African Nuns Create Social Enterprise Startups to Help Communities

Sisters in Kenya handle chickens while learning about social enterprise opportunities at a poultry farm. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara University

Sister Christine Imbali of the Assumption Sisters of Eldoret, in western Kenya, has been working to help low-income women and families end their reliance on her small community of Catholic religious women and other charitable groups. Instead of a charity, she wants to give families in the country’s fifth-largest city the option to be self-sustaining and to contribute an important aspect of a healthy city — nutrition.

Her idea: chickens.

“You cannot evangelize to people who are hungry, who are dying, who are not getting an education,” Imbali said. In April, she hopes to introduce poultry farming to her families in hopes that social enterprise, as these kinds of helping businesses are known, will take off in Kenya.

The notion of do-gooding chickens originated in July of last year at the third Vatican Conference on Impact Investing in Rome. The conference was part of a series intended to “serve as a vital, long-term, global platform around Pope Francis’ vision of ‘placing the economy at the service of peoples,’” according to the conference’s report.

It was there that Sister Eneless Chimbali, secretary-general of the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa, met Thane Kreiner, executive director of the 22-year-old Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, an “accelerator” of social enterprise startups at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school in Northern California. The center focuses on poverty, climate change and social inequality and works with a diverse range of industries.

Thane Kreiner, left, addresses a Sisters Blended Value Project workshop in early March 2019. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara University

But just eight months later, in early March 2019, Kreiner found himself more than 9,500 miles from Silicon Valley addressing 35 Catholic sisters from Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe at a social enterprise workshop in Kenya.

The meeting was exactly the kind of unexpected partnership the planners of the Vatican conference had envisioned, said Beth Collins, Catholic Relief Services’ managing director of impact investing.

For Miller Center and the sisters, it meant the start of a whole new movement.

Chimbali said she had long been asking herself how the sisters would remain relevant in their home communities as resources dwindled. For Kreiner, who knew that social enterprise worked best when it came from those deeply invested in their communities, the lightbulb went off when he heard Chimbali tell the Rome conference: “Sisters are always there. Others come and go, but the sisters will always remain.”

The only remaining problem was funding.

Back in California, John Ottoboni, chief operating officer and senior legal counsel at Santa Clara University, had been waiting for the right way to honor his wife, Nancy, who had recently died from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

As a young woman, she had stopped short of making her final vows as a Sister of the Holy Cross but continued to stay close to the order, and the friendship has continued through Ottoboni.

He saw Miller Center’s workshops as a meaningful way to keep alive the memory of a woman he describes as “the soul of kindness.”

“To continue to honor her memory is a joy, one that tempers the profound sense of loss that surfaces from time to time,” he said. “In a small way I felt like we were walking with (the sisters) on what may prove to be an expanded journey for them.”

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Source: Religion News Service