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Keith Warner with two East African sisters in habits

Keith Warner with two East African sisters in habits

Passports Out of Poverty

Miller Center led a field trip in East Africa, en route to helping dozens of Catholic Sisters turn ministries into social entrepreneurial ventures.

When Miller Center recently introduced more than two dozen Catholic Sisters to social entrepreneurs in East Africa, conversations turned to chickens, passion fruit, manure, and door-to-door sales of clean cookstoves. The takeaway? A route for turning the sisters’ thousands of poverty-fighting ministries into more business-like, sustainable, and socially beneficial operations.


Sister visiting KadAfrica in field

For 10 days in mid-January, Miller Center’s Keith Warner OFM led more than a dozen Catholic Sisters from East Africa on a tour through five “social ventures” operating in Uganda or Kenya. The organizations they visited improve lives while creating sustainable sources of revenue with businesses, including passion-fruit co-ops, poultry farming, or job training and employment facilities. Each went through Miller Center’s signature Global Social Benefit Institute® accelerator program.

These sisters represent more than 300 congregations that run schools, health clinics, retreat houses, or other missions—many funded by charitable donations. They were on the tour acquiring inspiration for turning some of their own ministries into social enterprises, which would make them more business-like, sustainable, and able to help more people.

“We’re helping them develop a plan for transforming charity business models into enterprise business models,” said Warner.

On the tour, the sisters proved a warm and lively audience.

Since many are from farming families themselves, the Sisters asked informed questions about farming and manure management from biodigester company Biobolsa, for example. At Livelyhoods, which trains women and youth to sell clean-energy products door to door, one Sister tried her hand at persuading a customer to buy—but came up short as residents said they were tapped out from the holidays. Others bought chickens and hatching eggs from the poultry-farming and business training enterprise Eggpreneur—their keen eyes instantly discerning that the animals raised and sold by the company were high quality.

A Catholic Focus on Social Entrepreneurship

The expedition was part of a program that has its origins back in Rome.

Every other year for the past six years, the Vatican has convened a conference on impact investing and social entrepreneurship. The conference, which draws dozens of speakers and hundreds of attendees worldwide, is an acknowledgement by the Catholic Church’s highest authority, Pope Francis, that many of its current vehicles for fighting poverty—from church-run schools to nonprofits like Catholic Charities or Catholic Relief Services or any of thousands of local ministries— could benefit from adopting business principles to make them more financially sustainable, allow them to expand, and ultimately help more beneficiaries.

Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship played a leadership role in shaping the content of the conference, and has sent speakers each time.

Now, the rubber is starting to hit the road in bringing social entrepreneurship to bear on various Catholic ministries—one of the first of which is working with the sisters in East Africa.

Sisters in East Africa around a machine

After the trip, Miller Center asked the Sisters to write a one-page concept note about how they’d like to transform one of their own social ministries into a social enterprise. They will bring those ideas into a training session in Nairobi from March 3-7, where they will get a crash course in the basics of social entrepreneurship. That will include determining a target audience, assessing unit costs, and launching a path to profitability—concepts that Miller Center has taught for over 15 years to hundreds of social enterprises.

The motivation is part mission, part reality, said Warner.

“They know the donor base of charities is dwindling,” said Warner. “They’re also enthusiastic about what they saw, the innovation and new ways of doing things.”

Among the ideas floated during the tour:

*The Superior General of the Teresian Sisters was interested in having her vocational school students partner with KadAfrica—which helps women build assets through passion fruit farming and education—and start a similar program on land her congregation owns in Fort Portal, Uganda.
*Several Sisters who lead congregations in East Africa saw opportunity to partner with Access Afya to expand its frontline clinic services for those living in slums.
*Other sisters started thinking about enlisting their congregations to help Livelyhoods conduct market research to foster better sales.
*Nurture Africa—an integrated social service center that after much struggle has transformed from a charity into a social enterprise—offered to share its “lessons learned” with sisters who similarly want to make vocational training a more sustainable program in their own congregation.
*Several of the Ugandan Congregations wish to partner with NUCAFE to improve the quality and quantity of coffee they grow, and to market it more effectively. The Sisters use this income to provide education and training for young Sisters.

Warner said some Sisters expressed regret that they hadn’t known about these “passports out of poverty” operating right in their own backyards. But he assured them that “what is important is to apply this knowledge in service to their local communities.”

Besides, the sisters have a built-in head start over many would-be social entrepreneurs.

“They are respected leaders, influencers whom people look up to and follow because of their quality of leadership and witness,” said Warner. “The sisters will always be there. This is their home.” 


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