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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.


By Adina Ba

lisa-russell-photo Lisa Russell is an independent documentary filmmaker whose background in international development work helps draw inspiration for her films about the health and well-being of our global society. Lisa’s films link different social issues together and look at the common threads of race, class, gender, privilege and non-privilege. She has filmed in many locations such as Brazil, Burkina Faso, and South Africa to Brooklyn, NY where she is currently a teaching artist at Urban Word NYC. Some of Lisa’s films highlight global health issues such as women’s reproductive rights. Other films Lisa has created spotlight artists and poets of different cultures speaking about social issues they care most about. While some of her work has aired on public television, most of her film work is tied into campaigns with the international community to affect social change through awareness, fundraising and legislative advocacy.  


Have you always worked in advocacy or did you start with a different career track?


 In my past, I ran a group home for a couple of years, but I didn’t have the language or know what to do with my background to make sense of the work I was destined to do.I thought I could be a doctor so I could help people. I was on my way to medical school during college, did my MCATS but wasn’t convinced it was what I wanted to do. I had grown up in California and never lived anywhere else. I decided I could not dedicate the next eight years of my life to just one thing. And so, I packed up and moved to Boston.


In Boston, I took adult education classes at Harvard University, specifically focused in the pre-med area. One day, in a particular class, we watched a fifteen minute film of a Harvard professor speaking about different social determinants (age, gender, and race) which perpetuated the AIDS epidemic. This film was a calling for me. International/global focus was very appealing to me. I ended up getting my Masters in Public Health and International Health.


Through development work, I was able to travel to St. Vincent. I also consulted for the UN and ended up in Kosovo during the Refugee Crisis. It was interesting and important, but I didn’t feel it was the most I could contribute. I was more of an activist, not a program person.


In 2000, I co-produced a film in Brazil for World AIDS Day. I interviewed and received hands on experience doing news reporting. This helped me learn a great skill. I was able to bring filmmaking together with my work in international development. I grabbed things from different experiences that I had, and it all came together at one point. I’m very lucky, but the path was not thought out, it happened.


What skills did you bring to your current work? What new skills did you gain?  

The first thing is that I had a desire to make a difference in the world, to have a purpose behind the work that I do. Secondly, I needed an outlet for my lifelong creative drive. When I was younger, my mom talked me out of becoming a dancer, and I ended up initially going premed. Becoming a filmmaker allowed me to use all of my skills and interests.   

What motivated you to start, what motivates you to continue this work?

I don’t exactly know. I grew up in a poor single parent home. I felt the place I grew up was way too small for my head, and so I became very independent and free. I chartered my own path. Coming from that background propelled me to want to do something. I was the first of my family to go to college.

To continue, I really love what I do. Until the need no longer exists, there’s still a reason to do it. Because there is challenge in my work, it keeps me engaged. I enjoy always working on new or different projects, speaking to new people, etc.


I’ve been around difficult stuff for a while. I don’t want to do “sad face” documentaries. I still make an effort to retain the dignity of the people I’m filming. I balance the challenges my subjects face with their culture’s beauty that we’ve lost in our society from being too focused on capitalism and commercialism.


When someone wants to begin advocacy work, does that mean they have to stop everything else they’re doing? (Current job, career, etc.)


Personally, I’d love to see a day when it’s not called advocacy work; a day when it becomes part of our culture. I speak to high school students and encourage them to use film with something they already care about. If you feel like you want to do good in the world, strive for it to be part of your daily life.



Do you have any other advice for people just starting out?



You have to start with passion for something to really get involved in it. You have to be engaged. I’m not a big pusher about getting everyone on a plane to volunteer in Africa. Local community service is just as great and in our backyards. If you want to make lives better for people that are less fortunate than you, get outside your comfort zone and volunteer. What is it you can do? How far can you take it? For one person, being a big brother or big sister is just as meaningful as another person doing Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. Without that connection, it’s hard to commit yourself to something you’re not passionate about. Without passion, you won’t stay involved. You can read and understand social issues intellectually but unless you get out there and volunteer hands on, there’s no emotional connection and no outcome.



What response would you give to someone who has never volunteered before and their argument is that it would take too much work/energy to create change in our communities or our world? 



We are involved and contribute our time to something every day. It takes the same amount of energy to make the world a worse place as it does a better place. For example, we can throw something in the trash can or the recycle bin. We need to prioritize what’s good for our collective humanity on this planet. On a global level, children die from hunger every day. We have the resources to distribute the food, but since we don’t prioritize, this doesn’t happen. First, one must believe in this philosophy, second, they need the dedication to persevere.



After watching many of Lisa’s films, I wanted to share one with you about a spoken word artist from South Africa. It’s great to learn about someone’s culture from their own voice.




About Me

adina pic This blog is created to share and dissiminate easy ways for any concerned citizen to be an agent of change in their community and the world at large. Please join in the conversation towards progress.

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