Sierra Leone Field Updates

August 1, 2018

By: Travis Trull, Program Manager – Entrepreneurship Development

When my plane touched down in Sierra Leone last November, I didn’t know what to expect. It is a beautiful country with rolling hills, dense brush, winding rivers and swampy valleys. It has a complicated history—corruption, war, a crumbled economy and infrastructure. But standing center stage are remarkable people—tough, kind, resilient, smart and driven. When the odds have been against them, they persevered in pursuit of a better life for themselves, their children and their communities.

Before returning to Nashville, I met Sullay, Joe, Jenneh and countless other impressive Sierra Leoneans working hard to improve their communities. One night, as mosquitos buzzed our ears, Joe told me the story of an older, very wealthy man who had refused to help their community. He was harsh in his business dealings, making few friends and many enemies. “It’s not a good way to live,” Joe said. “When my neighbor needs help, if I am able, I help. It brings me joy, and all our lives are better for it.”

(Left to right: Sullay Turray, Travis Trull, Joe Lassayo and Jenneh Lassayo)

Joe generates positive impact. He wakes up early, works hard, creates opportunity, serves others. The guiding question is clear: How can we equip impact-generators like Joe with the tools necessary to accomplish their mission of serving their communities?

Six months later, I was back in Sierra Leone. Convinced by Just Hope International’s practical, market-driven, business-minded approach, I had come on full-time with the organization.

I was now back with Sullay, Joe, and Jenneh in their remote town. It was after dark, and we sat around a small, plastic table, hearing the frogs and bugs shout at each other while we discussed our work together.

“Remember, an empty bag cannot stand,” they told me.

Having lived almost half my life in various parts of Africa, the meaning seemed clear. I imagined an empty sack normally full of rice or corn, crumpled on the ground. They need more resources, I thought. Something to start with. Start-up capital to get things going. Then the bag could stand.

I thought I understood, but their message was much simpler.

The next day, I sat down with a group of twenty women. For almost four hours, I asked questions. After enduring over a decade of war and the complex aftermath of a devastated economy, they continue to put one foot in front of the other with unending determination. In addition to their own children, they adopted the children of their neighbors and siblings who didn’t survive the harsh years, along with their elderly parents. Every woman is the backbone of their families, carrying the weight of daily life—raising children, carrying water, cutting firewood, working in fields, cooking food, selling what can be spared in the local market. They work hard. But there is a resource deficit––a lack of access to basic needs like information and education, financial resources, markets, sufficient medical care, road networks and delivery systems…

Remember, an empty bag cannot stand.

There was still something I was missing. A resource most of us take for granted every day.

Finally, an hour in, I understood. In that moment, when they saw I finally understood, the women cheered for me. Seriously, they clapped for me.

The meaning had been much more literal and straightforward than I had realized. An empty stomach. An energy deficit. Like an empty bag, a person with an empty stomach cannot stand. Food and fat are fuel. At some point, when you run out of fuel, you literally—like an empty bag—cannot stand.

Imagine raising children, working in fields, cooking food and more on a caloric deficit built on—for most of the year—only one small meal per day. No matter how ready you are to hustle and to make things happen, an empty bag cannot stand.

“Things are already better,” they said as they described how Just Hope’s seed loan program had brought additional protein in the form of peanuts, as well as additional income for their families. “Progress is being made,” one person said, “But the time between harvests is long. If my child gets sick, a trip to the clinic can easily empty out everything I have. Progress is being made, and we are ready to keep pushing, keep working.”

These women, like Joe and so many others, are impact-generators. With the right tools in hand, they will turn an empty field into a rich garden.

This month, Just Hope is launching two new opportunities in their region: (1) a bitter-root harvesting initiative that connects locals directly with buyers in larger cities. This will provide significant supplemental income, meaning increased ability to access food and pay for medical care and other expenses deeper into the post-harvest season. And the (2) Kongbora Women’s Entrepreneurship Program which will connect women with the resources needed to start, maintain and grow small businesses. This program will enable women to generate additional income for years or even generations to come.

(Women interested in the Kongbora Women’s Entrepreneurship Program)

In September, I will be back in Sierra Leone. In collaboration with Jenneh, I will have been monitoring and interacting with these women’s new business efforts for almost two months. We will sit down together. We will talk through obstacles and opportunities. We will bring local businesspeople in as mentors, building a local resource network. We will meet with a dozen impact-generators. Maybe you will be there too. We will talk through measurable goals and be driven by results. We are building an impact that lasts.

What can you do? Call me. Email me. Let’s get coffee. You have gifts, abilities, a human heart and listening ears. Be an impact-generator. Let’s start with a conversation.

travistrull@justhopeinternational.org