As I reflect, there are so many achievements that I am proud of in the years since Seeds of Africa’s establishment in 2008. We have built and trained an incredible team whose talent matches their passion for the impactful work that we do. Together, we have fought for a voice in the global development field, advocating for locally-led African organizations like ours that center the community first.
Although it is impossible to express my gratitude for what has been my life’s greatest privilege and true labor or love, I have to thank every person who funded us without restrictions, supported us, worked with us, believed in our vision, and contributed to bringing my dreams to fruition. I am eternally grateful to everyone who nurtured my talents as a leader, cheered on my successes, and encouraged me in difficult times. I want to thank my family for supporting all my wild ideas over the years, especially my brother Anteneh Worku who was my co-founder, mentor, and first funder. To my mother Genet Damtew, who housed our first program in her backyard and facilitated our establishment in Ethiopia, and still hosts every Seeds volunteer at her home for lavish lunches and dinners, I cannot thank you enough for your unconditional love and support.
Most of all, thank you to the families in Adama that trusted an unknown organization with a vision to transform the lives of children and women in the community. They allowed us to pilot our program in 2008 and stuck with us, learning and growing together.
When I embarked on a mission to establish a nonprofit, I could have never predicted what a fulfilling journey it would be. Despite our limited resources, Seeds of Africa has accomplished so much due to everyone’s passion, dedication, goodwill, and hard work. Seeds has always been (and will be!) greater than the sum of its parts.
There is joy in resilience.
Last year was Seeds of Africa’s most challenging year yet, a time of deep sorrow met with unwavering resolve. Fighting for our survival made us celebrate our wins even harder. Through tireless work from our teams in Ethiopia and New York, we mobilized together to innovate effective solutions to continue our work despite a crippling funding shortage. We had to make several difficult yet strategic decisions when faced with an operating budget of less than half of that of the previous years. The process of cutting our U.S. operational costs began with me forgoing my salary while continuing to lead until the end of 2020 in order to preserve resources. I also had the bittersweet task of preparing incoming leadership for my transition out of executive leadership.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the financial sustainability of nonprofit organizations across the U.S. and around the world; 60% of nonprofits have experienced destabilizing threats to long-term financial stability. Despite being the centers of emergency support during moments of crisis, very little funding is being made to small and medium organizations that rely on donations to operate.
For Seeds, the pandemic exacerbated an already complex funding landscape characterized by the difficulties I encountered as an African, Black, immigrant woman raising philanthropic dollars in the U.S. Although there is undeniable evidence of racial biases and inequitable funding in philanthropy—only 5% of African development funding goes to African-led organizations—I often felt like I was personally failing at raising enough resources for Seeds to expand. Imposter syndrome is often marketed as personal affliction, but it’s really a manifestation of systemic injustices that can’t quite be put into words, but are deeply felt. When I realized that the system was failing us, I used my voice to advocate for the decolonization of philanthropy and fight for African nonprofit leaders navigating the visible and invisible funding barriers placed before them.
Why I Started Seeds
I founded Seeds of Africa because I believed in the power of bottom-up, community-driven solutions for sustainable development. I knew that building high impact programs relied on listening to the community to understand their problems and needs. I quickly became disillusioned by how much international non-governmental organizations, enabled by global philanthropy, were failing communities like the one I was raised in by implementing prescriptive development solutions that did not acknowledge or support indigenous knowledge.
I vowed to build a model that could serve as an example of the power of equity-centered social impact for the empowerment of disadvantaged communities. Our Seeding Education program was established in 2008 as an after school program, but quickly evolved into a full-time school which offers education, health and nutrition services for free because the mothers of our students advocated for one. Then in 2015, Seeds became a grantmaker; a provider of financial resources that those mothers needed to start, sustain and scale community-based small businesses. Within a year of supporting businesses from animal herding, and injera baking, hairdressing to metal welding, we would visit our families and see the fruits of a 50% increase in household incomes; new roofs, home extensions, new cooking infrastructure, and most of all, happy and healthy children.
As a grantmaker, Seeds of Africa offered unrestricted funding, and the only criteria for a loan were the desire to become an entrepreneur, a business plan, and small business training which we provided at no cost. Our strategy reflected what I wanted to change about the systemic barriers to funding that Black women face in every field, including my own.
What’s next for me?
I want to be a part of the solution to the problems that almost broke Seeds apart, and help fund organizations like Seeds in the future. I am excited to announce my appointment as the Africa-based Co-CEO of The African Visionary Fund, where I will be supporting African visionaries with the resources they need to innovate bold ideas and maximize their social impact. I want to ensure that other young African leaders have access to unrestricted funding for locally-led organizations, and continue my mission of fighting for equity and diversity in philanthropy. I am honored to serve alongside Katie, whose experience in global giving compliments my lived experiences as an African social entrepreneur. My goal has always been to fight poverty in Africa and to create opportunities for Africans to realize their fullest potential. I view my mission at AVF as an extension of my work with Seeds of Africa.
The Seeds legacy lies in shaping future leaders.
I will always be closely involved with Seeds, as a board member and a staunch advocate for our unique, multi-dimensional approach to poverty alleviation. My departure as CEO should be celebrated, and not feared. I am thrilled to be passing on the baton of leadership to Bereket Yirgu and Jazmil Genao, two Seeds team members who have both been key decision-makers for the last five years. Seeds’ values center on empowerment and investing in people, and I am excited to see Bereket and Jazmil take the reins and lead Seeds into the future.
With love and gratitude,