Recognising the spark in people’s dreams

Daphne Nederhorst talks about starting Sawa World, an organisation that finds ‘solutions from within’ by supporting people making a difference in their communities. Photo by Rachel Ajwang

What you need to know:

Daphne Nederhorst started an organisation which supports people who are trying to end the cycle of poverty in their communities by telling their story and giving them a platform to reach more people. Here is her story.

You have probably read about Sawa sparks or leaders in this space before. From Kenneth Kaggwa who makes cakes and is teaching youth in his community to bake, to Harriet Walude and her House of Hope.

If you have not read about them, these are people who are making a positive change in their community through programmes they started. These programmes attract the attention of Sawa World, an organisation that gives them a platform to reach more people hence the label Sawa spark or leader.

Today, we meet the woman, who started that organisation –Daphne Nederhorst.

When you meet Nederhorst, it doesn’t take much to feel that she is a warm soul. Her eyes glued to yours and a smile that keeps playing on her face, she insists on starting every statement with the name of the person she is addressing.

Nederhorst, 36, was born in the Netherlands and spent most of her early life in Africa. Her dad was a water engineer and her mother a diplomat. Together, they moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when Nederhorst was nine months old.

“My parents made sure that my brother and I had a protected, nurturing and happy childhood. Yet as we travelled, I was exposed to people and children my age who lived in poverty. I kept asking myself why some people were living in such harsh conditions when some of us had all we needed.” She reminisces.

Touched, Nederhorst made a decision that throughout her life, she would be fighting to help the poor attain a dignified life, free of poverty. Her parents applauded her but dismissed it as just another of the many childhood thoughts and dreams of a seven-year-old, one she would outgrow. But that did not happen.

“Contrary to what everyone around me thought, my love to help the underprivileged never went away. We later left Tanzania and travelled to Kenya, Egypt then Turkey. I was growing, so was my passion for a better world. I feel this passion did not just come from the abject poverty I witnessed other people battle through. It was born with me. This is not just a career, it is a calling,” Nederhorst intimates.

The family later went back to the Netherlands when Nederhorst was in her early teens and left at 17 for college in the US, specialising in Film and Video production. She later took on a degree in Environmental Management and International Development in England.

Working and shaping the idea
Nederhorst later travelled around the world to more than 53 countries, working for numerous governments and international organisations and often time mingling with the most remote communities.

In 2003, she spent a lot of time in the remote villages of India, studying the failure of the Dutch Government aid in water and sanitation projects in the poor countries.

It was with this experience that something clicked in her and she came to an important realisation that external leadership in countries facing extreme poverty had not been successful.

“Although international collaboration is essential for our survival on this planet, it is wrong to tell the people what to do in their countries. This takes away their dignity and creativity. What I realised is that every community that faced dire poverty had extraordinary inspiring champions that already had the solutions.

“The strength, courage and necessary leadership was in place. All we needed to do was focus on what was already working locally and not impose our own thoughts and ideas on them. That was the only way we were going to realise forever change,” she says.

Making the dream a reality
However, it was not until after a trip to Colombia, South America, that Daphne made a decision to bring her vision to life. In Bogota, Colombia’s capital, she crossed paths with Marlene Gomez, a woman from a very challenging background and with so little to her name, yet she was impacting the lives of others.
Given the presence of so many orphaned children on the streets of Bogota, Gomez negotiated for farmland and turned it into a shelter that had food and security, one where such abused children would be brought for rehabilitation.

“By the time I met her, she had 113 children, the kind of children who had the trauma still written on their faces, yet one could tell they were on the road to recovery. Instantly, I got a confirmation that what I wanted and had to do was embark on the journey to give a voice and amplify the success of such local heroes and bring the necessary change. She was our first Sawa spark.”

On February 1, 2007, Nederhorst quit a well-paying job as a Canadian government advisor to start Sawa World. She nursed a bit of fear stepping out in the unknown, but in her perception, “fear does not take away the dream and passion. In fact, if anything, fear motivates me to reach the top. I was ready.”

She spent the first six months in her living room pursuing a mini-MBA programme; learning how to write business plans and build strategic companies. She was running out of money. Nonetheless, she kept a calm head.
After the paperwork, her next step was to verbalise her idea. She started stepping out and talking to prospective funders—everyone that would help bring her model to life.

She spoke at many gatherings, most notably the International Projecting Change Film Festival in Canada in 2008. And to her amazement, people were quick to connect with her idea, often contributing funds.

Implementation and growth
The Sawa World dream to self-empower 1.2 billion people in 50 countries out of extreme poverty began in the South Pacific, particularly in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. It then expanded to cover 11 countries, including Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Senegal and Haiti. And this took only two years.

Soon though, Nederhorst opted to scale its operation to one country (Uganda) out of the 11 after realising its operations were slightly going off rail.

“It was starting to look like an international aid model where we were seen as experts, rather than shining a light on the powerful leadership that arises from the people living in poverty. So I stood in my tracks and said, cut!”

After scaling down to only Uganda, it is nothing even Nederhorst herself could have imagined. “I am humbled with what our team has achieved so far. I never imagined we would grow so fast and be able to touch so many lives.”

Following her continued passion and dedication, Nederhorst was in 2010 honoured with the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship Award, joining a list of 3,000 of the top social innovators of the world. The same year, she was selected as a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, in 2013 she was selected as a semi-finalist for the Forbes 400 Summit of Philanthropy.

Despite the success, Nederhorst believes only slices of the bigger dream have so far been achieved.

“I can’t wait to share more of the Sawa World ‘gift’ with the world. I just want to uplift and inspire billions of lives. I feel honoured to spark positive change through this wonderful organisation to give back to the world.

“Of course, my position comes with what people may term as sacrifices. But I have never looked at any of it as a sacrifice. To me this is an extension of my heart. I truly love what I do and I am more than grateful to give it my all.”