Social Entrepreneurship

This post is about a recent curiosity of mine that I’m both intrigued by and discomforted by at the same time.  I came upon the concept of social entrepreneurship after someone suggested I look at the work of an organization called iDE and at a recent book written by its founder, Paul Polak (more about Paul Polak and iDE below).  Please note that I am in no way an expert on this topic.  What is written below is by no means a fully thought out or researched analysis.  I submit this mostly just to generate some discussion and learn more myself.  Please feel free to correct any of my misunderstandings and further educate me.

Attempt at a Definition

The term social entrepreneurship seems to be a broad term that gets attached to a wide variety of enterprises.  There are those who claim to be doing social entrepreneurship through not-for-profits and NGOs, while on the other end, there are those who insist that social entrepreneurship has to be attached, from top to bottom, to the pure laws of the market.  There are some involved in social entrepreneurship more as a means to an end, while there are others who pursue it ideologically, as market enthusiasts.  The first group sees small business as a practical means of income for populations that otherwise have no means to financially support themselves.  The later view social entrepreneurship as an example of how the rationale of the market can solve social problems and address poverty on a broad scale.

By my understanding, a social entrepreneur is defined as someone using business to address a social problem.  Of course, the broad range of what can be considered a social problem is part of why the term is so vast and vague.  To narrow our discussion somewhat, let’s stick to the context that has given rise to my curiosity about the topic, which is as a means of addressing issues of poverty in developing countries (the term developing countries is problematic, but I use it here out of lack for a better term).

A Couple of Examples

It may help to better understand social entrepreneurship if I provide a couple of examples of social entrepreneurs who are addressing the social issues of poverty in developing countries.

Example 1:  Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammed Yunas , founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is considered the father of the micro-credit movement.  He saw a social problem.  He saw that the poor of his country did not have access to capital with which to start or expand small businesses to provide for and improve their livelihoods.  He saw this as a sort of “poverty trap” (to use Jeffery Sachs’ term; see The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time).  Those with money, because they had money, could get access to credit from banks in order to make more money.  Meanwhile, those without money could not get access to credit.  With few other job opportunities through which to move out of absolute poverty and without access to credit to start their own small business enterprise, they were trapped in poverty (absolute poverty is defined as living on less than $1 USD / day / person, which in 2001, according to World Bank stats, included about 1.1 billion of the world’s people).  So Mohammad Yunas established Grameen Bank and launched the idea of micro-lending to the poor.

Grameen Bank is set up as a normal bank, a self-sustaining, profit-making financial business (though apparently there is controversy about its self-sustainability because of its partnership with the Bangladesh Central Bank).  It is a for-profit business, but one established for the purpose of addressing a social problem.  It is a business that, according to proponents, has done great practical social good.  By providing needed capital funds to poor individuals and families, Grameen Bank has helped people move out of absolute poverty to a financial position where they are able to provide for their livelihood and that of their families.  Beyond just meeting basic needs, with increased income, people are empowered to invest in areas that improve their lives, their families and their communities.

Grameen Bank is not the only model of micro-lending.  Grameen Bank is set up on a business model, as a bank.  Unlike Grameen Bank, there are also not-for-profits, NGOs and even community savings cooperatives working with micro-lending.  In these cases, the funds are initially provided through donors, foundations, or from contributions from cooperative participants (rather than through investors).  In these cases, the lending organization is using micro-lending as a means to empower poor people to lift themselves out of absolute poverty, but without the concern about the business purity of their model or the business sustainability or profitability of their lending program.

On a quick side note, there are critics of micro-lending.  There have been examples where micro-lending has veered into predatory lending; where micro-lending institutions have strapped individuals, families or communities with high-interest depth that they simply can’t repay.  In some cases, people have become worse off because of dept incurred from a micro-lending institution.  There are also questions about the success statistics of micro-lending.  To what degree does micro-lending truly help people rise out of poverty.  There are many examples of borrowers using a micro-loan to finance a wedding, a funeral or some other form of one-time expense.  In these cases, the micro-loan may have served a purpose, but does not actually result in increased income and improved livelihood for the borrower.

Example 2:  My second example is that of Paul Polak, founder of an organization called iDE (International Development Enterprises).  He is also the author of a recent book called Out of Poverty:  What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail.  iDE was established to develop and market products to poor, sustenance farmers; products that were developed explicitly with a price-point in mind that small, poor farmers could afford (think: ¼ – ½ acre, hand-worked, non-mechanized, family farms without access to high-yield seed varieties nor fertilizers beyond what is provided by their own animal or two).  These are products that can help small, poor farmers increase production on their small plot farms and thereby increase their income and better their livelihoods.

One product example developed and marketed by iDE is drip irrigation.  At the simplest level, iDE has developed a drip irrigation system, attached to a 40 or so liter, elevated barrel, and gravity fed to irrigate a small garden plot.  iDE’s philosophy is that a poor farmer, dependent on rain to grow crops, if he/she can carry enough water to fill that 40 liter barrel each day, can grow a small plot of high cash value crop in the dry season during a time of scarcity and high market price using a small, cheap, drip irrigation system (iDE’s gravity fed system costs about $25 USD per a 1/3 acre and can be easily scaled up to cover larger plots).  With the cash they can make off a drip irrigation-grown cash crop, a small farmer can improve his/her livelihood and the life of his/her family.

iDE’s model is to not give away or subsidize the products that they’ve developed, but to set up a supply chain through new or already existing manufacturers and businesses.  This way small shops in the small towns where rural farmers come to sell their produce can benefit by manufacturing or selling an in-demand product at the same time as farmers benefit from purchasing a product that helps them increase their production and therefore their livelihood. With even slight increases in income, iDE has found that poor families invest in improved diet and therefore improve their health.  They invest in education for their children because they can afford uniforms and school supplies.  Of course, they also invest in further improvements to their farm or business so as to further increase their incomes in the future.

Unlike Grameen Bank, iDE itself is not a business.  It is set up as a not-for-profit corporation.   Its goal is to help small business operators (including small farmers) improve their ability to make money.  They work to develop and market products that solve problems for small farmers.  They work to train farmers and technicians with their products.  They work to help farmers and small business owners gain better access to markets.  But iDE itself relies partly on funds it receives from grants and donors to implement its projects and does not have its own profitability as an organizational goal.

My Misgivings

As mentioned at the outset, my curiosity about social entrepreneurship comes with some serious misgivings.  Here is a quick summary of some of my concerns:

  1. I have been and continue to be a strong critic of capitalism.  If I had lived in the U.S. during the past year, I would have been an active supporter of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement because I believe that the unbridle capitalism of the U.S. has had disastrous effects on American society and the global community.  At the very heart of the capitalist system is the principle of self-interest and the drive for increased profit.  I see a serious contradiction between capitalist self-interest and the goal of addressing the social problem of poverty in developing countries.  I believe there are good intentioned individuals who have and can use business in a selfless way to improve the lives of others, but as a general, broadly applied principle, I question whether the business goal of personal profit can exist alongside the goal of addressing poverty.  Perhaps this contradiction can be mitigated when social entrepreneurship is practiced by the social entrepreneur under the banner of a not-for-profit such as with the example of iDE.  Otherwise, I am uncomfortable with the idea of business entrepreneurs in the developed world profiting off of the poor in developing countries.
  2. Many advocates of social entrepreneurship are market enthusiasts.  Paul Polak, for example, though iDE operates as a not-for-profit, believes that that best way to address poverty is through the natural workings of the market.  He is strongly against subsidies or providing products at below market value.  While I have witnessed some of the disastrous economic consequences of government price controls, or development organizations broadly giving items away or providing goods at great subsidy, I don’t hold to the same enthusiasm about the natural market as many social entrepreneurs.  Even iDE depends on grants from large foundations and donor agencies (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) to develop its products and implement its programs.  There is a reason why large irrigation companies have never developed systems affordable and useable for poor, ¼ acre or less farmers in developing countries.  The natural market principle is about developing and selling products for the purpose of maximizing profits and the natural market doesn’t believe that the world’s poorest are a profitable market.
  3. There are many advocates of social entrepreneurship who see the enterprises of big businesses and multinational corporations as holding potential for addressing issues of poverty in the world.  While I can concede that smaller business enterprises can practically function for the genuine good of others simply through the personal humanity and morals of the business owners and operators, I cannot concede that large corporations, beholden to share holders and investors who want to see constant growth and increased profits, can positively address the issues of poverty in the world.  A large multinational apparel company like Wal-mart, for example, can certainly set up clothing production in China or Bangladesh and provide jobs, but I have to question the motive.  Would a company like Wal-mart make such a move for the purpose of helping the population of Bangladesh pull itself out of poverty, or would it make such a move just to exploit cheap labor and increase its own profits?  Can one really say that the net effects of these kinds of corporate profit-driven decisions have a positive result on addressing the social problems of the world?

But I’m Still Intrigued:

Despite these misgivings, m curiosity continues, particularly as it relates to our work here in Ethiopia.  Here are a few reasons why I think there could be something to this idea:

  1. The longer I spend time in Ethiopia and think about the on-the-ground issues of poverty on the local level, the more I become a believer in practical, local solutions.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if an idea can work on a global scale.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if an idea can address poverty everywhere.  Too often macro-solutions fail because they don’t account for the particularities of local situations.  Maybe we don’t need a macro-solution, or a new political-economic philosophy.  Maybe we need a bunch of micro-solutions that actually work.  Despite some of the larger macro-implications that Paul Polak discusses in his book (many of which I’m uncomfortable with because of his enthusiasm for the market as a global solution to poverty), when I look at the micro-level of what iDE is actually doing with small, poor farmers in places like Ethiopia, I can’t deny that their approach is helping.  They are empowering small farmers to increase their personal income and thereby improve their lives, the livelihoods of their families and their communities.
  2. Part of our work here in Ethiopia is to help our kids figure out ways to thrive as independent adults in the future.  Part of this independence depends on our kids’ abilities to eventually support themselves financially.  These are kids who have grown up or will grow up in an orphanage, kids you have no or limited family connections, kids disconnected from a community, and kids who will never inherit land.  Our area of the country is deeply dependent on small, sustenance agriculture.  There is really no other industry.  Unless one gets a job as a civil servant in a government department, there are few other job options available.  Most people exist off of some form of official or unofficial micro business.  This micro business may be their small family farm, a small vegetable stand, a small hardware supply shop, a café, or a tea and bread stand.  This micro business may be driving people on a motorcycle for a fare or it may be selling some handcrafted items or used plastic bottles in the Saturday open market.  This micro business may just be an individual contracting out his/her labor to carry items for others, push a wheelbarrow, or dig a ditch.  Some of our kids will succeed with education and acquire a decent-paying civil servant job in the future, but many of our kids will have to financially survive as entrepreneurs of sorts.  Because of this, I see great value in micro-lending organizations and organizations working to help people start, develop or increase income off of small businesses.  These are efforts that can genuinely help people lift out of absolute poverty and financially sustain themselves.
  3. One of the great benefits of micro-lending and the work of organizations like iDE is that they are empowering people to improve their own lives.  These are not ideas that create dependency.  These are ideas that help poor people use their own ideas, initiative and hard work.  These are ideas that empower and promote human worth and dignity.  Interestingly, there is significant literature on how these ideas are helping to empower women.  By helping women make cash off of small family gardens, or by helping women establish micro-businesses with micro-loans, these ideas are helping women develop their own personal sources of income.  These ideas are helping to decrease the dependency of women on male income-earners, thus personally empowering women and raising the value of women in families and communities.

