In January 2010, we featured Saran Kaba Jones as our Ladybrille Woman of the Month. We have featured many women in the span of five years as our women of the months. All have been very unique and inspiring. For 2013, there was just “something” about Saran Kaba Jones that made us know we had to have her featured, again, on Ladybrille. She is our first Ladybrille Woman with the honor of being featured twice as Woman of the Month.
Speaking of the “something” that made us know we had to have Saran grace us with her presence, again, that something might have to do with the fact that Saran has managed to keep her non-profit organization (FACE Africa) providing clean water in Liberia afloat till now. This, by itself, is a very tough thing to do without much staff and financial backing. For those who have never met Saran, we think her bio culled from the Face Africa is a perfect introduction. Enjoy and enjoy the interview.
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.
In October 2008, during my first visit to Liberia in nearly 20 years, 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 and in partnership with Clean Water for Kids, 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.
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 Liberia and funded with the help of a $20,000 grant from the Chase Community Giving Program.
This was just the beginning of an ambitious yet simple goal: clean, safe drinking water for EVERY SINGLE person in Liberia
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Saran, exactly three years ago, we introduced you to our audience as our woman of the month. You were preparing for the first ever FACE Africa GALA, you were excited about your non-profit FACE Africa and providing clean water in Liberia. Fast-forward today and we are here to catch up with all that you have done. Before we begin, how are you?
Saran Kaba Jones: I am well thank you Uduak and the entire Ladybrille team! I’m truly honored to be Ladybrille’s Woman of the Month and so grateful for the opportunity and spotlight. It has been an incredible ride since we last talked and as a matter of fact FACE Africa is exactly 4 years old this month! We were incorporated as a 501 c 3 in January 2009 and are gearing up for our 4th Clean Water Gala on March 23rd.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I believe I began informing you we wanted you as woman of the month for January 2013 almost 2-3months ago? You are so busy! I wanted to make sure we get you. (Smiles)
You appear to travel so much and do so much. Let me ask you that question that every Ladybrille woman probably gets at one point in her life. How do you manage to do it all, especially the travels?
Saran Kaba Jones: To be honest, I don’t really think about it much. I just know I have a job to do and I do whatever I have to do, to get the job done. I’ve accepted the fact that I signed up for this line of work and knew going in that it would involve a lot of work, time and sacrifice. But anyone who knows me well, knows that I always tend to bet on myself, and have tremendous confidence in my abilities to deliver, no matter how impossible the task. That’s not to say it’s been all smooth sailing. It’s been a long and challenging 4 years, to say the least. Like any start up, the founder usually can’t afford to slack off because everything depends on them.
FACE Africa is still relatively small, and growing with very little funding for a full time staff so that forces me wear many different hats and handle all aspect of day to day operations from web design, grant writing to project management, ideation to launching new projects in Liberia, monitoring and evaluating, reporting to donors, planning events and so on. Traveling is a natural part of this line of work not just to the field but also domestically to network and cultivate relationships with other nonprofit leaders and thinkers, attend industry events, engage constituent communities.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I know you have worked on providing wells, latrines and in Liberia all in this past 12months. However, how about I give you the floor to share with the Ladybrille community some of the highlights of your achievements with FACE Africa since our last interview?
Saran Kaba Jones: Since our last interview three years ago, we’ve achieved a number of things, some of them tangible and others more on the structural aspect of the organization.
First of all, we’ve been able to really narrow our focus to just clean water instead of attempting to solve all of Liberia’s problems, of which there are many! And I think this is a problem that many startups face, whether in the nonprofit or for profit sector, being a Jack of all trades so to speak. It took 2 years for me to realize that running an organization that wanted to tackle education, health, water, gender issues in Liberia was unrealistic and I’d simply be trying to accomplish too much and spreading themselves too thin. I had to say to myself, you can’t do it all, you can’t solve all of the world’s problems. And I came to the realization that in order to succeed, we’d have to narrow our focus, find an area we feel strongly about, find our niche so to speak, and dominate it.
I remember during my first trip back to Liberia in 2008 after almost 20 years, I had seen firsthand how the lack of access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation affected health, economic growth and women and girls’ education advancement. Lack of access to water affected every area of development; children cannot attend school if they are sick from dirty water, and adults suffering from water-borne illnesses overwhelm hospitals and cannot go to work, hours spent looking for and collecting clean water mean hours not spent adding to a family’s economic well-being. It just made sense to champion the clean water issue because it was such a no-brainer.
