An Interview With Alexandra Almore, Harvard University Class of 2012

Hailing from Virginia, Alexandra Almore is a senior at Harvard University concentrating in Neurobiology and African American Studies.  Alexandra serves as the president of the multinational NGO, the African Development Initiative (ADI) and director of the College Bound Mentoring Program. In 2010, Alexandra conducted malaria research in Sierra Leone with the NGO Global Minimum as well as development work in the Dominican Republic and Haiti with the NGO Children of the Border. In the winter of 2010, she traveled to Ghana to assess existing programming and conduct preliminary research for a microfinance program in Agyementi, Ghana, with the African Development Initiative. For fun, she is an elected editor of the Harvard Crimson and last year was a member of the Harvard Cheerleading Team.

Rahim Kanani: Describe a little bit about the inspiration and motivation behind the founding of the African Development Initiative (ADI) and your involvement in their efforts.

Alexandra Almore: The African Development Initiative had its beginnings in 2007, when Darryl Finkton and Sangu Delle sought to bring awareness of the extreme poverty in Africa to Harvard thought their involvement in the Harvard Black Men's Forum.  When they began to conduct extensive research into the World Health Organization's Millennium Development Goals, they chose clean water accessibility as their focal point; coincidentally, 2008 was selected as the UN Year of Water and Sanitation, so their efforts were quite timely.

After meeting with public health experts, Ghanaian officials, NGOs like WaterAid Ghana, Project Access to Clean Water for Agyementi (ACWA) was born.  Agyementi, a village in rural Ghana, was carefully identified as an area in dire need of improved water supply and sanitation infrastructure.  ACWA would provide these two interventions the following year with a borehole, an iron-treatment plant, and over 20 ventilate-improved-pit latrines.

With the success of Project ACWA, the non-profit organization the African Development Initiative (AD) was founded and officially incorporated in 2010.  ADI takes a social entrepreneurial approach to developing communities in low-resource settings.  Using expertise in finance and investments in emerging markets, it seeks out opportunities to fund and implement self-sustaining projects that will improve health, education, and business infrastructures in communities worldwide. ADI then couples that social entrepreneurship with strenuous evaluations of their efforts, combining the rigor of research and academia with market solutions.

I personally became involved in ADI when Darryl and Sangu asked Adam Demuyakor and I to help by creating an undergraduate team of Harvard students to assist with operating responsibilities such as publishing our monthly newsletters, conducting project research, and spearheading fundraising events.  This past school year, we successfully recruited a team of about 20 volunteers to serve as executives on the undergraduate board.

Rahim Kanani: Most recently, you harnessed the GlobalGiving online platform and various social media tools to raise both money and awareness to advance Project RISE at ADI. First, explain a little bit about Project RISE and why it's important to ADI's work in Ghana; and second, why did you choose the GlobalGiving platform to conduct your fundraising efforts?

Alexandra Almore: Project RISE (Rural Irrigation System for Ekumdipe) was founded by Adam Demuyakor as an initiative of ADI and empowers farmers in Ghana to use farming techniques to overcome the futile 6-month dry-season.  Drastically decreased rainfall characterizes the dry-season in western Africa, causing extreme difficulty in growing crops and thus overcoming poverty.  Because of this, many farmers are unable to make a profit during this period and must try to survive off their meager earnings from the rainy season.  Adam led the development of a ground rubber piping irrigation system that utilized the nearby Daka River to bring water to Ekumdipe farmers.

Our Director of Grants and Proposals, Harvard student Cara Guenther, found out about the GlobalGiving April Open Challenge while conducting research on fundraising opportunities for ADI.  With fortuitous timing, Project RISE had just experienced its first successful crop harvest on March 5th, and we thought GlobalGiving would be an excellent way to showcase this outcome, spread awareness, and raise donations to expand RISE's reach.  The undergraduate team thought GlobalGiving was perfect for us -- utilizing social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, we felt like as college students, we could optimally take advantage of the platform and our networks to generate a buzz about ADI and Project RISE.

Rahim Kanani: What was the toughest part about raising money through GlobalGiving in particular, but also more generally in terms of online fundraising for a development project halfway around the world?