In conclusion, I know that my own thinking on this is currently under-developed and probably inconsistent and contradictory.  I came upon the concept of social entrepreneurship second to my exposure to the work of Paul Polak and iDE.  I have been impressed by the real, practical, workable ideas of iDE on the micro level of small farmers in Ethiopia.  So, despite some of my concerns about the idea of social entrepreneurship more generally, my interest in the work of iDE continues to grow.  Whether my interest in their work is because what they do is often labeled social entrepreneurship or in spite of it, I don’t know.

As always, thanks for reading.  I hope if you’ve taken the time to read this that you’ll also take the time to provide some feedback.  I am clearly no expert and want to learn more.  Feel free to reply to the blog post or email me directly at


Q and A About Our Work in Relation to International Adoption

Below is a little follow up on our most recent post about international adoption in Ethiopia.

Because we are parents through adoption and because our daughter is from Ethiopia, people are a little surprised when they hear that the children’s home where we work in Ethiopia is intentionally not involved in adoption.

Here is a quick Q & A to help explain it.

Q.  Why is the Children’s Home not involved in adoption?

A.  There are two primary practical answers to this question:

1.  There are many international organizations in Ethiopia focused on international adoption, but international adoption is not a possibility for most orphaned children.  Many orphaned children do not qualify for international adoption and even among those who do, once an orphaned child is older than four, the odds of him/her being adopted are slim.  While 50% of international adoptions (by U.S. citizens) are of infants and 90% are of children under the age of five, 95% of the orphaned children of the world are older than five (these stats are specific to international adoptions by U.S. citizens, but the U.S. is the largest “receiving” country of international adoptions and the trend is similar with other international adoption “receiving” countries).  This Children’s Home has intentionally chosen to fulfill a need for quality care for older orphaned children.  The Home provides care for children ages 4 through older teens.

2.  In the early years of the Children’s Home, a few children were adopted internationally.  This was a difficult experience for the home and the other children.  It created a climate of competition and disunity among the children as each vied to be the next to be adopted.  It impeded efforts to create a healthy home environment for all the children.  The Home made the decision to no longer deal with international adoption and instead focus on providing the best care possible for all the children in the Home.  This policy has been coordinated with local government and other organizations.  If international adoption is a possibility for a certain child and an assessment shows that it would be a good option for that child, he/she is referred to an organization that works in international adoption.  If a child does not qualify for international adoption, he/she may be referred to us.
Q.  Why do some orphaned children not qualify for international adoption?

A.  It is important to recognize that the UN definition of “orphan” is a child who has lost one or both parents (see UNICEF article:  According to UNICEF statistics (2005), of the 132 million orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, 13 million have lost both parents.  It’s clear from this stat that the large majority of orphaned children have one parent still living.  Even among the 13 million who have lost both parents, a grandparent or other extended family member is often still living.  In many cases, this living family member cannot care for the child (because of disease or lack of economic resources, for instance), but does not want the child adopted out of the country.  In some cases, the living family member intends to place the child with an orphanage for a temporary period of time, and hopes to be able to support that child in the future.  Understandably, because of this a child does not qualify for international adoption unless no living family can be found (determined after a formal process of searching for living family), or the living family member willingly relinquishes custody of the child.
Q.  As adoptive parents, how do you feel about not working with adoption?

A.  This was actually one of the aspects about this Children’s Home that drew us to the work.  Since we first started traveling to Ethiopia, we have felt conflicted about international adoption, and through our own process of adopting from Ethiopia, we became more acutely aware of the limitations of international adoption as a solution for orphaned children in Ethiopia.  We believe that a healthy and loving family is clearly the best option for a child.  If that option is not available in Ethiopia, than a family outside of Ethiopia can be a very good alternative.  We are daily grateful for our own daughter and have seen her grow and develop in ways that never would have been possible if she continued her life in an orphanage with 450 other children.  However, our daughter’s adoption still left 450 other children in that orphanage, almost all of which will grow up with that orphanage as their only home.  We are excited about working here to help provide, as best as possible in an institutional setting, healthy and loving care to children for whom a traditional family is not an option.
Q.  But is institutional care really a good option for children?

A.  It is certainly not the best option.  The best option, without question, is to grow up in a loving, nurturing family.  Unfortunately, for many reasons such as disease, death and poverty, this option is not always available to children in Ethiopia.  We are trying to provide a healthy home for children who have no family who can provide one for them.  Part of our role here at the Children’s Home is to help continue to improve the care of the children in the home and develop programs and policies that help the kids develop into healthy adults despite the institutional setting.  It is certainly a flawed setting for a child to grow-up, but for the kids who live here, it’s better than some of the ways they could be spending their childhood.  We are also interested in exploring other ideas for addressing the care of orphaned children in the region.  Some organizations are working on ways to draw along side of grandparents and aunts/uncles, etc. to help them care for orphaned children within their extended family.  Others are looking at ways to develop and support a form of “foster care” to help with the care of orphaned children.
Q.  What are your personal feelings about international adoption in general?

A.  This is a tough question for us.  We are adoptive parents and have seen the great benefits of adoption for our own daughter.  We also have concerns about the international adoption process.  Here are a few of those concerns (our knowledge is mostly about Ethiopia, and so these concerns stem specifically from our experience with adoption from Ethiopia and may not apply to adoption from all countries):

1.  It is estimated that only about 1.5% of the world’s “double-orphaned” children (children who have lost both parents) are adopted each year.  International adoption only helps a small percentage of orphaned children, but because so much attention and so many resources go into international adoption, it can distract from the pursuit of other, and perhaps better, solutions.

2.  International adoption does little to address the care of older orphaned children.  Because the large majority of adopting parents prefer to adopt an infant or younger child, once an orphaned child is a toddler, his/her chances of adoption are significantly reduced, and once the child is older than four, his/her chances are very small.  Assuming that the trend of international adoptions of older children (older than 4) adopted by U.S. citizens (approx. 10%) is similar to the worldwide trend (which it seems to be), one could estimated that only 0.15% of the world’s older orphaned children are adopted each year.

3.  Because international adoption agencies are funded by the fees they charge to adopting parents, they can sometimes tend to answer to interests of the adopting parents more than the interests of the child or the child’s birth family.  This has sometimes led to the cutting of ethical corners in the adoption process.  It is not usually an issue of out-right child trafficking, nor is it even an issue of all-out corruption.  It is usually much more subtle.  For example, a grandmother may bring an infant to an orphanage because the infant’s mother has died and she does not have the capacity to care for the infant.  The grandmother may have hopes that the situation will only be temporary during the vital infant age.  She may hope to return to care for the child once he/she is a toddler.  Given the agency’s list of waiting adopting parents, you can see how the orphanage may have an interest in convincing the grandmother that it is best for the infant that she relinquishes custody.  This is a subtle thing, but it has significant ethical implications.

4.  The recent move by the Ethiopian government to greatly reduce the rate of international adoption approvals (about a year ago) has raised the question about the future of international adoption in Ethiopia altogether.  Other countries have closed their international adoption programs because of persistent concerns over corruption and ethical gaps in the system.  This further highlights the limits of international adoption as a sustainable, viable solution for the care of orphaned children in Ethiopia.
Q.  How can I learn more or respond to this?

A.  We’d be happy to dialogue further on these issues.  Feel free to respond to this post or email us at or

Our Thoughts and Observations on International Adoption

Since we’ve been here in Ethiopia, on several occasions we’ve been asked our thoughts on international adoption from Ethiopia by parents exploring the idea of adoption.  This is partly because we are an adoptive family and our adopted daughter is from Ethiopia.  It is also partly because we live and work at an orphanage.  It is not an orphanage that deals with adoption albeit, but we’re still familiar with the issues and concerns of OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children), alternative care for children, and international adoption in Ethiopia.

For what it’s worth, below I’ve pasted a slightly edited version of an email response that we recently sent to just such a question.  But first, I want to reiterate that international adoption is a very complicated and somewhat controversial matter.  There are significant political, ethical, sociological, cultural and racial issues connected to international adoption.  The email response pasted below only begins to scratch the surface of these issues.  We’d be more than willing to further engage some of the questions and issues if any readers are interested.  We also want to recognize that there are people who we love and respect that have very different perspectives on this issue.

For the sake of full disclosure, let it be said that we are an adoptive family.  Just over two years ago, we adopted a beautiful 3 ½ year-old girl from Ethiopia.  She’d been in an orphanage since just a couple of months after birth.  We met her while visiting an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity (the order started by Mother Theresa of Calcutta) in Addis Ababa.  We love our daughter dearly and are so glad to have her as a part of our family.  We have no regrets about adopting her whatsoever.  Despite the high-quality, loving care provided by the Mother Theresa sisters and the staff, we firmly believe that she’s been able to thrive and grow as a part of our family in a way that she would never have been able to if she’d continued to grow up in institutional care.  Having said all that, through our own adoption process, our connections in the adoptive community, and our experience living and working at an orphanage here in Ethiopia, we’ve become very cautious and critical proponents of international option.  We’re still proponents, but we’ve come to recognize that international adoption is not always in the best interest of every orphaned child.  Before pulling a child from family, community, culture, language and country, one has to think hard about the best interest and specific situation of that child.  We have also come to recognize that, while international adoption may improve the life of a specific child, it is not a social solution for the larger issue of orphaned children in Ethiopia.

My email response was as follows:

“Hey —-… we’re happy to help you think this through a little.  One warning, though… this email is epic.  It’s just such a large matter and we feel strongly on some aspects of it.

First, let me say that we’re very happy to hear you considering adoption.  We think, in the right circumstances, adoption can be a beautiful thing.  We love our adopted daughter so much and are so happy that she’s a part of our family.  She’s adjusted well and is growing strong and healthy in every way.  We also have a very special place in our hearts for Ethiopia.

Having said that, we’re also glad to hear you asking questions and doing some exploring before jumping into this.  We think it’s very important to pursue international adoption cautiously and realistically, recognizing that there are some real potential pit-falls.  First, for a couple of the simple points:

  1. Adoption from Ethiopia has become very slow in the last year.  Depending on the age of the child you are adopting, it could take several years to complete the whole process (even up to 4 or 5 years).  The Ethiopian government has intentionally slowed down adoption processing considerably and western embassies (U.S. for sure… I expect others as well) are doing a lot of their own investigations into adoptions before they issue visas, which has further slowed processing down.  Prior to a year ago, Ethiopia was processing about 50 adoptions / day internationally.  It was a pace that allowed for and even created some corruption in the system (and not just on the Ethiopia end, by the way).  Because of the demand for Ethiopian children internationally through adoption, agencies, orphanages and gov. officials were not always doing their due-diligence to investigate cases and make sure they were legit orphan cases.  There were also officials and agency staff pocketing a lot of money along the way.  Even a whole industry of guesthouses, tour operators, drivers, etc. had developed up around international adoption (crudely, we came to call it “adoption tourism”).  In the past year, a number of agencies and orphanages have been closed down because of alleged corruption and the process has slowed considerably.  This is especially true if you want to adopt an infant.  You can expect between 3-5 years to process the whole thing from start to finish.  If any agency tells you much less than that for wait-time, I’d be suspicious of the agency.
  2. When we did our adoption, adoptive parents only had to make one trip to Ethiopia (we made several, but that was because of some unique circumstances in our adoption).  You didn’t have to be in Ethiopia for the court date; your agency could simply represent you.  The adoptive parents only had to show up to pick up the child and go to the embassy appointment (for us, the U.S. embassy) for the visa processing.  That has now changed.  As another measure of protection, at least one of the adoptive parents now has to be in Ethiopia for the court date (when Ethiopian gov. legally approves the adoption) and then at least one parent has to return about 2-4 months later to pick up the child and process the visa at the embassy appointment.
  3. International adoption is very expensive.  In the U.S., we were able to claim some tax credits after the fact that reimbursed a chunk of the costs, but just to give you a ball-park, with travel, agency fees, medical backgrounds, security background checks, home-study, etc., you can probably expect it to cost in the range of $20,000.