Water is life and we all need access to clean water to live. So that became our focus. We’ll be great at addressing the clean water crisis in Liberia instead of being mediocre at addressing 4-5 different issues. This was a major accomplishment for me because in the beginning I felt like I was spreading myself too thin trying to create this multi-layered organization and it may sound like a simple task, trying to find your niche but it took us 2 years.
Another achievement is some of the key partnerships we’ve cultivated over the last 2-3 years with donors, foundations, and local development agencies. Partnership and collaboration are critical in development work and building strong, mutually beneficial relationships with key stakeholders critical to our success. Without groups like the Voss Foundation, the Global Neighborhood Fund, and donors that support our Gala, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything.
In terms of tangible achievements, we completed our 10th project in June 2012 and our projects combined have impacted over 5,000 people in Monrovia and its outskirts. Starting this year however, we are embarking on an ambitious new initiative to provide clean water coverage to the entire county of River Cess, one of the poorest and least developed counties in Liberia. We’re calling it our ‘County by County’ commitment and the goal is to construct 250 clean water points which will provide clean water access to over 60,000 people. The plan will cost about $1 million and take place over 3 – 5 years so it’s a huge undertaking.
In recognition of my work with FACE Africa, I was recently appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the county of River Cess, Liberia. In my new role, I will encourage and promote business and philanthropic investments throughout the county, beginning with FACE Africa’s ‘County by County’ Commitment
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You, Saran, have received so many awards and accolades and features in such short while. How does it feel when all of these organizations and people including Forbes seek you out to interview and bestow these awards on you?
Saran Kaba Jones: To be honest I feel a little strange about it and not entirely sure I’m worthy of all of the accolades and awards. Like you said, it’s been only a few years and I’m just at the beginning of my journey with FACE Africa. I say this because my goal is to be a part of the movement that ensures that every single person in Liberia has access to clean water, just like we do here or any developed country. And this will take some time because Liberia is rebuilding from such a terrible past and has such a long way to go. So I know I have my work cut out for me and I have not even scratched the surface of where I know we need to go and what it’s going to take to get there.
However, it is wonderful to be recognized for your hard work and efforts, no matter how small or insignificant. In the last 2 years alone, I was profiled on Forbes.com and also listed as one of their 20 Young Power Women in Africa. I received the 2012 Longines + Town&Country Magazine ‘Women Who Make A Difference” as well as the Applause Magazine ‘Person of the Year” awards. The same year Black Enterprise listed me as one of their 10 International Women of Power to Watch and the Daily Muse listed me as one of 12 Women to Watch.
I recently received a leadership award from the Miss Nigeria in America organization and now, I get to be Ladybrille ‘Woman of the Month” again! I am just beyond grateful and humble by the love and support and hope at the very least it can serve as a source of inspiration to other young women who want to pursue their dreams.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are some of the misconceptions you find people have about you and FACE Africa?
Saran Kaba Jones: People tend to have certain assumptions of me based on my social media profile and think they’ve got me all figured out. Social media can create really superficial vantage points, so I try not to take it too seriously. For example, I end up meeting a lot of my social media friends and followers in person and they are always shocked at how “down to earth” I am. I guess there’s a common misconception is that I am unapproachable or stuck up. And that couldn’t be further from the truth! I always make it a point to notice when people reach out to me and try to be as accessible as I can be, especially with young women who are looking for advise and guidance on how to begin that crucial step of pursuing their dreams and giving back to their communities.
Another common misconception is that I started FACE Africa for the fame and some would even go as far as to say fortune/wealth. And to that I just laugh and shake my head. There are many ways to gain fame and amass wealth, and launching a grassroots nonprofit with no seed funding or major backing and functions on $50,000 to $75,000 a year is not one of those ways.
I’ve come to accept the fact that no matter what you do, what sector you find yourself in, you will always be misunderstood, especially when you start to achieve some level of success, or what looks like success. People will try to undermine you, shame you, discredit you, others will talk behind your back, and even disparage you, without having a single insight into your journey. But, I’m learning to develop a thick skin and not worry too much about what people may or may not think. There are just some things that some people won’t understand until they have walked in your shoes. Trying to convince them otherwise only further depletes your limited time and energy and gets you off track. So, I just ignore and try to focus on the task at hand.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Especially for a non-profit like yours, have you been able to draw interest from the Liberian government in addition to the private sector and individuals that support your work?
