In 2003, Greg Jenks, then the pastor of a church outside Raleigh, traveled with some other North Carolina Methodists to Zimbabwe, where he met an orphaned 15-year-old girl and her three younger brothers.
The girl showed Jenks the small amount of food she had in her home. “It’s enough to last until Saturday, and after that, we’ll just die,” she told Jenks, as he recounted in an article published two years later.
Jenks was so moved by the encounter that he created Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor, or ZOE. Zimbabwe and other African nations had been devastated by the AIDS epidemic, which left tens of millions of children without parents.
In 2005, ZOE Ministry fed 8,000 children in Zimbabwe and provided clothes for another 1,500. It seemed like success.
Jenks traveled the U.S. to share ZOE’s story and ask for support to expand the ministry. ZOE hired a social worker in Rwanda named Epiphanie Mujawimana as a consultant.
She told ZOE they were going about it all wrong.
Mujawimana had worked for well-known relief organizations that provided food and medicine in central Africa. Those efforts may give temporary relief, she said, but they did little to help poor people in the long run. They often became dependent on the same groups that wanted them to be independent.
She said there was a better way. Then she proved it.
This story is about that better way.
Exploited and Abused
In February, I joined a group from North Carolina that traveled to Rwanda for a week to see how the organization now known as Zoe Empowers operates. Zoe started as a church mission, but is now a Raleigh-based nonprofit operating in eight countries. Our group represented two churches that support Zoe financially; we paid for our airfare and expenses.
We talked with 25 young adults who have participated in the three-year program that Mujawimana developed to train orphaned children ages 12 to 20 to run small businesses. They learn a trade, basic bookkeeping, and how to open a bank account. Each participant is asked to present three business ideas to their peers for comment.
Most of the young adults we met had already graduated; some are still receiving training. All were effectively orphaned, by death or abandonment. Almost all of them have younger siblings who they support financially.
Many of them were once beggars—“street kids,” as they referred to themselves. They once scrambled to survive day to day, picking up work where they could. They were exploited, underpaid, abused, and scorned.
Through Zoe, they learned to become tailors, hair cutters, bakers, beverage makers, farmers, canteen operators, retailers, and motorcycle taxis. They have savings accounts. They’ve been able to buy livestock, a path to building wealth in Rwanda. They pay for clothes for their siblings so they can attend school.
Almost all stay connected to their Zoe friends, which provides a network of allies and advice. Many of them are business partners, helping each other expand their enterprises.
Emmanuel Ntakirumana, 23, is a Zoe grad who owns an animal-supply shop in a rural part of southern Rwanda. He sells food for livestock, as well as vitamins, medicine, insecticides, and sprayers. When we visited, he wore a blue smock over a red polo shirt buttoned at the top, jeans, and white sneakers.
His parents died when he was 6. “I was angry with everybody,” he said through a translator (most Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda). He begged for food and did odd jobs.
He’d always been interested in animals, and there was not a one-stop shop in his village for everything needed to raise livestock. He noted that he used to work for people who now come to him to keep their animals healthy and fed. That kind of transformation is the essence of Zoe’s mission, which has gained the attention of other groups that do similar work.
“Zoe’s empowerment program is the way of the future,” said Wayne Lavender, a Methodist minister and executive director of Connecticut-based Foundation 4 Orphans. “It’s a brilliant model that we’re pivoting to 100 percent as quickly as we can.” His group is closing its three orphanages in Mozambique, reconnecting the children with family, and adopting Zoe’s model.
Mujawimana was at the center of Zoe’s transformation from relief to empowerment. Her own life started as a hungry child; her father died when she was a child, and her mother was disabled and could not work. Her professional experience in providing aid taught her that good intentions are not enough.
The kind of questions Mujawimana raised as she evaluated the early work of Zoe and other aid groups can be difficult and complicated. Their answers can be painful. Most everyone involved in this line of work is trying to do the right thing, and many are motivated by deeply held spiritual convictions.
In the end, though, Mujawimana’s questions boil down to this: What’s the best way to help someone?
When Helping Hurts
The dirty little secret about charitable efforts to help poor people is that they often are not effective. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert described the challenges of lifting people out of poverty in their 2009 book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself.
Corbett and Fikkert work for a Georgia-based nonprofit that focuses on economic development, and helps churches minister to poor people in the U.S. and abroad. They urge churches, donors, and nonprofits to rethink how they give aid to the poor, and focus instead on building their capacity to support themselves.
John M. Perkins, a civil rights leader, minister, and community developer, has endorsed their work. “The reality is that you may have done considerable harm to poor people in the very process of trying to help them,” Perkins wrote in the foreword to When Helping Hurts.
Robert Lupton covered similar ground in his 2011 book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).
“The food we ship to Haiti, the well we dig in Sudan, the clothes we distribute in inner-city Detroit—all seem like such worthy efforts,” wrote Lupton, who worked in urban ministry and economic development in Atlanta for more than 40 years.
“Yet those closest to the ground … quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping. How? Dependency. Destroying personal initiative. When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.”