Okay… now for the more subtle points…

International adoption is a very complicated issue.  I don’t know about other countries, so I can only really speak to Ethiopia.  In the past 10 years, international adoption form Ethiopia has become quite popular and “sexy” (Angelina Jolie, etc.).  In the case of infants, there is actually more “demand” than “supply.”  Those are terribly crude terms, but they explain the situation.  There are actually more adoptive parents in North America and Europe waiting for Ethiopian infants than there are orphaned infants in Ethiopia; thus the long waiting lists.  This strikes me as concerning.  There is actually a situation of parents waiting for children to be born and orphaned.  These adoptive parents are in the process not to adopt an orphan, but to adopt a potential future orphan.  I have problems with this for 2 reasons:

  1. There are thousands of actual orphaned children in Ethiopia that are passed up for adoption simply because adoptive parents want an infant and would rather wait for a future orphan baby than adopt a child that is actually orphaned and in need of a family now.
  2. It creates lots of potential for abuse in the system.  Because agencies and orphanages have waiting lists of parents waiting for an infant and they get their funds from processing adoptions, there is a certain incentive to cut corners in investigating supposed orphan children, or to even “find” or “recruit” infants or to subtly council parents/extended family to give up infants (though with some help, the parent/extended family/community may be able to care for the infant themselves).

So, I would think hard about adopting an “older child.”  By older child, I mean a child that is 2 years old or above, which means that you’re actually adopting a currently orphaned child, rather than waiting in a line for an infant to be born and orphaned.

I would also do a lot of research into whatever agency you use and make sure that agency is really doing its due diligence to investigate the case of the child.  You want to be completely confident that it is in the child’s best interest to be adopted internationally.  We personally believe that before a child is considered for international adoption, all possible options with parents, family and/or community should first be exhausted.  If there is any way that a child can remain with parents, extended family, or community, we believe that is usually best for the child.  All too often, children are brought to orphanages by parents or extended family simply because they hope that the child will have a chance at adoption, sometimes because they hope to get some personal benefit from it.  Unfortunately, the popularity of international adoption has in some cases encouraged the orphan problem in Ethiopian by taking the responsibility away from extended families and communities to raise the orphaned children in their midst.  Why sacrifice to help raise your neighbor’s child, when there’s a very well resourced, USD-financed orphanage in town where the child may have the option of being adopted to America?

Lastly, we always encourage couples to consider a child that for one reason or another is considered “less adoptable.”  This is often because of some illness, disease, disability, or simply because of age.  This is difficult, because it certainly presents some great challenges for the adoptive parent, but often the “diseases” and/or “disabilities” that make a child less adoptable in international adoption are minor and manageable issues.  Unfortunately, there are thousands of relatively healthy orphans lingering in orphanages in Ethiopia because of manageable health issues that prospective adoptive families are intimidated by and therefore these kids are passed over.  For example, it is often very manageable these days to adopt and care for a child with HIV.  This is something that one would need to do a lot of thinking on and a lot of research, but with the availability of ARVs, it’s a very doable thing.  Most children with HIV today, if properly cared for and provided with ARVs, can live long and healthy lives.  At one orphanage in Addis Ababa where we’ve spent some time, there were nearly 500 HIV positive children and with ARVs, the vast majority of them lived very healthy lives and will continue to do so.  Unfortunately, because of their HIV status, most will never be considered for adoption (though this is slowly changing).

I hope that helps.  Adoption can be a very beautiful thing, but there are some horror stories of good intentioned adoptive parents getting involved and discovering much later some of the complications, abuses and problems in the process and finding themselves unintentionally in the middle of them.  We think it’s really important to have lots of realistic information up-front.”

The Launch of the Garden Project

Banchiwosen working the soil to prepare for planting.

Some of you have graciously followed the development of our Garden Project over the past few months (Richelle keeps telling me how boring some of the blog posts are… thanks for reading anyway).  It started as a pretty simple idea (and remains so, really), but it’s been some work…

The initial idea… dig up some new garden spaces in the unused portion of our pasture, divide up those garden spaces, and distribute them out to our kids.  Through the planting, growing, harvesting and selling of their crop, the kids can learn some great skills – both gardening skills, and some small money management and business skills (whatever money they can make off of their plot of land is theirs).  Naturally, the implementation of this simple idea has been hard work.

Hand-tools only.  We have no tractor, motorized tiller, nor even an ox and plow.  So we had to do all the work of pulling up sod and tilling up soil with hand-tools only… a shovel, pick-ax and hoe (we now have 3,600 square feet of new garden space).

Slope.  The unused portion of the pasture slopes downhill into a gully at about a 45 – 60 degree angle.  It’s a nightmare for erosion during the monsoon rainy season of July & Aug.  So, not only did we have to pull up sod and till the soil, we had to terrace the plots.  We used the pulled-up sod to build a wall on the lower end of each plot, then dug out the dirt on the upper end and threw it down and up against the sod wall until the plots were essentially level… again by shovel, pick-ax and hoe.


