Alumni Perspective: Finding an end for extreme poverty in Ethiopia

Barry Mattson, WG’08, is a recipient of the Bendheim Loan Forgiveness Fund – a program designed to ease the burden of student loans for selected Wharton MBA graduates who are pursuing careers in the nonprofit and public sectors. Below, Mattson describes his work fighting poverty in Ethiopia.

As an MBA student, I had no idea that my path would lead to the mountains of rural Africa to fight against extreme poverty.

Today, with the help of the Bendheim program, I am humbled to lead a team of four expats and 20 local leaders in the Gamo Gofa highlands of southern Ethiopia for Nuru International.

Nuru International

The same year I received my MBA from Wharton, Jake Harriman graduated from Stanford GSB and went on to found Nuru International, a nonprofit organization focused on social impact and sustainability in Kenya.

Building on lessons learned in Kenya, I am launching the Nuru model in Ethiopia.

The Nuru Model is designed to be a “self-sustaining, self-scaling, integrated development model to end extreme poverty in remote rural areas.”

My job is to build a grassroots program that the community owns, tackles their true needs, and produces impact in four areas. This holistic model addresses areas of hunger, unnecessary disease and death, the ability to cope with economic shocks, and a lack of quality education for children.

In addition, the Nuru model must be scalable throughout Ethiopia and self-sustainable in finances and leadership. As in Kenya, this will allow us to exit Ethiopia, leaving the project in the expert hands of the local leadership.

After experiencing multicultural problem solving at Wharton, I know how crucial it is to find the right solutions for this cultural setting.  This is why my program begins with the “who,” not the “what” of development.

When Nuru is invited into a community, we first select high-potential local leaders and empower them with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to sustain leadership for the organization.

Next, rather than bringing pre-fabricated poverty solutions, we conduct an assessment of the need in our target areas, focused on people living in extreme poverty.

Finally, together we co-create poverty solutions based on the need of our target area and best practices from around the world. This week, my team finished this six-month planning process for our agriculture program to address our community’s most pressing need of hunger.

As a finance major at Wharton, I had always understood poverty as living on less than $1.25 per day. I now realize that this monetary definition can lead to material solutions and handouts, creating dependency. To truly help people lift themselves out of the poverty trap for good, I now understand poverty as a lack of meaningful choices.

I’m excited about the hard work the team here has put into creating access to better choices for our farmers. By training our team in servant leadership principles and co-creating quality solutions, I am confident that our Ethiopian team has developed an agriculture model that they truly own. After a short break to see my family, I’ll be back in Ethiopia to execute this agriculture plan and repeat the same design process for community economic development.

Barry MatsonBarry Mattson is a 2008 graduate of the Wharton MBA program.  At Wharton, Barry majored in Finance and Entrepreneurial Management and “minored” in Rugby. Since Wharton, he has been a Bendheim Fellow, and is currently working for Nuru International in Ethiopia.