Dianne Calvi is our guest on Be Your Change podcast. She has taken the challenge to fight against abject poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“We achieved a really important milestone this year, which is 1 million people lifted out of extreme poverty. So it’s been really exciting to be on this journey and to see the impact on the lives of the people that we’re serving.”

Who is Dianne Calvi?

Dianne Calvi is the CEO of Village Enterprise. She started the non-profit in 2010. So far, she has grown the organization from 13 employees to now 200. Over time she has also helped more than 1 million people transition out of extreme poverty. Village Enterprise works towards achieving the United Nations’ first sustainable development goal…to end extreme poverty by 2030. And the UN defines extreme poverty as people living on less than one dollar and 25 cents a day. As of last year, more than half of the world’s population living in extreme poverty is located in sub-Saharan Africa…and that is who Village Enterprise works with.

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Dianne with some of the women entrepreneurs she works with (PHOTO: Courtesy)

Who does Village Enterprise work with to reduce extreme poverty?

We work with mostly women, first-time entrepreneurs living in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. This we do by providing them with all the resources to start small, sustainable businesses and savings groups. We do that through a poverty graduation approach. This involves providing the seed capital in the form of a grant instead of loans. After that, we provide them with really extensive training and mentoring by a local business mentor. We also help them form savings groups and help them get access to formal financial institutions.

By doing that, we really transform both the household and the community, lifting them out of extreme poverty. We see improvement in nutrition, and household savings, education and healthcare. We also see changes in subjective wellbeing, like better mental health, increased standing in the community, greater agency and empowerment.

You know when women are empowered and have access and control over financial resources, they invest in their children. And that is going to have a transformative impact for generations to come.

Where does your inspiration to help people living in extreme poverty and particularly women in Sub-Saharan Africa, come from?

The United Nations set out to achieve some really ambitious goals around poverty, women’s empowerment, the environment, and food security. Statistics show that extreme poverty numbers are higher for women than men in Sub-Saharan Africa; 127 women aged 25-34 live in extreme poverty for every 100 men. More than half (56%) of urban women and girls live in slum conditions. They lack at least one of the following: access to clean water, improved sanitation facilities, durable housing, and sufficient living area. And yet these are important because to really have a better world for all, all people need to be able to access education, healthcare services and be able to lift themselves out of poverty.

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The World Bank’s impression of the state of extreme poverty in Sub Saharan Africa (PHOTO: Courtesy/ World Bank)

And so the United United Nations set some really ambitious goals and the number one being to end extreme poverty. There have been some really significant trends in the last 20 years in the area of poverty. And one of them is that the rate of extreme poverty has come down significantly. But there are still over 400 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa living in extreme poverty. And that’s been the area of the world where it’s been most difficult, addressing this in this goal. And that’s why Village Enterprise has chosen to focus on Sub-Saharan Africa.

Can you explain where Sub-Sahara is in Africa and what the situation is regarding extreme poverty?

Sub-Saharan Africa is south of the Sahara desert and Africa and it’s a really vast area. It includes 46 out of the 54 countries in Africa and is the less developed part of Africa economically. But it’s a really rich area in terms of resources and culture and very diverse in terms of culture. So we work in Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But it is our goal to work in at least four to five additional Sub-Saharan African countries In the next three years.

That’s a big goal! So it sounds like you have very big ambition for Village Enterprise?

Yeah, we do have really big ambitions. So as I mentioned, we have transformed the lives of over a million people. And it’s our goal to raise that number to around 20 million by 2030.

I’ve heard that when we get women out of extreme poverty, they may reinvest up to 70% of their earnings in the community and in their children. Do you think this is correct, from your experience at Village Enterprise?

Yeah, that’s, that is indeed the case that we see with our women business owners. When women have income from their businesses, one of the first things they do is they make sure their children are going to school. They pay the school fees and get them the school uniforms.

Women are especially making sure that their girl children are able to go to school. Oftentimes in Africa, the boys are the ones that go to school, and girls are left out.

