One year ago, Loom announced the launch of a new movement called Thrive Africa. This fall, Lead Writer Jenna Funkhouser sat down with Executive Director Colleen Milstein to talk about the journey that led us here, and what lies ahead.
Jenna: Colleen, in last year’s annual report Loom announced the launch of a movement called Thrive Africa. Can you remind us what this is all about?
Colleen: One of Loom’s primary initiatives, which will become the gathering point for all our work, is this collaboration called Thrive Africa. It is the result of a dream: to see grassroots projects in multiple nations empowered to collaborate for community thriving.
As we have worked with individual projects in capacity training and measuring effectiveness, we have seen the potential for increased impact by combining strategies. We recognized the strengths of partners in community engagement and knew that a tightening of governance and financial controls could increase funding accessibility.
So we developed a framework, creating a platform for the entrepreneurial entities that already exist. They exist in agriculture, early childhood education, creative industries, healthcare and prosthetic limbs, and primary, secondary and vocational training. At its core, Thrive Africa scales up the impact of projects to see shalom, peace, in every area of life.
I have to say – we had a lot of fun creating this. We laid out a fifteen-year plan towards project longevity with two sides. First, we are working to secure funding to invest in people and infrastructure. But because our goal is also financial sustainability, that funding decreases over time. The second part, the major part of it, is people. Loom’s sweet spot, what we really bring into this collaboration, is what we have always been doing: a focus on equipping people, strengthening the skill set they already have, and listening to what they know how to do. We bring this together and really work on people’s capacity.
J: How is Loom positioned to facilitate this?
C: Growing up in South Africa, I attended a secondary school that emphasized that each of us as Africans had to find our place and serve our communities. We were taught that ordinary people could bring change in the lives of our people. In my early twenties I worked in economically poor communities. I would see families living in metal shacks built on sand dunes, cooking over a fire, and yet their kids walked to school with spotless white shirts. I always thought I would never be able to do that if I were them. So there is something in me that has such confidence in who Africans are and their solutions.
Loom brings these pieces together. We have hands-on experience among our staff in the organization, but we don’t bring our ideas for other people to facilitate. We know we would be less effective: they are experienced, innovative, know their communities better, and are more contextualized. But something happens when we work together. Our secret sauce is seeing people, seeing the potential of what they can do, and being fully committed to seeing them reach their goals. Because their goals are for the wellbeing of their community and we want to see them succeed beyond their wildest dreams. They have laid the foundation and now it is time to take it to scale.
J: What can we celebrate since we announced this last year?
C: I was talking with some partners last week. One of the agricultural projects from Uganda shared, “We now have students from all the leading universities and colleges of Uganda. They are sending us students to train them in leadership and agribusiness.” Our partners in northern Kenya are running training in how to work with children, and the transformation is so strong in this community that government officials have asked, “What are you doing? How did you create this change?”
One of the schools in Tanzania, a small school serving vulnerable kids, came within the top 10 scoring in the national exams. Another school among the Maasai people, nomadic people, this is the first generation that has gone to school. This year the first group will enter university!
The exciting thing about Thrive Africa is the impact that individual projects are making in their community and in their nations. This strong, real impact that will continue for generations.
J: Thrive Africa is in some ways a new big focus for Loom, and in some ways it is a continuation of the way we have always worked and what we believe in. So what is changing in Loom, and what isn’t changing?
C: Well I can try to give you a list – but in other ways if I’m honest, I have to say that I don’t know, we have never been this way before. What isn’t changing is an utter conviction of truth that God desires all humanity to thrive. Our conviction is also unchanging that we stand with people of power and wonder. They are our partners, and we stand together, we don’t dominate. In the coming years we will potentially be receiving more funding, but money can never be a power tool. We have a commitment and structures in place so that these small projects keep their creative ingenuity and entrepreneurship.
A few things that will change: we will be bringing on new staff with added skill. We will particularly be needing some new roles in the areas of monitoring and evaluation, and we’re thrilled to be able to have more people work with us in multiplying curriculum. We’ll be translating curriculum into more languages, and we’ll have more ability to run capacity training programs in more countries.
J: The theme in this year’s annual report is journeys, seeing dreams come to fruition. You can look back on your own life and also in Loom and see the growth of this dream, this journey. Could you talk about that a little bit more?
C: For me the journey has been a 30 year journey that’s coming into reality. I’ve walked this road since I was an early teen in South Africa, struggling with the injustice of my nation, working hands-on in community development and to see different training across the continent. I’ve seen the people of Africa – we are strong, we are powerful. And when I joined Loom, I was asking the question: what could we do if we worked together and each brought our strength?
At the beginning of Loom’s journey, we went global, bringing training to nearly every continent. But at some point we realized that if we don’t bring this down to a specific time and place within a specific region, and create prototypes, we don’t actually know if it’s effective. We have focused on East Africa since 2016. We have found people of great strength that are doing the work that has the potential to really transform the life of individuals. We’ve come from this global journey, all the way down, to investing strongly in Africa. We believe this is the time, these are the people, this is the space.
It is that real, lasting change. Not a flash in the pan. We talk a lot about sustainability, but it is very hard to achieve. Although start-up capital is essential, in Loom we believe that sustainability comes from human ownership and changed thinking. Transformation will only happen when every human is utterly convinced of a new way to live and to be in their community. That is the focus of Thrive Africa.
J: You just returned from Africa. What would you like to share with us about that time, and what happened there?
C: Every time I visit a project, new ideas burst in my mind and heart. We go on location and to a site. We want to see it, hear it, touch it, get a glimpse of what they do and what their challenges are. The other side of our time is just sitting and spending time with leaders. And every time you are just amazed at the giants of spirit that they are. Seeing the potential of what they could do. Learning about whole areas of their programs you had no idea existed, innovative thinking that we can learn so much from.
Thrive Africa, the funding portion at least, has moved slower than I expected. But what it’s done is shown us that it is the power of people that is the real currency here. When other resources come in, we’ll go to scale. But in the meantime we’re seeing lives changed on a daily basis, in projects across multiple countries. That’s what it’s really all about.