Saran Kaba Jones: In terms of general oversight and sector coordination at the national level, yes. We have not received financial support from the Liberian government. Government financing of the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) sector has been weak, and understandably so. For the past 5 to 6 years, less then 1% of total annual government budget was allocated to the WASH sector.
This is in large part a result of there being very little discretionary budget to invest in WASH projects with a lot more funding going towards education and health, both also major casualties of the war. However, President Johnson Sirleaf, who’s actually a Goodwill Ambassador for Water and Sanitation has done a lot to bring WASH issues at the forefront and has prioritize access to water and sanitation. In a message marking World Toilet Day (WTD) in 2011, she pointed out that without an improvement in the WASH Sector, her vision of reaching Liberia to a middle-income status by 2030 cannot be achieved. So I know over the next few years, there will be a lot more investment in the WASH sector and perhaps local organizations will be able to partner with the government and get more support.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Managing a business can be a tough proposition, especially if you intend to set the foundation for a sustainable business model that can operate without you being very hands on. Like many of the Ladybrille women we have interviewed, this is a real challenge as they also try to balance personal with professional pursuits. How have you been able to meet this kind of challenge?
Saran Kaba Jones: It’s a challenge, to juggle the demands of a business and personal life, there’s no question! You want to be a good wife, a good daughter, mother, sister, friend, colleague, etc. In especially in beginning stages, when you have to invest 100% of yourself to ensure your venture succeeds and grows. My line of work involves a lot of networking and relationship building.
And to do that you have to be out there, traveling and attending industry events, engaging potential donors and partners. It’s a lot of work. And to be honest for the first 2 – 3 years, and even to some extent until now, I don’t have much control over the amount of time I have to invest into my work but I’m learning to prioritize. I try to make sure the time I do spend and share with my loved ones are that much more important and I make them count. I’m also getting better at building downtime into my schedule whether it’s date nights with my husband, or long road trips to see our families.
But most importantly, I’ve started to drop activities that sap my time or energy. I try not to waste time on activities or people that add no value to my work or my life. I make sure I take stock of activities that aren’t really enhancing my career or personal life and minimize the time I spend on them. I think also carving out some personal time to engage in something completely unrelated to work, family or friends. Just that “you” time. I recently started hiking and engaging in outdoors activities to try to get my mind, body and soul right. I take about an hour a day to just get outside and clear my mind. It forces me to reflect, relax and rejuvenate until I get back home to the grind.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How are you setting FACE Africa up so that you do not necessarily have to manage its day to day operations for it to stay afloat?
Saran Kaba Jones: This has been one of my biggest challenges and I think a lot of nonprofits that start out with no seed funding face this very same issue as they try to scale and get to that next level. My dream is to grow FACE Africa into a sustainable organization funded with full-time staffing and a full operating budget that will really allow us to scale, build capacity, and be sustainable. Funding that will cover operations and admin costs and allow us to focus on service delivery rather than on the struggle to raise operational funds.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Money is always an issue, especially for non-profits. How have you been able to obtain the necessary and ongoing capital to keep FACE Africa going?
Saran Kaba Jones: The misconceptions in the nonprofit sector are real. People are so fixated with low overhead and administrative costs and put tremendous pressure on nonprofits to send dollars directly to the. I went on a twitter rant about this recently and it’s so sad because donors expect grantees to do more with less. The organization ends up being starved for the resources necessary to actually do the work and deliver results, and ultimately, who suffers? The people you’re trying to serve and impact. How can we be expected to do the work and impact more lives if we’re overworked, underpaid and under constant pressure to operate effectively, when we’re lacking the tools and financial resources to do just that? For example, we work in rural Liberia and try to access to those hard to reach, remote areas that are neglected by traditional NGOs. To get to these areas, at the very least, you need a reliable and strong 4 wheel-drive vehicle. I mean the road conditions in some of these areas are impossible.
