opportunity, to disrupt the systemic patterns of poverty found across the developing world’s creative economy. Working in bottom of the pyramid communities around the world, they were inspired to develop a solution to the disconnect between the incredible cultural value of the goods artisans make and the disproportionality small amount of money they can earn from these goods. They realized that by leveraging pervasive technology and existing infrastructure in an innovative way, they could create a platform to enable any talented artisan to participate in international trade. Today, Soko is an online destination for shoppers to discover stunning handcrafted accessories from all over the world, bringing shoppers global design previously unaccessible. Via the company’s capacity training programs and its mobile technology tools, Soko works with artisans and designers in unlikely places to bring their talents to the global stage. The company remains dedicated to ethical design principles and fair business practices. Soko was created by women for women to help “fashion a better world” through equitable direct trade of beautiful goods between artisans in the developing world and web consumers worldwide.  www.shopsoko.com

Liz Forkin Bohannon, founder of Sseko Designs

Using fashion to provide employment and scholarship opportunities to young Ugandan women pursuing their dreams and overcoming poverty. 

Sseko Designs is the brainchild of social entrepreneur, Liz Forkin Bohannon, and is a fashion accessory and leather sandal brand with a difference, based in Uganda. Sseko began as a way to generate income for high potential, talented young women to continue on to university. And it is working! Every woman who has graduated from Sseko is currently pursuing her college degree or has graduated from university and is on her way to making the world a more beautiful place. In addition to the company’s university-bound team, Sseko also employs women from all walks of life. By creating an environment of dignity, honor and dedication, Sseko Designs provides the opportunity for women in East Africa to end the cycle of poverty and create a more equitable society. In addition to the company’s range of sandals, accessories and straps that are all made in its workshop in Uganda, Sseko also partners with existing artisan groups in East Africa to produce exquisitely crafted goods. The company is currently partnering with organizations in Kenya and Ethiopia who produce woven textiles and fine leather goods. These additional products help Sseko to contribute to its goal of growing East African economies through trade and employment. In addition, the revenue generated through these lines allows Sseko to expand its mission to educate and empower women through employment, training and scholarships.  www.ssekodesigns.com

Megan Macdonald, founder of Sasa Designs for the Deaf

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Providing employment and fair wages to Deaf artisans in Kenya.

Sasa Designs by the Deaf was launched by social entrepreneur Megan Macdonald in 2011 to provide employment and fair wages to deaf women in Kenya. With an estimated unemployment rate of 85% nationwide, few deaf have ever had the opportunity to support themselves or explore their potential. Deafness in Kenya carries grave stigma that leads to deaf individuals being ostracized and in the worst of cases, abused. Upon joining Sasa Designs, a deaf woman becomes an artisan – carefully cultivating a skill set that grows along with her confidence. A woman who has spent a lifetime feeling like a burden, can now take care of herself and her children. Sasa Designs is a catalyst for transformation. With three years of seasonal collections under its belt, Sasa Designs is growing rapidly. Their workshop in Kenya employs 13 deaf women full time, with plans to expand in the coming year. Sasa Designs plans to hire more deaf women and men in the future, while continuing to explore new materials and markets around the world. Sasa Designs is proving that deaf artisans have the capacity, skill and vision to compete in the global accessories market. The artisans of Sasa Designs by the Deaf have started a new chapter in their lives, working each day to build a better life: for themselves, for their children, and for our global community as a whole. Sasa Designs envisions a world in which individuals can benefit from participation in the global market regardless of their gender, geographic location or physical characteristics.  www.sasadesignsbythedeaf.com

Shanley Knox, co-founder of Olivia Knox in Uganda

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Creating new markets for Ankole cow horn and improving the economic value of this culturally significant breed — providing incentive for Ugandan ranchers to continue their ancient practice of raising the Ankole.

The world’s discerning consumers have become so much more conscious about the provenance and sustainability of the products they buy, particularly in the luxury market. By creating new luxury markets for products crafted from East Africa’s unique Ankole horn, founders Shanley Knox and her inspirational business partner, Olivia Byanyima, through their company, Olivia Knox, are improving the economic value of this culturally significant breed, providing incentive for Ugandan ranchers to continue their ancient practice of raising the Ankole. At Olivia Knox, Shanley and Olivia believe in doing things differently. Through equally valuing conservation, ethical sourcing and economic development, they believe in combining profit, ethics and culture to preserve the beautiful Ankole. The company is an ardent supporter of the Ankole Cow Conservation Association (ACCA) which showcases the Ankole Long Horn as a tourist attraction in Lake Mburo National Park.  www.olivia-knox.com

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