Water.  We have none, then we have too much; unfortunately, that’s the way it works in Ethiopia.  There is so little rain from Oct. through May and then there is more rain than the soil can handle in July and Aug.  So for the dry times, we developed and set up a drip irrigation system that allows us to irrigate the gardens with grey-water (wash water, shower water, etc.) and run-off water from the buildings (for when we do get some small rains during the drier months).  This system also allows for direct watering when we have some excess water available on our compound (which is rare).  It’s a system of pipes connected to the end of water gutters, which run to barrels, to which are attached pipe and perforated tubing.  For the rainy season, we’re currently developing an appropriate system of ditches and trenches to control excess run-off and help avoid erosion.

Soil.  It’s a clay-like, red-dirt soil that gets rock-hard during dry season.  We’ve been composting like crazy since last fall to fertilize and supplement the soil.

Education.  We’ve been learning everything we can about local seed and gardening knowledge (I’ve even driven 15km out of town to a small countryside Thursday market because it’s there that one is suppose to find the best garlic for planting this time of year), and supplementing it with all the expertise we can glean from online and from some garden experts back home.  We’ve been holding bi-weekly meetings with the older kids for the past couple of months to educate them and prepare them for planting.

Making use of the irrigation system.

Finally… today we launched the project officially.

We’ve still not received any of the spring rains that are always hoped for in Ethiopia.  We had one good rain about three weeks ago and not a drop since then.  We’ve had a couple of late afternoons or mornings of cloud, but they haven’t produced a drop for us.

(It’s concerning, actually.  It’s these small spring rains that annually make or break many regions of Ethiopia.  Many regions of the country are unable to produce enough food during the rainy season (Jul. – early Sep. with Sep. – Oct. harvest) to last all the way through a full year until the next post-rainy season harvest.  If they get enough of the small spring rains to plant a small crop during Mar. – Jun., they’ll be okay, but if the small spring rains don’t come, many regions will suffer food shortages before fall… see earlier blog post for more info. about this cycle and the problem of drought and food shortages in Ethiopia:

Even our 4-year-olds were out digging

But, despite the lack of rain, we’ve decided to do a small planting anyway.  We’re only planting a portion of the garden plots for now – just what we can sustain using our irrigation.  We decided that if we can plant even a small crop using irrigation and bring it to market around Jun., we could fetch a decent price on our crops during a time of scarcity.

So this morning, we had about 20 kids working in their respective plots (and more were working in the evening).  They were hoeing, tilling, spreading compost, watering and planting.  Most are interested in planting garlic and red onions because of the popularity of these vegetables in Ethiopian cooking (and in the Home kitchen).  Some are also planting potatoes and we have a few “farenge” (foreign) vegetables to plant:  green beans, peas and cucumber.  It has been fun today to watch many of the kids work very hard, learn and experiment with the irrigation system, and get excited talking about what they’re going to plant.

Little Eyayu... the "baby" of the Home

We’ve had some money donated already for this project (thank you Argosy University Student Government for you $500).  Expenses for the project have so far totaled about $600.  The project is now completely functional and operating, but there are a few further components that we’d love to do to maximize the project.  If you’re still interested in contributing specifically to this project, here’s what a small amount of money could help us add to the project:

  • $18 USD – some additional local gardening tools, which would include 3-4 additional two-prong hand-hoes and 1 additional larger 3-prong hoe
  • $15 USD – some more plastic tube to attach to outdoor water facet to water the garden when we have excess water on the compound
  • $90 USD – some additional ¾” poly-pipe to attach to a grey-water collection barrel on south end of our compound (because of distance from the gardens, we have not yet connected the grey-water from our clothes washing station to the irrigation system; we’d really like to do this because we could greatly increase the amount of grey-water we’re able to capture and use for irrigation)
  • $18 USD – 1 large, 200 liter water barrel for collecting grey-water from clothes washing area (the final grey-water point on our compound to be connected to the system)
  • $40 USD – 1 wheel-barrow for hauling compost from our compost site to the gardens
  • $20 USD – necessary fittings to set up in-line shut-off for last irrigation point, and some minor repairs to current drains pipes to maximize capture of grey-water from clothes washing area and hand-washing area outside cafeteria

So an additional $300 would cover the remaining expenses that we’ve already incurred and help us make sure there are enough tools for the kids to use and help us make sure that we’re maximizing our use of the compound’s grey-water.

Looking down the road a little, for those really interested in our little experiment with grey-water, there are a couple of larger projects for the compound that would further help us capture grey-water and run-off water and further conserve our scarce water resources.

  1. With a little re-plumbing in our bathroom / shower areas, we could separate the drainpipes for the shower rooms from those of the toilets rooms.  Currently, all the drains exit the house in one drainpipe that goes to our septic system.  Because of the way our bathroom / shower areas are designed, some fairly simple re-plumbing could drain the showers into our water gutters, thus allowing us to capture that grey-water in our irrigation system.
  2. Both the main house and the cafeteria / kitchen house were build with decent rain gutters and drainpipes from the roof to the water gutters that surround the houses.  After a number of years, however, some of these gutters and pipes could use

    Merdekyos was the first out there at 7am

    some repairs and replacements.  We could capture even more rainwater when it does rain if we did some maintenance to these gutters and pipes.

If these slightly larger projects interest you, please let us know and we could gather some price estimates and provide more information.