Alexandra Almore: Definitely keeping the momentum going for an entire month.  Asking for money is tough, and keeping it up took a lot of collective energy from the whole team.  We had to get really creative and think of ways we could keep people excited for a whole month to share our link on Facebook or Tweet about the campaign.  We got inventive on campus, having a service auction to help people move out of their dorm rooms/run errands/et cetera in exchange for a donation, and a few of the finals clubs and fraternity/sorority organizations held events to support us.  Many students got the support of their professors here at Harvard and at MIT, and a countless number of emails were sent.  It took a lot of work, but we were so happy with what we were able to accomplish.

Rahim Kanani: What surprised you the most throughout this process?

Alexandra Almore: We got a lot of anonymous donations -- some were quite generous. It was shocking but so amazing.  That selflessness, helping out without desire for thanks or a reward, is really incredible. We also had people donate more than once throughout the month -- there were so many loyal and dedicated supporters and none of this would have been possible without them.

Rahim Kanani: Share with us a few learned insights from your efforts to raise nearly $8000 online in 30 days, from both a personal and professional perspective.

Alexandra Almore: A big lesson I learned personally is to be confident and fearless when asking for support.  I really believed in ADI and Project RISE but felt a little uncertain reaching out to friends and family for money that I hadn't been in touch with in years.  But I just took the risk and emailed everyone in my contact list and contacted a lot of friends from home -- and it was amazing how receptive and willing people were to help out.  Professionally, it was a great lesson on the importance of teamwork.  My efforts were only a fraction of the collective success -- we had over 20 dedicated members working to raise money for these community members in Ghana, and we were only successful because of the work of each individual volunteer.  Everyone utilized their different gifts whether it be masterful talent in art, raw charisma to motivate people, or entrepreneurial spirit to come up with new ideas.

Rahim Kanani: Is there anything you would have done differently looking back?

Alexandra Almore: Looking back, we may have had more success strategizing ahead of time -- we really learned as we progressed through April and came up with ideas as we went along.  However, I think we did an excellent job navigating the process and being competitive against older and more recognized organizations.

Rahim Kanani: How has this experience, and your affiliation and work with the African Development Initiative complimented your undergraduate studies? And what void in learning are these particular experiences fulfilling?

Alexandra Almore: As a Neurobiology concentrator, I have coupled my science coursework with classes in global health and African and African American studies.  In the academic sense, ADI complimented my studies by giving me hands-on experience working and shaping a non-profit organization.  I got a chance to see development on the ground in addition to talking about the challenges in the classroom.  I get the chance to work with the same esteemed faculty members that I took classes with through ADI.  As far as filling a void, I've gained a whole new perspective on the world and life.  You really get to see how people around the globe really aren't that different.  I think a lot of us have had this realization, and it has really impacted how we want to approach our work.  It definitely makes my challenges seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, and I feel a lot more grateful and blessed.  I don't really think you can get these feelings and develop your own opinions without meeting people and getting your hands dirty -- you have to venture away from the books and learn about it outside of the classroom.

Rahim Kanani: As many of your fellow undergraduate students, both at Harvard and around the United States embark on socially-minded projects in different parts of the world, what would be your advice to those starting out or wondering about ways in which they can contribute?

Alexandra Almore: I think the great lesson from Darryl and Sangu's first successful ADI project was that they saw a problem, but they didn't jump to conclusions and attempt to address it themselves.  They sought the advice of people who actually live in Ghana, experts with experience in water and sanitation work, academics who had developed barometers to measure progress; it sounds simple, but taking the time to really hash out your ideas is critical.  I worry that a lot of young people jump into projects or want to start initiatives without taking the time to be meticulous and thoughtful.  So if you have an idea--don't be afraid to run with it!  Just take the time to carefully develop your thoughts and seek the advice of everyone you can!  In addition, there are a lot of good organizations and projects that simply need more manpower -- don't worry about starting your own initiatives and non-profits.  Although that is of course noble, you can be just as helpful and influential by contributing and improving existing efforts.

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary