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Liz Fanning

Founder and Executive Director, CorpsAfrica

“I always say I never knew what I wanted to do but I spent my career preparing for it. Also, don’t be afraid to fail. Just roll up your sleeves and get to work.”

The Peace Corps sends Americans to African countries, but CorpsAfrica uses talent that is homegrown. We recruit, train and dispatch college-educated young Africans to remote villages in their own countries, where they facilitate solutions to problems identified by local people. So far, more than 300 volunteers have served in four countries — Morocco, Senegal, Malawi and Rwanda — impacting an estimated 150,000 rural Africans. Our approach not only benefits the villagers, it transforms the lives and life goals of our volunteers.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Some countries in Africa are among the poorest in the world. In several where we work, nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. Meanwhile, Africa is rich in underutilized talent, with hundreds of universities graduating educated youth who can’t find enough jobs to employ them. By tapping their idealism and energy, CorpsAfrica empowers these young adults to be part of the solution. Our volunteers spend nearly a year in a village, learning what the locals view as their biggest needs and connecting them to organizations with the resources to help. Our wide-ranging projects include wells, irrigation (including a recent, innovative solar-powered system), toilets, self-sustaining kitchen gardens (750 and counting), and even an NBA-sponsored basketball court to give kids in a refugee camp a productive activity. When COVID-19 broke out, our volunteers were perfectly positioned to educate residents on the best ways to protect themselves.

The moment that sparked my passion

In my 20s, I served in the Peace Corps in a remote, mountainous community in Morocco. One day, I was at café in Marrakesh and struck up a conversation with a local woman. She asked why I was in the country. Excited by my answer, she asked if she could join the Peace Corps too, and I had to tell her no, it was only for Americans. Her question dogged me for the next 20 years as I did fundraising for numerous organizations. When the economic crisis hit in 2008, I decided I wanted to get back to helping people in poverty. After working for another nonprofit, I decided to start my own organization to finally provide an affirmative answer to give that woman from the café, and many others like her,  the opportunity to serve, which they deserve.

What I wish other people knew

People in Africa aren’t looking for saviors. They’re looking for partners and resources so they can help themselves. Each of the projects we work on is comanaged by a local counterpart and requires investment from the local community — the best ways to ensure they remain sustainable after our volunteer leaves.

Inspired by the Peace Corps, young Africans are eager to help improve their country — last year, 1,700 people applied for our 56 spots. In return, the youth get the satisfaction of knowing they’re making a difference, and they acquire skills and make connections that will further their own careers.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

I always say I never knew what I wanted to do but I spent my career preparing for it. My 25 years of fundraising experiences are what allowed me to start this organization in 2011 and hit the ground running. When people tell me they want to do something similar, I advise them to make sure their ego is in check, let the project find them, and be flexible. Even in Africa, where our volunteers from the cities think they know poverty, they discover pretty quickly how humbling it is to live in a village without running water or electricity. That humility is what enables them to be of greatest service. Also, don’t be afraid to fail. Just roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Why my approach is unique

Our volunteers arrive at their villages with no preconceived agenda. We train them to listen to the community so they can become a facilitator, a liaison and a friend. Each country we work in has distinct needs, as does each rural village. Our model represents an important shift toward African-led development. It’s our hope that this approach will help to break the cycles of rural poverty, youth unemployment and aid dependency across the continent.