The women are also investing in nutrition for their families. The children are eating more meals a day and more protein and we know that when children have better nutrition, it has an impact for the rest of their lives. So this is really breaking the cycle of extreme poverty by ensuring that children have healthy brain development or going to school and realizing their potential.

Based on a United Nations Women report, 15 million girls of primary-school age will never get the chance to learn to read or write compared to 10 million boys. And 48.1% of adolescent girls are more likely to be out of school than adolescent boys – 48.1%, compared to 43.6%.

Do you have a success story that you would like to share with us?

Sure! There are so many. In my last visit to the field, I went up to the Bidi Bidi Refugee Camp in Northern Uganda, one of the world's largest refugee camps. Over a million people are living in this area of Northern Uganda. They have come from mostly South Sudan, but also from the DRC. At the camp, I met a woman, Salome, and she told me her story of having to leave her homeland. She doesn’t know where her husband is and she had already lost one child. Salome had to walk for two months, with her seven children, aged between 1 and 10, carrying her one year old on her back the whole time. They kept walking, not knowing where their next meal would come from, not knowing where they would find water. It is just hard to imagine as a mother what that would be like.

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An aerial view of Bidi Bidi Refugee Camp in Uganda. (PHOTO: Courtesy/ Drone nerds)

On arriving at the Bidi Bidi Refugee Camp, they received provisions; some rice and some oil, and a tent for her and her seven children to sleep in. But no way to really make their lives better. And, you know, this sense of hopelessness, the sense of loss, and extreme poverty stayed with them. So when Village Enterprise came to the refugee camp, uh, she was really excited to participate in our program.

So how did you involve Salome with Village Enterprise?

Salome started receiving mentoring and training first. She had never run a business before and she said it was so empowering to her to gain these skills. Salome was also happy to participate in the savings group with other women. She formed a business group with two other women and decided to start a butchery business because there was no meat available in the camps. They used the seed capital to buy their first goats and they started running a successful butchery business.

And when I asked Salome about what was so empowering about this, she said, “Someday I hope to go back to South Sudan and, I won’t be able to bring this business with me. But they can never take away what I’ve learned through the training and my relationship with my business mentor. That’s something I’ll take with me forever.” So you see, it’s not just the ability to start the business, but it’s also all of the knowledge and the skills that they develop and have for the rest of their lives.

Wow, that’s just incredible! And what is the story behind Village Enterprise and how has the journey towards eradicating extreme poverty been so far?

Well, Village Enterprise was started in 1987 by Brian Lenhen and John Hestenes. They started it because they were really moved by the extreme poverty conditions that they saw when they visited Africa and wanted to make a difference. It was run for many years primarily as a volunteer organization, working through church communities.

Some women from Orkweswa village are direct beneficiaries of Village Enterprise. (PHOTO/ Courtesy)

When I came on board, I was the first outside CEO hired by the organization in 2010. When the board was interested in transitioning the organization from a primarily volunteer-run organization to a more professional organization. And really scaling up the impact that the organization had. So we’ve grown the organization from 13 employees when I started to close to 200 employees now. This year, we achieved a really important milestone, which is 1 million people lifted out of extreme poverty. So it’s been really exciting to be on this journey and see the impact on the lives of the people we’re serving. And we’re starting over 4,800 businesses and training over 13,000, 16, 13,000, 600 new entrepreneurs.

So that is about Village Enterprise. What about you? What was your journey that led you to this world of social entrepreneurship?

Well, I’ve always been involved with helping vulnerable and marginalized people since I was a child. I was always doing volunteer work with low-income communities, tutoring, working in homeless shelters. And I was born severely pigeon-toed and spent the first few years of my elementary school years in heavy metal braces and corrective shoes. I was ostracized as a child because of that. And as a result, I think I’ve always identified with people that have been ostracized or marginalized.

