by Adina Ba

Ndeye Binta Houma works in the Senegal office of Ashoka, a US-based non-profit organization which focuses on fostering “social entrepreneurship” in over 60 countries. Before we learn more about Ashoka, let’s get to know Ndeye Binta.

Born in Saint Louis, Senegal, Ndeye Binta’s family moved to Dakar when she was a child. She grew up in a single-parent household (which is uncommon in Senegal) with her mother and five brothers and sisters. In college, Ndeye Binta majored in Literature and afterwards, she applied and was accepted in a competitive professional training program which gave her a well-rounded background to work in many types of office disciplines. She then interned in Client Services at a major Senegal electricity company and afterwards moved into the real estate sector for four years. Ndeye Binta has been working at Ashoka since 2004.

Okay, starting at the beginning, what is a social entrepreneur?

Paraphrased from Wikipedia, “A social entrepreneur is a person who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change.”

How does Ashoka help social entrepreneurs?

Ashoka invests in up and coming social entrepreneurs—Ashoka Fellows—with a living stipend for an average of three years, allowing them to focus full-time on building their organizations and spreading their ideas. Ashoka also provides Fellows with a global support network of their peers and partnerships with professional consultants.

What is the work you do at Ashoka?

I manage venture programs and fellowships as well as administration and accounting for the West African region of Ashoka. I focus on the selection process to find potential fellows which are often nominated by a second party. After my office reviews a potential fellow, they are then reviewed by a panel with expertise in a specific area, and eventually our board.

Working at Ashoka is a very interesting and rewarding experience. It is a way to meet many dynamic individuals with unique personalities. When I’m searching for candidates, I feel like I’m doing important work in the world.

How do you evaluate the success of a Fellow? 

Ashoka Fellows operate in diverse fields with a broad spectrum of goals. Ashoka’s measuring effectiveness program has developed a system of proxy indicators that reflect Fellows’ roles in transforming their societies. Our impact indicators are: lifelong dedication to original vision, independent replication, policy influence, leadership in the field, and leveraging Ashoka’s resources.

Please share a success story of one of the Ashoka Fellows and their projects with us? 

Haidar El Ali is a successful Sahel Ashoka Fellow who is considered one of the hundred most influential environmentalists of the world by the newspaper “Le Monde.” By ensuring sustainable management of natural resources by local people, Hader educates fishing communities about preservation of marine life, and the community joins the fight against various marine environment aggressions, including cyanide and dynamite fishing. Haidar then involves these communities, as well as the wider public, in both creating and managing protected areas.

His awareness campaigns concerning the biological rest of cymbiums in the Saloum Islands of Senegal, for example, have been met with great success, creating opportunities to develop aquaculture of commercially lucrative maritime species, like shrimp. The objective of Haidar’s Marine Park Project is to create a large number of protected areas, awareness campaigns, and dissemination of information on the maritime environments and resources.

Ideas for the future of Ashoka? 

Some of our ideas are to build a critical mass of social entrepreneurs, support and spread new ideas by connecting peers around the world, change the discourse with the concept of everyone a Changemakertm, and to build strategic partnerships with other sectors to design new ways of sustaining innovation.

Do you think your background growing up affects the work that you do?

I had a wonderful childhood and a very brave mother. Divorced with six children, she engaged in income-generating activities to support her family. Although she never went to school, she fought hard to keep her children in school and did not hesitate to hire private tutors when needed.

In the spirit of striving to succeed, my twin sister and I decided after our Bachelor degrees to follow a professional training. Although we did not have financial means, we entered a state-run competition and were accepted with professional training and a monthly stipend. From 1,000 candidates, we were two of only 21 students who were accepted into the two year program.

My first internship at Sonotel really drew me in to love working in public relations. When I eventually had the opportunity to work at Ashoka on a temporary basis, I really enjoyed it. I discovered social entrepreneurship and got to meet exceptional individuals. I was eventually asked to come back to Ashoka on a part-time basis and also worked part-time at other American non-profit organizations. One was called ARED which fights against illiteracy in Africa as well as ACI, where I got to mentor young international students travelling to Senegal to study abroad.

In July 2006, Ashoka recruited me as a full-time staff member for the Africa Associate Program position with the mission to take care of administration, finance and assist the representatives on their various missions. Currently my work is more focused on Venture Fellowship Program and research funds.

Do you get to travel for work?

As our office is covering 6 Sahel countries, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, and Gambia, we have to travel throughout the region to meet with potentials candidates, visit their projects and of course hold meeting for Fellows established there.

Also, I visited the US for the first time in January 2009. Some colleagues from Africa and India including myself participated in a training on our Venture Program. It was the first time I met with colleagues I had worked with for many years and never seen in person. This visit is symbolic because I had the honor of attending Barack Obama’s Inauguration thanks to a colleague Simon Stumpf and her friend Ashley Keenau who magically found an invitation for the historic event.

How has your idea of ‘social progress’ changed since working closely with the Fellows of Ashoka?

It is common in my community for people to take care of each other and do their best to improve the life condition of their peers, but not necessarily under this concept. When I started working with Ashoka Fellows, I got a close up understanding of this term and each Fellow’s great idea for change. The one thing Fellows have in common is a vision that society may change in a positive way if people decide to be involved in that change.

Is there any specific subject matter of social entrepreneurship that you are personally passionate about?

Education is the sector I personally like. My vision of African development cannot be accomplished without enormous innovations in education. Learning is the first step of life, and generally where people discover what they want to do for their life, their vision, and their ambitions. This creates a strong and skilled workforce for any sector of society and our leaders of tomorrow.

What would you say to people who think that individually, they cannot make a difference in bettering the world?

“Yes we can”, as President Obama said. If we all become involved in bettering something in our community, it is possible.

What would you say to someone who has a lot of ideas, but is shy? How can they get involved without having to do it alone if they prefer working in a community setting?

Having lots of ideas and never getting started is worse than having no idea at all. If you are shy in starting something on your own, join a group that promotes the ideas you have. That way, you don’t have to do it by yourself. You may be surprised once you get started how much you have to offer. You may start to collaborate with others in amazing ways.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I invite all people (in particular African people) to be part of the change to develop Africa for the better of our people.