By Chris Young for The New York Times – Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, is working with the Nduna Foundation and Humanity United.
Mr. Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, a collection of companies popular with consumers around the world, is announcing a new philanthropic venture that aims to do nothing less than put Zimbabwe back on its feet.
Zimbabwe is considered to be one of the most difficult nations in Africa to help. Its gross domestic product has fallen to $1.8 billion from a peak of $13 billion, its official unemployment rate is 90 percent and it president, Robert Mugabe, is notorious for repression of his political opponents.
But where others see a sadly failed state, Mr. Branson sees hope. He has established Enterprise Zimbabwe with the Nduna Foundation and Humanity United, an organization backed by Pam Omidyar, wife of the founder of eBay.
“Since the coalition government was established a couple of years ago, things have changed,” Mr. Branson said in an interview Monday morning. “Most kids now have schoolbooks, and hospitals now are open as nurses are getting paid.”
Enterprise Zimbabwe has attracted the money that has helped those things happen and now wants to attract more. Established quietly a year ago, it will have its official debut on Tuesday before one of the biggest gatherings of billionaires and other wealthy people dedicated to making social change, the Clinton Global Initiative.
Given the country’s recent history, most donors understandably believe that Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and capacity to use gifts efficiently have been destroyed, but Amy Robbins, founder of the Nduna Foundation, said schools, hospitals and other civic organizations simply lack money.
“My greatest frustration is that there are all these misconceptions about the country,” said Ms. Robbins, whose foundation sends money into areas afflicted with conflicts and their aftermath. “Zimbabwe is far and away the most stable, most secure, least problematic country we’ve worked in.”
She said that the country now operates using dollars, which makes investment and support easier.
Enterprise Zimbabwe has so far attracted $1.5 million from another philanthropy, Absolute Return for Kids, an international charity focused on improving children’s lives around the world, and supported a Unicef initiative to distribute 13.2 million textbooks in primary schools.
Isabella Matambanadzo, chief executive of Enterprise Zimbabwe and a Zimbabwean native, said that as social services like schools and hospitals return to operational health, the organization’s goal is to attract not only philanthropic support but also investment money that can be deployed to support businesses.
“My mother heads up the clinic at the university,” Ms. Matambanadzo said. “One of the greatest days I’ve had was when my mother came home and said today we had medicines, today we had water and power.”
She said many small and midsize enterprises in industries like agriculture and mining were eager to build on such improvements. “There’s even the scope for tourism now, and for microfinance to reach the mass market,” Ms. Matambanadzo said.
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