By Chris Recktenwald

In and Out of Africa

Chris Recktenwald, an InterVarsity alumnus from Northwestern University’s MBA chapter, joined InterVarsity’s Professional Schools Ministry director John Terrill, Al Erisman of the Institute for Business Technology and Ethics, and seven others on a “Business as Missions” trip to the Central African Republic (CAR) from June 18 to July 6, 2007.

Early last December I was attending a church service at Willow Creek Community Church, and I distinctly felt God prompting me to take a trip to Africa. I needed to experience the front line of AIDS and poverty-fighting efforts and observe how God is working in spite of these tragedies, so that my perspective could be realigned with God’s heart. At Urbana 06, InterVarsity’s student missions convention in St Louis in late December, I attended a seminar led by Integrated Community Development International (ICDI), and learned of an InterVarsity trip for MBA students and graduates to the Central African Republic. I knew that trip was the exact opportunity I was supposed to take.

I was one of a team of eight who worked as volunteer consultants, to help ICDI add a micro-enterprise development (MED)* program to their operational portfolio. We spent time traveling and interviewing to understand the economic environment as well as the organization of ICDI, so that we could make recommendations for ICDI to take the next steps in their MED program. We met with many visionary and entrepreneurial people already involved in these types of activities to encourage them, learn from them, and partner with them.

Our team was highly encouraged by the points of light beaming through this incredibly challenging environment. We participated in many seminars to train entrepreneurs, educate individuals on how they can leverage micro-finance, and expose people to the ideas of business ethics, as wells as God’s mission for business. As a result of our efforts:

  • We encouraged many people who are working incredibly hard in a challenging environment to provide for their families and make their world a better place to live.
  • We are providing a very detailed analysis and recommendation to the board and leadership of ICDI toward implementation of MED.
  • We oversaw the launch of a micro-finance program; business loan applications are now being accepted.
  • We influenced key government officials, NGO leaders, university professors, and church leaders to partner with ICDI and take action in their spheres of influence.
  • Our lives were changed by what we experienced and learned.

The acronym TIA (This is Africa) from the movie Blood Diamond summarizes the challenges we faced. The most simple of tasks can be a huge undertaking in this environment, but God blessed our team with safety and productivity. The Central Africans’ courage in spite of these obstacles is humbling and inspiring.

Travel was difficult as we traveled 1,600 km over deteriorated roads (largely dirt). On one trip we passed 24 roadblocks where soldiers questioned us, looking for handouts. We passed risky areas at certain times of the day to avoid bandits and chose other roads to avoid rebel forces in the North. We had vehicle trouble: a faulty injector burned up one engine block, front brakes gave out 60 miles from our destination, an overheating engine had to be babied over 1,200 kilometers. Yet, we only missed two appointments. The team was extremely patient and gracious.

Without doubt, police encounters were the hardest part of the total experience for us all. It’s truly humbling to be stopped without just cause and harassed. We were stopped at the same spot multiple times, just two blocks from where we stayed. It had a profound impact on us because it illustrated how hard anything and everything can be in the CAR, especially for the people who simply desire to move forward in their lives.

Imparting vision was a challenge. The plight of the poor and even the elite in CAR has crushed spirits. Typical villagers do not see past the end of their week as they are consumed with activities of hauling water, gathering firewood, gathering food, and maintaining their shelter. One descriptive example of this is the distribution of fruit tree seedlings to improve nutrition in villages. Since the fruit will not be available until three years after planting, the work of growing the tree is not viewed by many as productive.

Our work and the intrinsic design of MED focuses on taking small steps forward in spite of circumstances to make a local difference, rather than solving the problem all at once from the top down. We encouraged everyone to take ownership and tried to enable those who wanted to pursue it, to do so. It was too easy for us to take our American perspective where a small risk and effort usually pays a large reward and misapply it to this situation. We didn’t take their position lightly, but we knew through observation that individuals can take small steps forward when they apply themselves. The work of MED supports those individuals, enabling them to take the steps.

Connecting with the Central Africans, especially the children, was probably the greatest highlight. We met men and women who were hard working, loved God, and were committed to their families. They showed great courage and vision in spite of their environment. Their children showed amazing contentment. Perhaps it is their close family structure or their lack of resources. They were precious and would smile broadly at the slightest opportunity. Wherever we went they treasured our attention and melted our hearts.

Meeting a group of fruit tree farmers in their garden brought me to tears. These men are true visionaries. They understand that they are doing God’s work by providing for their families and raising this garden. It is close to a trail; as they work, they are mocked by passersby with comments like, “You are working so hard for nothing,” “You are wasting your time,” “Where is the fruit of your work?” These men were so grateful that we came so far to see their garden, and they knew we were bringing an encouraging word.

We did our best to grasp the beauty of the situation and explain to them that they are leaders and visionaries and that even though leaders and visionaries are sometimes mocked, they are the ones who make a significant difference, and it is worth it in the end. We told them that they were already making a huge difference and that someday, passersby would recognize and celebrate their effort. We told them they were doing God’s work. I am confident that this work will be a nucleus of economic development as the fruit trees yield more than their families can consume and these men pursue market opportunities.

A one-day seminar, led by Dr. Al Erisman and translated by Joshua Lohnes, challenged over 100 participants as we met at the sole university in the CAR. Participants closely tracked with Al’s teaching. Hard questions from the audience were met with firm and authentic responses from Al. Teaching will be an important tactic to change the thinking of those who prepare people to do business in this country. The country will never be able to hire all the graduates from the university, so creative entrepreneurial efforts by self-disciplined and self-motivated individuals will be necessary.

We participated in our U.S. Embassy’s July 4th celebration. The retiring Chief of the Staff, Jim Panos, hosted 600 high ranking and influential CAR leaders. There were probably about 20 Americans present (our group stood out). The President of the CAR spoke briefly. The new ambassador also spoke. This two-hour, suit-and-tie, fancy hors d’oeuvres event sealed special connections we had made with a few important government leaders.

Photos from my trip are on line.

*What IS Micro-enterprise Development?
The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to micro-credit pioneer Muhammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank. Micro-enterprise involves a small business employing one to five people. It requires a tiny investment ($50-150 in developing countries) and a lot of hard work to return a small profit.

Micro-Finance is an enabler of micro-enterprise. A small loan is granted to an entrepreneur, which is used to help start a micro-enterprise. Most lending institutions don’t consider business loans for less than $35,000. However, the micro-finance movement has generated many micro-finance institutions and programs which are writing loans equivalent to tens of dollars. When these loans are repaid, the funds are redistributed to sustain the process.

In impoverished countries like the Central African Republic (CAR), enterprise development is one of the most effective vehicles for spiritual, social, and economic transformation. In the U.S., an individual could get a loan for $50,000 to start a business and all they need is a business plan. In the CAR, an individual could have a great opportunity to start a business, which would supply income to meet the family’s needs, but not have access to the $50 it would take to start the business. Micro-finance tries to solve this dilemma.

For more, check out: i>A billion bootstraps by Phil Smith and Eric Thurman