There are no politicians among the newest class of TIME’s Next Generation Leaders—but these are definitely people others can and will follow. Sometimes that means succeeding despite youth, as the Japanese-American rock climber Ashima Shiraishi has, overcoming any obstacle put in her way. Other times it means listening to others, as the water champion Saran Kaba Jones did when she returned to her native Liberia, and discovered that what her people really needed was access to clean water.
That the members of this class are so young only makes their accomplishments so far that much more impressive—and makes the rest of us eager to see what happens next. At a time when the world is suffering what seems like a major leadership deficit—with poll after poll showing discontent with the political leaders in power—there’s something refreshing about a new generation coming to the fore. Given the scale of the problems facing the globe, we need fresh leadership more than ever.
Saran is not one to whine about inadequacies, but rather the type who finds audacious and creative solutions to them. In order to address the problems of contaminated water, she founded Face Africa (www.faceafrica.org), a non-profit organization that provides access to clean and safe drinking water for rural communities in Liberia, using an innovative social enterprise model to fund water projects. Today Face Africa provides clean drinking water to tens of thousands of Liberians. I caught up with this remarkable Liberian lady via email, where she recounted her journey, professed her undying love for her people, and hinted on her quest for legacy.
Who Is Saran Kaba Jones?
I was born Saran Kaba, on June 21, 1982 in Monrovia, Liberia where I lived until I was 8 years old. I left Liberia in 1989 with my parents and 3 brothers when the civil war broke out. We moved to Cote d’Ivoire where we lived for 2 years with my mother’s family. In 1991, my father was appointed as an Ambassador to the Middle East by the interim government of Liberia led by Amos Sawyer and we moved to Egypt where we lived for 4 years, followed by 2 years in France and another 2 in Cyprus. In 1999, I came to the U.S. to attend Lesley College [in Cambridge, Massachusetts] and transferred during my sophomore year to Harvard College where I studied Government and International Relations. After college, I spent 5 years working in private equity for the Singapore Government’s Economic Development Board, a job I left in August 2010 to focus on FACE Africa full time.
Why did you set up Face Africa? Why are you doing this?
The path that led me to FACE Africa started really when I was a young child. I have always had a strong concern and compassion for others, and have always strived to help whenever possible. From a very young age, I was exposed to a world of diplomacy, travel and community service (my father was a public servant and career diplomat). Born in Liberia, my experiences traveling the world, as well as my time spent living in four different countries (Ivory Coast, Egypt, France and Cyprus), made me certain I wanted to do something internationally that would help people, and specifically my native Liberia – I just never knew what. One thing I did believe was that the most effective way to bring about positive change in Africa and end the cycle of poverty was to invest in the education of its young children.
In 2005, I began sending funds back to Liberia to help a young family friend with his school fees. After two years, he went on to complete high school and enrolled at the University of Liberia where he is currently a student. When I realized just how much of an impact my rather small support had made, I decided to scale up my efforts and dedicated myself to improving the lives of those less fortunate. I had also read Bill Clinton’s book “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World,” a book I highly recommend because it really touches on the power we all have to make the world a better place and give others a chance to live out their dreams. The book inspired me tremendously and made me want to do more – something on a larger scale. In early 2008, I launched FACE Africa… with the goal of providing educational opportunities to children and young adults in Liberia and other war-torn countries.
In October 2008, during my first visit to Liberia in nearly 20 years (I left Liberia years when I was eight years old), I was faced with the harsh realities of a post-conflict Liberia and the enormous challenges facing the country. My visits to various communities, orphanages, markets, clinics, etc exposed me to a cycle of poverty for which I was woefully and naively unprepared. The long and devastating civil war had left Liberia’s infrastructures in ruins – roads, buildings, health clinics, communications networks, schools, farms and factories were almost totally destroyed. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, extreme poverty with average earnings of $1 a day, no electricity, no running water or sewage system, and an inadequate education system, the country had enormous needs.
I left Liberia somewhat depressed and disheartened but also had a new found understanding of the needs and challenges as well as ways in which I could contribute to the rebuilding efforts. One of the areas that I felt needed immediate attention was the water and sanitation issue. The war destroyed major water points and water systems, forcing millions of Liberians to go without access to clean and safe drinking water and proper sanitation facilities.
In October 2009, with a $10,000 grant from the Davis Project for Peace [a Vermont-based charity], we began implementing our first clean water project in Barnesville, Liberia. The project involved the installation of a water purification system capable of producing up to 20,000 liters of drinking water per day and currently supplies over 600 residents with clean drinking water. Exactly one year later, we broke ground on a water and sanitation project in a small rural community called Joezohn with no access to safe drinking water or sanitation facilities. The project was implemented in partnership with Concern Worldwide [an international humanitarian organization based in Ireland] and funded with the help of a $20,000 grant we received from the Chase Community Giving Program.
What do you hope to achieve with Face Africa in the long term?
The world water crisis is one of the largest public health issues of our time, causing 2 million deaths every year. In Liberia alone, millions of people do not have access to clean water and sanitation facilities. At FACE Africa, we believe that providing clean and safe drinking water is the first step to breaking the cycle of extreme poverty. We have an ambitious yet simple goal: clean, safe drinking water for EVERY SINGLE person in Liberia! And once we have accomplished that goal, we plan to target other African countries, with an emphasis on post conflict environment with similar challenges and needs as Liberia.
Your organization is called ‘Face Africa,’ but you seem to be focused on Liberia. Do you have any future plans of expanding and reaching out to other parts of Africa?
We figure we can have the greatest impact by focusing on one country at a time and have selected to focus on Liberia. Liberia only recently emerged from 14 years of civil war which left it a collapsed state: 80% unemployment; extreme poverty with average earnings of $1 a day; no electricity, landlines; running water; or sewage system. According to a recent CDC report, a necessary starting point in rebuilding the country is to provide access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. Improving water quality is therefore our first line of attack.
How long has Face Africa existed? What are your most pleasant memories in all the time you’ve run the organization?
FACE Africa is a very young organization and we obtained our non-profit status in January of 2009. We began operations in Liberia later that year. Since 2009, we have raised close to $250,000 and by the end of this year, will implement enough clean water projects to benefit over 10,000 people in Liberia.
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There’s nothing more pleasant or fulfilling than seeing the smiles on the faces of women and children who no longer have to travel miles every day to fetch contaminated water and can now drink water without worrying about getting sick from it. Seeing the look of pride on the faces of the community residents who were involved in the entire process of implementation warms my heart. Hearing from parents about how their children no longer complain of stomach problems is also a highlight of my work.
How do you raise funds for the organization?
We raise funds through three main avenues: 1) Online donations through our website using Paypal or credit cards, 2) Annual fundraising events throughout the year with our main fundraising event being the Annual Gala held every March to commemorate World Water Day. You can read more here. 3) Through small corporate and foundation grants such as those we received from the Davis Project for Peace, the Chase Community Giving Program and the Global Neighborhood Fund. Donors can get more information about our work via our website or contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also read about other ways to get involved with FACE Africa here.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by my generation! A community of smart, ambitious, socially conscious young men and women who believe they have the power to change the world and make it a better one. Being a part of this dynamic group of young people who share my interests, passions and beliefs is the most inspiring thing ever. Feeling like I am part of a movement encourages me to push myself harder to make my contribution to this community really count. I’ve become a better and more creative person in the process and I have my generation to thank for it. I hope to also inspire other young people to work towards leaving our world a bit better than we met it.