And Im fortunate that I grew up in a family that really valued community service and encouraged me. From the time I was like eight years old, I was helping tutor kids and, and was part of a volunteer organization. And so I’ve done that all my life. I received an MBA, so I went into the private sector for several years and worked for high tech companies like Microsoft. But I decided about 15 years ago that I really wanted to focus my career on the nonprofit sector. So I became the president of an early literacy organization about 15 years ago. I really enjoyed applying all the skills that I had developed in the nonprofit sector and the knowledge that I had acquired in the for-profit sector.

So I really feel nonprofits should be run like businesses, where we really need to focus on impact and efficiency and cost-effectiveness. And I think having experienced running businesses in the for-profit sector has really helped to inform the way I run Village Enterprise. As I mentioned, I was recruited in 2010 to run Village Enterprise and it’s just been an extraordinary journey.

I have seen many women come forward to help other women out of extreme poverty in my work. What’s your take on women leaders?

Yeah, I think what’s really exciting to see is women increasingly in positions of power where they can really make a difference. And I think as women, we do lead differently. I think women are more likely to empower others and provide opportunities for everyone in the organization to assume leadership positions. Women, I think, are more sensitive to issues around how the most marginalized are treated. And using a much more human-centered design approach, really getting to know the needs of the community. They also have less of a ‘we-know-what's-best-for-you’ and instead work with and listen to the community.

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Women empower women. (PHOTO/ Courtesy)

And I think what women also do is empower other women. So currently, four out of five of my C-suite leaders are women. And 75% of the managers in the organization are women. Uh, we really value, um, leadership at all levels, um, and, and look to women, uh, to be those leaders in the organization.

Lately, there has been an important societal shift towards impact investing in 2020. The younger generation is really questioning the companies they are working for and the impact companies have. There is also a really big kind of movement of people who want to align their values, personal values with their work.

Well, I think it just depends on the individuals. So I don’t think that there’s one solution. I think clearly working in a nonprofit is the most direct way to have an impact. You get to experience it every day and work with other people that are mission-driven. And so it’s just very satisfying. But I think if you can’t work in a nonprofit, you can volunteer. You can start a social enterprise or a for-profit organization that has a positive impact. Similarly, within a for-profit company, you can bring these types of values to the for-profit environment and help shift the mindset of for-profit companies from within. And I think all of those are very valuable and will help, you know, this social shift in a positive direction.

How can people who would like to support your mission can contact you?

Well, like all nonprofits, we rely on donor funding to do our work of lifting people out of extreme poverty. So we always appreciate donations from people that are interested in helping others help themselves. And we also look to getting the word out about the work that we do. The more people who know about the impact of this kind of work, the better in terms of promoting this type of work.

And then we have a very small need for volunteers. Our work is community-based, so we hire people from those communities and we don’t really have a huge need for volunteers in the field. But we do use volunteers to do things like providing us with legal services, accounting services and marketing services. So there are volunteers that help us every day and we really appreciate them as well.


Sidenote from the author

Talking to Dianne was a rewarding moment. What strikes me the most is her impact on so many lives and her driving desire to align her values and work life. It also brought me back to my childhood. I used to live in Niger when I was 10. Thinking back to this time, I realized how difficult it was for me to navigate poverty. Meeting girls my age, who were poor and didn’t have much. It seemed unfair. I wish I had more help to make sense of it if you can ever make sense of poverty. I remember feeling powerless because I wanted to help and I didn’t know-how. And I now believe that my role is to help amplify the impact of women like Dianne on society because they know how to make a difference and support them!

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To Learn More

  • United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
  • Extreme poverty currently measures to people living on less than $1.25/day
  • 736 million people live in extreme poverty…but this website measures it as less than 1.90/a day. More than half of that number live in sub-Saharan Africa (413 million people)
  • Since 1990 (so 20 years), a quarter of the world has risen out of extreme poverty and now less than the world’s population lives in extreme poverty
  • As boys and girls get older, the gender gap in poverty widens further. Marriage, divorce, separation and widowhood also affect the poverty of men and women differently. Girls and boys who are married before 18 see higher poverty rates than those who are married later.