If you’re interested in contributing to this garden project at any amount, the easiest way is to go to the Aerie Africa website ( and follow the “Donate” links.  At the point in the paypal process where you can leave a note with your contribution, just enter “for garden project” and your funds will be designated appropriately.  Of course, if you have any questions, email us at or

To go back and read about the development of the project, follow these links:


Here’s a few additional pictures of the day of planting:

Three Updates and Motorbike

Update 1:  The Garden Project,

All of the terraced gardens are fully set up and divided out to the kids.  Kids have been working this past week to till up the soil, spread and mix in compost, etc.  We’ve been preparing some seed this week (onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes as local vegetables and some green beans, peas and cucumbers as “farenge” – foreign – vegetables).  The irrigation system is all set up and working well, though with only one legitimate rain in the past week, the irrigation by itself hasn’t yet been sufficient to start planting.  We hope to be planting soon.  We are trying to gather all gardening tips and knowledge, both local here as otherwise.  If you have tips for growing any of the above vegetables, we’d love to hear from you.  Feel free to email, reply to this post, or message us on facebook (,

Update 2: Water and a Well,

With the town back up on the electric grid, we’re back to getting water from the town a couple of days / week.  With our storage tanks, that means water from taps for portions of four days / week.  Our hand-pump well is still dry, so that still means donkey water the other days each week.  As for the deep well, we’ve been working hard behind the scene and making progress.  We’ve been reviewing our hydro-geology report, collecting official cost bids from drillers, and we’ve been in communication with one well-drilling NGO regarding collaboration.  We’ve also been working towards some grants and have recently been very encouraged in that area.  We’ll very soon have our official cost estimates and some arrangements with a driller.  Once we have the official cost estimates from the driller, we’ll put out some information about needed funds, fund-raising, etc.

Update 3:  Our Home-going,

While this is a still a far way out, we’ve become forward-looking in a farther-out sort of way then we ever were.  We purchased our tickets for a visit back to the U.S. this past week.  We’ll be state-side from the Aug. 7 through to the Sep. 17.  Our calendar for that visit is surprisingly busy already.  We’re looking forward to re-connecting with family and friends.

… and a Motorbike

Recently we acquired the use of an older motorcycle.  Motorbikes, or “motors,” are very much the way to get around in smaller towns in Ethiopia.  They’re much cheaper than cars, good for riding on bad roads, easier to maintain and cheap on fuel.  Most of the motorcycles around town are small Indian-made Bajaj bikes with whopping 100cc motors (great on fuel, weak on power).  The bike that we recently got access to is a “Red Fox.”  It’s not ours… it’s an organization bike that has long been in the garage under-going a pretty significant re-build.  It finally got operational and we have use of it.   It’s a bit of a beat-up, but is running well now and gets us around town.  Contrary to the Bajaj bikes, we’re riding around with 250ccs (though the body says 175, I’m told that it’s actually 250 and the bike we took the body pieces from was a 175), which is a fun amount of power to ride three us up our big hill into town with no effort.  The outer body was busted up, so we replaced it with some body parts from another bike that don’t quite fit right.  It’s loud and ugly, but a lot of fun.  Titay loves it and has decided she needs to have a motorbike when she grows up (she also decided this week, after a “Bubba School” history lesson, that she wanted to be like Dr. Martin Luther King when she grows up… the image of those two future goals combined struck me as kind of funny).

Enjoy the photos of our “new” motor.

Garden Project Update (2)

Thanks to our friend Kim and a group of her friends, our garden project is reaching its final stages.  All of the terraces are dug, leveled, etc. (3600 square feet of new garden space in 6 terraces).  Pipes have been laid and buried from house rain gutters to upper pasture fence.  Four barrels have been placed at the ends of the pipes.  These barrels have 1-inch outlets at the bottom to which are connected 1-inch black plastic pipe that runs downhill underground to the terraces.  At the terraces, blue irrigation tubing has been attached to the 1 inch black plastic pipe.  This irrigation tubing runs throughout the gardens.

The older kids (ages 12 and up, boys and girls) have been divided into partners and given a plot of garden (about 275 square feet per pair).  Just this weekend, they have begun to till up the soil and spread compost on their gardens to prepare to do some planting in the next few weeks (as soon as we get some rain… the “small rains” usually come in March here in Wolaita; with our irrigation set up, we hope that these rains will be sufficient for us to plant).  This past Friday, we went to market and bought some garden tools for the kids to use.

We have a few little loose ends to complete, such as straightening out and perforating the irrigation tubing, cleaning out the rain gutters, pouring a little cement at the head of the pipes where they connect with the rain gutters, etc., but we’re nearly finished.  In the next week, kids will be deciding what they want to plant and we’ll be purchasing seed.

Below are some pictures of the current set up.

Here is the new spill-water catch basin at the base of our hand-pump well.  With this basin, we can capture extra water from the well and direct it to the pipes and run it to our gardens.

One of the pipes running from the house rain gutters.

Up through the banana trees you can see the green barrel.  There is 1 inch black plastic pipe connected to a spout at the base of the barrel (buried under ground).  At the end of the black plastic pipe we’ve attached the blue irrigation tubing.

View of several of our new garden terraces with the blue irrigation tubing spread out.

View of 2 of the 4 water collection barrels.  Water that comes down the pipes from the house rain gutters empty into these barrels and then exists through a 1 inch spout buried at the base, which is

One of four points at which water coming through house water gutters enters piping on its way to the garden.

“Donkey Water”

(Note:  this is a long one, but with some good info. on the water situation here in Soddo)

Yesterday evening we arrived back at our home (and the Children’s Home) here in Soddo, Wolaita, after a few days break away in Addis.  This morning I got up to assess the water situation on the compound.  It’s now been two weeks since the town electrical sub-station blew up.  For the past week, Soddo has had some inconsistent and low-voltage electrical power by re-routing some lines and connecting Soddo to a sub-station further north.  Unfortunately, the electrical power has not been sufficient to run the town water dept. water pumps and thus the town water system has remained inoperable for the past two weeks.  This has left the whole town relying on donkey water or small hand-pump wells (many of which are dry this time of year, including ours).  Because of increased demand for donkey water, prices have doubled and it has become difficult to arrange delivery from a donkey water carrier.