The authors distinguish between emergency aid after a disaster, when it’s helpful and perhaps lifesaving to provide food, clothes, and shelter, and ongoing aid, when it’s harmful to give things to able-bodied people who are capable, when trained, of fending for themselves.
Aid from wealthy countries has especially hurt sub-Saharan African nations by making them dependent instead of building their economies, said Dambisa Moyo, an economist and native of Zambia.
“Millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but have increased,” she wrote in her 2009 book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is A Better Way For Africa.
Moyo derided celebrity fundraisers as misguided; her book title jabbed at the Live Aid concerts of 1985 that raised money to fight famine in Ethiopia. She said aid has choked off desperately needed investment, and caused rampant and systematic corruption. The mistake the West made, Moyo wrote, was giving something for nothing.
She supports micro-loans and other policies that help entrepreneurs. In this, she is broadly aligned with the other authors. Lupton advocates for several principles, including never doing for the poor what they can do for themselves; empowering them through lending and investing; and listening closely to those you seek to help.
It was these principles that Ephiphanie Mujawimana embraced when she revamped Zoe.
A Desire for Independence
Mujawimana, 58, is modest and soft spoken. She’s lived her entire life in Rwanda (she has visited North Carolina to talk about Zoe’s work). After her father died, she supported herself in part by growing and selling vegetables.
When she was an adult and saw Rwandan orphans and other children being exploited, she thought how much better it would be if they could work for themselves. “I think every human being wants to be independent,” she told me in English, as we sat in the lobby of a hotel in Kigali, the capital city.
In 1994, Rwanda was permanently scarred when up to one million people were killed in three months as part of a civil war and genocide. Hutu militias hacked to death, burned alive, or shot members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as moderates of other ethnicities.
In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda was the poorest country in the world, with the highest child mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy at birth.
The country has since made a strong comeback in many ways, although President Paul Kagame can be ruthless in limiting dissent. In late March, Rwanda released from prison Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the movie Hotel Rwanda, two years after a trial and conviction that drew international condemnation.
Mujawimana worked for a group that found homes for orphaned children by reconnecting them with scattered family members. But she questioned whether traditional relief programs, which distributed food and clothes, did much good in the long term. That included Zoe when she joined it in 2007.
“I wanted to change [Zoe] to give the person the capacity to help themselves,” said Mujawimana. “That breaks the cycle of dependency and poverty.”
Jenks, the founder, and the rest of Zoe’s leadership team embraced Mujawimana’s vision, and moved away from its original model. (Jenks left the organization in 2012.)
When Zoe participants are ready to go into business, the organization provides a grant, typically about $50 to $100 in U.S. money.
For three years, the children join a group of 60 to 90, which includes their younger siblings. Some of them don’t have a place to live; the group decides who gets grants and materials to build a new house. They learn basic hygiene, such as boiling water and keeping dishes clean. They learn how to grow food and raise livestock. They study the Bible.
Mujawimana urges them to let go of any bitterness they have about the past, to forgive those who sneered at them, and to give a hand to others.
In three years or less, the children no longer need Zoe’s support, said CEO Gaston Warner. He’s a Methodist minister with an MBA who attended and worked at Duke Divinity School.
“Everything Epiphanie and her team was doing was so much better than what we were doing,” Warner said. “Epiphanie is a genius at designing the model and leading the program in Rwanda.”
When the children start the program, they’re subject to a tough love that can be difficult for them and the staff. We met with five children just starting. They were scared, for themselves and their siblings. They wanted to be hugged. They sometimes are hungry. Zoe doesn’t give them food, other than perhaps lunch during a training session.
Mujawimana recalled a participant from 2007, when she first started Zoe’s empowerment program. A young man seemed particularly downtrodden. She reached in her pocket to give him some money. Then she stopped herself.
From Boy to Boss
Rwanda is a small, hilly country of 13 million people located just south of the equator. It has four provinces. We started by traveling to the Northern Province, near the border of Uganda, where we met Providence Ntirushwamaboko, 21. Like most of the Zoe grads we interviewed, he lives in a small village on a dirt road, several miles off a paved, two-lane highway.
He told us he once was a drug user and dealer. “My life was in danger,” he said.
Now he wears a baker’s cap and makes doughnuts, frying them in a pan over a wood fire, and selling them in a nearby hut that he leases. He chose making doughnuts because he thought he would enjoy it, and there was no one else in the village doing it. Zoe asks the participants to think about what is the unmet need in their community.
He was eager to talk about his transformation. Like many of the Zoe grads, Ntirushwamaboko has a side hustle, raising and selling fruit, vegetables, and livestock. He said he makes enough money to support his three young siblings, who are in school.
Most of the Zoe participants tell a story similar. Jean Marie Murwanashyaka, 30, graduated in 2012. He’s an expert wood carver, and owns a shop that sells carvings of native animals and historical and religious figures. His shop is in Huye, an academic center with massive churches.
“I was just a boy, and now I am a boss,” he said. He’s married, has a son, and lives in a house with electricity (only half of Rwandans have access to electricity).