How can we get to these areas, if we don’t purchase a vehicle, and how can we allocated funding to purchase said vehicle when all donors want all of the donations to go directly to the field and not towards “overhead?” There are organizations out there that allocate 100% of public donations to programs and I admire those organization who’s managed to do that but it’s so much harder for smaller organizations like ours. People are scared of their donation going into the pocket of a staff person, or paying for their computer, phone or desk but actually an empty building can’t accomplish much. Imagine a hospital without any doctors, a school without teachers, a zoo without zookeepers, or a university without professors? That’s the same as imagining a nonprofit like FACE Africa, without an executive director, programs manager, or WASH technician.
How have we been able to obtain the necessary and ongoing capital to keep FACE Africa going? We haven’t. We’ve been running a little to no operating budget, relying on minimal funding from our fundraising benefits, my personal savings and just plain hope and faith that we’ll catch a break soon. While at the same time looking for funding opportunities that invest in people and organizational capacity.
In 2009 we participated in a voting contest and won a Trust for $30,000 a year for 30 years from a foundation in New York called All for Africa. All for Africa recognizes this need for grassroots nonprofits to focus on building capacity and expanding mission, rather than fundraising, so their plan is to specifically assist nonprofits with their operating and overhead costs. All for Africa is planting one million oil palm trees in Ghana. Once mature, the trees will yield approximately sustainable crude palm oil each year for the next 35 years. FACE Africa’s trees were planted in 2010 and it takes about 3 – 4 years for the trees to mature and start yielding oil. In the next year or 2, if all goes well, we should begin collecting our $30,000 a year Trust payment which will be a tremendous help and huge burden lifted.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: For our fellow community of Ladybrille women and men interested in supporting FACE Africa financially, who should they contact and what kind of accountability should they expect for their investments?
Saran Kaba Jones: Folks interested in getting involved or supporting FACE Africa can do so through our website www.faceafrica.org. There’s a wealth of information on ways to support our work, where and how to make a donation and also how to get in touch with us. As far as accountability, we are trying really hard to make reporting a central part of our work. Making sure that donors know generally where their donation ended up and what kind of impact it had.
For our large donors at the $2,500 level which can rehabilitate a well or $5,000 level to fund a brand new well, we provide a complete and detailed implementation plan and timeline, from when we plan to conduct the site selection, assessment and community engagement, to signing an MOU with our local partner, training of the water and hygiene committees, water quality testing to when the project is completed and turned over to the community. And throughout the process they’re supplied with photos from the field and first hand accounts from the locals. For our small donors, $10 to anything under $1,000, we try to pool all those funds together into one project or towards program and field support.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Do you think the professional woman in an executive or managerial role (the ladybrille woman) can truly have it all? A family and a successful career or is it just an illusion?
Saran Kaba Jones: The age old debate. I think it really depends on what “having it all” means. The term has different meaning for different women. For some, being married or in loving relationship is part of having it all, and for others, that is not a factor at all. For some women I know, having a successful career is on the list and for others, having children is an important factor. Personally, I think yes, we can have it all, just not all at the same time. It’s difficult for women to have complete work/life balance without sacrificing one thing or another. Whether it’s putting their families on hold to focus on their careers or vice versa, there’s no question that women have to make compromises that the men are less likely to have to make. I can’t speak for every woman out there but I know for a fact that I’ll not be able to pull in the kind of time, traveling, and rigid schedule that I do currently when I have kids and spend time raising them.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Has the mission of FACE Africa changed from when we last spoke in 2010?
Saran Kaba Jones: Yes, initially our mission was to identify innovative and effective nonprofit programs and solutions that were working in other places, and replicating those programs in other needy communities to help address some of the most critical needs. So it was a very broad scope because those programs could be in education, in health, women empowerment, gender equality. I had to take a step back and really hone in on one particular area, which as I mentioned above was the clean water cause. It’s one of the many lessons I learned in starting a new venture, don’t try and accomplish a million different things at one time, because even if you do get them all done, they won’t be the best that they could be.
Rather, pick one thing, and be the absolute best at that one thing. So our mission right now is to fund and support sustainable clean water, sanitation and hygiene projects in rural Liberia. We have a particular interest in empowering young girls and women through access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene – giving them the chance to reap the health, economic and educational benefits.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I do not see your presence as much on the fashion scene as I used to. Are you still organizing fashion events for Boston Fashion Week? What fashion projects are you currently involved in?