Last week before we left for Addis, because of some special donations to Aerie Africa, we were able to contract with one donkey water carrier to supply the Children’s Home exclusively on a daily basis.  We arranged for him to bring 12 – 14 donkeys worth of water to the Children’s Home daily.  This is what is required daily to cook, clean, wash clothes, bathe children and for drinking.  This morning I learned that our contract was working out reasonably well.  The carrier has been able to deliver between 10 – 14 donkeys worth of water to the Children’s Home per day for the last week.  The inconsistency is based on how busy the spring is and how long he has to wait in line to fill up his jerry cans.  This particular carrier has two donkeys, therefore he has to make between 6 – 7 trips / day just to supply the Children’s Home with water.  As I discovered this morning, the walk from the Children’s Home to the spring and back is about one hour round trip, not including wait time at the spring.  So, though this has been an additional expense, getting consistent, daily donkey water has allowed the home to function and the children to remain clean (at 15 ETB / donkey, this costs the home about 1,260 ETB or $75 / week).

As the first donkeys were arriving this morning with water, I decided to go for a little hike to find the source of the donkey water these days.  Prior to the sub-station problem, most donkey water simply came from a town tap in a part of town that had running water that day.  Without the town taps, the donkey carriers have been forced to travel outside of town to springs and small streams.  So this morning, I grabbed my camera, took along a few friends who are visiting us, and went in search of the nearest spring.

Our hike took us out our compound main gate, down the road heading away from town a few hundred meters, then to the left down a small path that ran along outside the south fence of the Children’s Home compound.  This path descended down hill, then to the right and basically continued for about 30 minutes in a westerly direction downhill into the valley west of the town.  After about 30 minutes, the path crossed the dirt road that runs towards Jenka in Gamo-Gofa southwest of Soddo.  Shortly after crossing this road, the path turned right and opened up into a large flat field area, in which there are lots of people, donkeys and cattle.  There were three springs at three edges of this field and some small ditches of water running across the field from the three springs (and apparently a fourth spring a little further beyond the field that we did not go to).

One of springs was really more of a well.  It had been hand-dug, cased in cement and capped off.  There was a small square opening in the cement cap where people lined up to dip their buckets and jerry cans to fill up with water.  Because this well required dipping buckets down into the water, the water was pretty dirty, but there was little to no line to fill up.  One donkey water carrier who was filling up as this well told me that he often uses this well because he doesn’t like waiting in the long lines at the other springs for cleaner water.  He said he was recently charging 20 ETB / donkey in town for the water from this well, but if customers wanted the cleaner water, he charged more.

Across the field there was a second spring.  At this spring we found a crowd of people trying to fill up their jugs and jerry cans.  As we approached, there was a small scrap that broke out between several people as they struggled to get their buckets under the pipe.  This spring has been capped with a concrete structure with three pipes running from it.  The water running from the pipes seemed pretty clean and the people standing around waiting for water told us that it was good and clean for drinking.  The third spring as further across the field again.  This spring involved one large pipe flowing out of the side of a concrete structure.  At this spring, a few boys seemed to have imposed some organization.  People were lining their jerry cans up in one straight line and waiting while the boys filled the jerry cans one at a time in order.  When we asked if there was lots of water, everyone said ‘yes’ and that they’d never seen the spring dry.  Some of the people were from just nearby and said that they’d always come to this spring for water (they’re far enough out of town that there are no town taps any way).  Others in line were from further away or were donkey carriers and said that though there was always lots of decent water at these springs, it was far from town and involved a lot of walking and waiting since the town water system stopped working and more people were coming to these springs for water.

We’ve had a lot of emails from people trying to better understand our water situation here at the Children’s Home.  Sometimes it’s difficult to explain exactly the issue that we have here.  While currently, because of our reliance on donkey water, water cleanliness is somewhat of a concern, our primary concern is water access.  There is plenty of good quality water underground here in Soddo, but because Soddo is on highland terrain, this water is deep underground, somewhere in the range of 150+ meters down.  On the outskirts of town, particularly where the terrain slopes down into valleys, there are springs and good wells much closer to the surface.  Cleanliness of our water currently is an issue mainly because of the way in which the water is transported – in old, dirty jerry cans on the backs of donkeys – and because we can’t guarantee that our donkey water carrier is always waiting to fill up at the clean springs.  There are, however, fairly economical ways to purify water for drinking here.  There are these Indian-made “candle” water filters (“Welofil”) that work well (we use one in our house and we’ve just bought another so that the Children’s Home kitchen now has two).  There are also fairly cheap purification tablets available at any pharmacy in town that can purify a bucket of water per tablet.

The primary issue that we have here at the Children’s Home has to do with water access.  It is very difficult to manage a home of 60 kids without a consistent water source.  We have a shallow hand-pump well on the compound, but for several months each year, it is essentially useless (it’s dry during dry season).  We have water storage tanks hooked up to the town water pipes, but the town system can only supply a few hours of water to us per week during the best of times, and it’s completely dependent on electricity, which is also inconsistent and unreliable (as we’ve recently discovered).  We can purchase donkey water, but the cost adds up (even at normal prices, it would cost about $3,000 USD / year to keep the Children’s Home supplied with a sufficient amount of donkey water), its availability fluctuates, and it makes the function of the rest of the home completely reliant on when the donkey arrives with water (because it’s about 1 ½ hours between donkey loads, there are points in the day when our cleaner has to just wait for water to finish the laundry, our kitchen has to just wait for water to finish the cooking, or our nanny nurses just have to wait for water to bathe kids).

It is for all of these reasons that we’ve concluded that a deep well here on the Children’s Home compound is the best long-term solution for our water access issues.  Yes, a deep well is a significant financial investment up-front, but we believe it is the only means to ensure the long-term function of the home and health of the children.  Aerie Africa ( has officially decided to launch a fund-raising campaign for this deep well project.  We will soon update with specific information about this campaign and how you can help.