A humanitarian project built from the ground up

After months of work and dedication, the second Asili primary care clinic has opened. The clinic will provide residents of Karambi, a community of nearly 10,000 people, with high quality, affordable health care. Currently one in six Congolese children die before their fifth birthday from malnutrition, pneumonia, malaria or diarrhea — all four diseases are preventable and treatable. Congolese nurses will staff each of the Asili clinics. Photos courtesy of the American Refugee Committee.

Where We Live / American Refugee Committee

Location: 615 1st Ave. NE, Suite 500
Contact: 612-872-7060
Website: arcrelief.org
Year founded: 1981

The American Refugee Committee (ARC) has been helping refugees regain control of their lives for 35 years.

While the conflicts change from year to year, ARC’s commitment to refugees worldwide has never wavered. ARC teams are currently on the ground delivering humanitarian relief in Thailand, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Pakistan, Myanmar, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the site for ARC’s pioneering new social enterprise called the Asili project. Asili means “foundation” in Swahili. The project takes a holistic approach to fighting childhood mortality and improving quality of life in Africa’s second largest country.

ARC leaders believe human beings experiencing the most difficult time in their lives are the experts at knowing exactly what they need. To begin the Asili project, ARC partnered with a San Francisco-based design firm called IDEO. Staff from IDEO traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and interviewed scores of villagers to get their input for this social enterprise designed to run as a business — not as a charity.

What they’ve learned has been the driving force behind the Asili project.

The businesses under the Asili umbrella include a health care clinic, a clean water distribution system with centrally located kiosks, and an agricultural co-op to help farmers increase their yields and incomes. Services are linked through a small monthly membership, which allows members to use the services at reduced rates. Each Asili business is projected to be profitable within three years, creating new jobs and offering the possibility of franchisement to local entrepreneurs.

Why was this place chosen? The DRC was torn apart by the Great African War, which raged from 1998 to 2013. The war involved nine African countries, countless heavily armed militia groups and resulted in the deaths of more than 5.4 million people.

In its aftermath, the DRC has struggled to establish any kind of reasonable progress. Though extremely rich in natural resources, the political turmoil, lack of physical infrastructure, deep-rooted corruption, and centuries of both commercial and colonial exploitation have been devastating.

Asili business manager Tad Lunden said the people involved in the Asili initiative have created sustainable business models that will make life better for the Congolese people.

“ARC believes that three Asili Zones will be operating in the DRC in the next three years,” Lunden said. “The zones will be in areas where there is no longer active conflict, and each will provide services to about 10,000 people. The agricultural co-op is always established first, giving a boost to the local economy. That makes it possible for families and individuals to invest in the sanitary drinking water systems and greatly improved health care.”

With the Asili project, ARC is testing out a new way to deliver social services, save lives and transform communities. They flipped the usual model of humanitarian aid on its head by first listening to the Congolese, and designing sustainable services with their needs and ability to pay in mind.

By being responsive to customers’ needs, the Asili project will be a lasting, stable presence in one of the world’s most war-torn regions and create a healthy business foundation for the long-term, not just a temporary charity.


By the Numbers

309: The number of tons of potatoes purchased by the first agricultural co-op with a guaranteed, fair price paid to farmers for their work.

792,516: The number of gallons of pure drinking water delivered to centrally located kiosks in the first Asili Zone. The kiosks reduce the walk children must make to gather water from two hours to 10 minutes.

2,205: The number of health consultations completed in the first Asili Zone since it opened in 2014.


What you can do:

— Make a donation to the ongoing work of ARC. Ninety cents out of every dollar goes to support refugees reclaim their lives.

— Shop the Maker’s Collection of high quality gifts from Minnesota artisans. Every purchase from the Maker’s Collection supports local businesses, while investing in ARC projects worldwide: (shopmakers.org)

— Read Adam Hochschild’s book “King Leopold’s Ghost” to understand the back story of Belgian colonization in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

— The next time you pick up your cell phone, acknowledge that you likely wouldn’t have it without the labor of miners in the DRC. The mineral coltan, a crucial ingredient in cell phone capacitors, is mined in massive quantities from the DRC.

>> About the Where We Live project

This project is an ongoing series spearheaded by Journals’ publisher Janis Hall showcasing Minneapolis nonprofits doing important work in the community. The editorial team has selected organizations to spotlight.