Saran Kaba Jones: As you know, my best friend Prajje Jean-Baptiste and I came up with Fashion Expose, which was an initiative we started to market and promote fashion in Boston during Boston Fashion Week. The goal really was to provide a platform for local talented designers and to attract well-known brands to Boston with a one of a kind fashion event during Boston Fashion Week. We worked with some great designers like Mataano, David Tlale of South Africa, Samantha Cole and Yemi Osunkoya, both of London and a number of designers from Project Runway including Korto Momolu, a fellow Liberian.
We also worked with some rising star models in the industry and got the opportunity to gain access to top Fashion events nationwide as a result. We ran Fashion Expose successfully for 3 years until it was time to focus on our respective organizations, Prajje on growing his fashion brand, Prajje1983, and of course me on FACE Africa. On a personal level I love fashion and still looking for ways to incorporate that love into my work with FACE Africa. I’ve had some great discussions with a few designers and buyers who are interested in working with women in Liberia but nothing has materialized yet.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What next for Saran Kaba Jones?
Saran Kaba Jones: A baby. Starting a family.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What is the one thing you wish most people knew about you?
Saran Kaba Jones: That I’m somewhat of an introvert. Which may surprise a lot of people, especially because of my line of work and how seemingly social I am. And that’s not to say I’m anti-social, far from it. But I prefer limited and short social interactions and I cherish quieter, more intimate gatherings with people I feel comfortable and at home with.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I like asking the philosophical questions because I have found that our value systems very much drive and have a big influence on our success. How do you define success for yourself Saran?
Saran Kaba Jones: I really do believe I have an implicit reason for being here, that I have a purpose, a gift and an opportunity. What that purpose is I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to find out, but I know the gift is there and the opportunities are all around me. And if I can channel those three things, my purpose, gift and opportunities to serve others and to mold society in some way, shape, or form and make an impact on a life, on the world, to me, that’s success. How successful will then depend on how big of an impact I make.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What keeps you awake at night?
Saran Kaba Jones: Looking for ways to reach for new heights and outdo myself. There’s a quote by Lou Holtz that says “if what you did yesterday seems big, you haven’t done anything today.” That’s me, everyday. Never satisfied. Never content. Always setting new, hard to reach goals, and doing everything I can to exceed them. That’s enough to keep anyone up at night!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What drives you?
Saran Kaba Jones: The gift of life. Being alive, here and now. And the desire to become someone I’ll be proud of when I look back on the life I lived and the choices I made.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What makes you get up everyday to do what you do all over again?
Saran Kaba Jones: 1) The impact. Seeing firsthand the impact our work is having in allowing people to lead healthier more productive lives. 2) Knowing that the work is only just beginning and there’s a long way to go. For every 1 person that gets access to safe water in Liberia through my work, there are 2 million more that need that same level of access, and almost 800 million more worldwide. So there’s no choice but to get up everyday, and give it my all.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are the daily principles you live by?
Saran Kaba Jones: Maya Angelou said it best: Love life. Engage in it. Give it all you’ve got. Love it with a passion because life truly does give back, many times over, what you put into it. I live by this rule.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What inspires you?
Saran Kaba Jones: The power of women. As nurturers, the unique ability that we have to care and share and make the world a better place. I am particularly inspired by women who celebrate other women and push them to find their voice and pursue their passion.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Share with us your memory of the happiest moment in your life?
Saran Kaba Jones: I can’t point to a specific moment but my happiest moments involve those shared with my family and loved ones. They are truly one of my life’s greatest blessings and their love and support fulfill and ground me. No matter where I am in life, they are always present with me and in me.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: When all is said and done, what do you want to be remembered most for?
Saran Kaba Jones: I want to be remembered as the girl that changed things. The girl that made a difference. The girl that gave you a really good story. I want to be remembered as the clean water girl.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Saran Kaba Jones: Surround yourself with the dreamers and the doers, the believers and the thinkers, but most of all, surround yourself with those who see the greatness within you, even when you don’t see it yourself
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What do you do to relax and reward yourself for all of your hard work?
Saran Kaba Jones: Honestly, I just relax. Free time is such a luxury so any chance I get, I try to just take it easy. That usually just means spending time with my husband Ainsworth, watching our favorite TV shows and going on sushi and movie dates . I also just indugle in some reading, mainly Rumi and Kahlil Gibran and some Youssou n’Dour and Qawwali music.