“Sometimes,” he said, “I think I am dreaming.”
In a small salon in the Southern Province, Brigitte Iraharikiza, 21, trimmed the hair of a young boy. She also cuts women’s hair in the narrow, three-chair shop that she rents and shares with another Zoe graduate. Each class of Zoe graduates becomes like its own chamber of commerce. “They taught us how to work together as a group,” she said.
The young women often describe another dimension to being orphaned. When they were poor and desperate, several of them said teenage boys offered them money for sex.
Monique Muhawenayezu, 20, said her parents left for Uganda, leaving her to care for her six younger siblings. She said that she turned down the sex-for-money offer, but that it was difficult to say no to the money.
She started earning money by buying bananas from farmers and selling them in the village market. Now she sells bananas, potatoes, and ginger tea from a small hut. She leases land for farming and owns six sheep. She and her siblings eat three times a day.
“It was hard for me to get money [in the beginning], but now I am finally stable,” she said.
Most Zoe participants do not attend school. They stopped going when they became orphans. Then they became busy with their businesses, which typically produce enough revenue to support their younger siblings, who attend school. This support of their siblings is a point of pride for many of the Zoe graduates, some of whom eventually do attend college.
There’s another important aspect to these stories—not rags to riches (yet) but rags to respect. Many of them are now seen as community leaders, and some have hired others to work for them.
Gad Niyonkuru, 22, a haircutter who gave me a trim, employs two young adults who cut hair in a nearby village. He said he’s learned “how to be a man of value.”
The Zoe grads have status in the village, and that matters to them—a lot.
“I was a burden to the community,” said Jean Claude Bizimana, 22, who makes and sells a nonalcoholic sorghum beverage, which is hearty and popular. “I used to steal their food. Now I have value in my community.”
Zoe is proud of the work it does. It says more than 95 percent of its graduates are self-sufficient, and that it has empowered more than 160,000 people in eight countries (Rwanda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Liberia, Tanzania, Mozambique, and India) since 2007.
It’s been accredited or recognized by groups that monitor nonprofits for transparency, accountability, and sustainability. In 2021, it served 50,000 children at an annual cost of $89 per child, which is low compared to running an orphanage or providing direct aid.
Its U.S. administrative costs are 13 percent of its budget; the rest of the money is spent in the eight countries on staff and grants to start businesses.
Lavender, the executive director of Foundation 4 Orphans, said Zoe might sound too good to be true. But after visiting Zimbabwe and Mozambique to observe it, he and his board are all in.
Every organization has its soft spot, or at least something it could improve. Warner, the CEO, said Zoe tweaks its program constantly, but he said those suggestions come from the participants and local staff, not from the American employees.
The leader of our trip, Debbie Breit, a member of Duck Church on the Outer Banks, has traveled to Rwanda eight times to observe the program, gather video, and report back to her church, where she worked until recently.
She’s a big fan. She said it was vital the program be run by natives. People who work in international philanthropy often make this point, but it’s easier said than done.
Americans typically want to control the operation they are funding; they want to do it their way on their schedule. Which is one of the many reasons why American-led relief efforts often are not successful. Zoe’s effectiveness turned when it hired Mujawimana.
“She should be the person of the year in the world,” Breit said. “She’s smart. She does have a business sense. But the motivating factor behind it all is she just has a good heart for helping people.”
A Raucous Celebration
In Mamba in the Southern Province, we filed into a building in what Americans would call a community center. It’s a long, narrow, low-ceilinged brick building with a flat roof and a cement floor. A long row of barred windows, which were swung open on this warm day, allowed light and a breeze from the building’s front side.
More than 100 Zoe participants and their siblings were there to greet us, fidgeting in their chairs. They were wired, bubbling with excitement and nervous energy. Mamba doesn’t get many visitors from the other side of the world. They knew that our churches have supported Zoe financially.
We were seated at tables on a platform at one end of the room, elevated about a foot off the floor. The Zoe grads and their siblings sang, danced, and gave us gifts. Every time there was applause, which was often, a drummer pounded a few beats for emphasis.
They heard a speech from Eugene Manirarora, the executive secretary of Mamba, which is like being the county manager.
Manirarora, who wore a tan Polo-brand long-sleeve, button-up shirt, told them how good and neat their clothes looked. He said their achievements inspired him.
“What I like is to empower youth,” Maniraroa, a former teacher, told me. “It’s not easy to move people from dependency to working hard. They’ve trained them very well.”
The Zoe grads put on a skit about how they’ve changed. The translator had trouble keeping up, but it didn’t matter. We got the idea. There was abundant laughter, a lot of hugging, and a cacophony of joyful noise. Our visit turned into a raucous celebration of their transformation.
“Most of us were street kids!” the ebullient emcee, Anastase Shyaka, 22, shouted into a microphone. “Now look at us!”
People used to look away from them. But with smarts and determination, and with the guidance of a visionary woman, they’ve gone from beggar to boss, from outcast to leader, from suffering to pride. The street kids have risen.