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Cycle Connect - Milly
Guest Blog

Cycle Connect Lifts Smallholder Farmers Out of Poverty with Bicycle Loans and More

Guest Blog by Lucie Ellis, Marketing & Communications Intern, Beneficial Returns

Milly is a mother and farmer who lives in northern Uganda. Until 2019, Milly walked the long trek to the market as often as she could to sell her crops of corn and soybeans, yet her family still lived in poverty. Then, in 2019, she obtained a loan for a bicycle from social enterprise Cycle Connect. This allowed her to sell her crops at markets farther away at a higher price, go there more often, and carry more crops. Milly steadily raised her income, paid off her loan, and quickly requested a second loan for another bike. With a second bike, her kids now easily travel to school, the entire family has better access to healthcare, and Milly is making a steady income.

When Milly learned that Cycle Connect was offering products beyond bicycles, she was interested in a product that would help her grow her farming business. She obtained a loan for an ox and plow, which enabled her to till twice the amount of land, harvest twice the amount of crops, and do it in half the time. Milly’s new assets are allowing her to achieve her dreams. Her increased income is helping her grow her business, keep her kids in school, and save for the future. She is now contemplating a motorcycle loan from Cycle Connect.

Cycle Connect — a 2019 Miller Center graduate and participant in several alumni programs — helps farmers just like Milly to reach their goals. Today, the vast majority of farming families in Uganda lack access to basic agricultural tools. They can’t afford to buy these tools with cash, and securing credit is nearly impossible in rural areas. Cycle Connect fills this gap by financing products that boost farmer income while also offering them training in best practices for agriculture and basic business accounting. The company makes loans from $100 to $1,400 for as long as 20 months, which means farmers can comfortably afford to acquire assets that make big changes in their lives. Additionally, over 50% of clients are female smallholder farmers who are among the most financially excluded.

The Truss Fund provided Cycle Connect with a $150,000 loan to support its efforts to double its portfolio. Now more dreamers like Milly can send their children to school, grow their businesses, and live more comfortably, knowing that they have better access to resources that will lift them out of poverty.


Photo: Milly riding the bicycle she bought with a loan from Cycle Connect.

This article originally appeared in the Truss Fund 2.0 Quarterly Update, August 2022.

The Truss Fund was created by Miller Center and Beneficial Returns, which manages the fund. It provides emergency loans to Miller Center social enterprise alumni that are employing market-driven solutions to end global poverty and protect the planet.

truss fund teacher
Guest Blog

Truss Fund Investment Helps Teacher-Focused Social Enterprise Persevere

Guest blog by Ella Haley, Marketing & Communications Intern, Beneficial Returns

COVID has upended plenty of businesses, but few suffered the challenges that Inspiring Teachers (2018 Miller Center graduate) faced. Launched in 2011, and formerly known as LRTT, Inspiring Teachers matches seasoned teachers from high-resource countries such as the UK, Australia, and the US, with their counterparts in under-resourced regions in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean for one-on-one teacher training. Revenue flowed from fees paid by the high-resource teachers for this mutually empowering travel and learning experience.

According to founder and CEO, Simon Graffy, “We were accustomed to obstacles in our business, but never did we expect that a pandemic would close schools throughout the world and make international travel nearly impossible.” Its clever business model became untenable in a matter of weeks. The hundreds of teachers who had signed up to travel in the summer of 2020 canceled their plans. In the spring of 2020, Inspiring Teachers went from a social enterprise on the rise to an organization fighting for survival.

A $50,000 emergency loan from Truss Fund 1.0, along with a matching facility from Open Road Alliance, gave the enterprise a second wind as the organization pivoted its business model to deliver impact and generate revenue in an entirely new way. Long-term plans for a library of video recordings and a mobile app suddenly became immediate priorities. Staffers who were experts in international travel arrangements quickly got up to speed on providing lessons by radio, educational materials via Whatsapp, and instructional videos on YouTube. What didn’t change was their commitment to improving educational outcomes for low-resource children through peer-based teacher training.

Rather than sell a summer of enrichment and adventure to teachers in the developing world, the Inspiring Teachers team switched to pitching Ministries of Education and development agencies that wanted to promote professional development for teachers. Contracts with the Ugandan government, along with emergency grants from philanthropists, kept the doors open at Inspiring Teachers.

The past two years have been painful ones for Inspiring Teachers: staff size has shrunk, and the remaining team is doing more while earning less than they were two years ago. Cash remains tight, and Truss Fund restructured its loan (along with Open Road Alliance) in recognition of the fact that it may be years before the organization can regain its financial footing.

This past summer, 95 teachers traveled abroad under the auspices of Inspiring Teachers. Most were encouraged by a recognition that the pandemic hurt all children academically, but disproportionately so in the developing world where Zoom lessons and laptops are impossible luxuries. The one-on-one training that resumed is now augmented by multimedia resources that grew out of the COVID crisis. Early indications are that next summer will be even stronger for teacher enrollment barring a major new outbreak.

It would be wonderful to report that Inspiring Teachers is on solid footing, its impact and financial health on an inexorable upswing. But life is messy, and the outcome is still very much unknown. Meanwhile, millions of children in the developing world deserve better education, and this fact continues to motivate the team at Inspiring Teachers to innovate and persevere.


This article originally appeared in the Truss Fund 1.0 Quarterly Update, August 2022.

The Truss Fund was created by Miller Center and Beneficial Returns, which manages the fund. It provides emergency loans to Miller Center social enterprise alumni that are employing market-driven solutions to end global poverty and protect the planet.


Fostering the Impact of Social Entrepreneurs working on Climate Change in Africa

The African continent continues to be massively affected by climate change, driving its countries to be ever more sensitive to vital poverty-related needs like access to energy, water, and agriculture. Social entrepreneurship is one key answer to unlock sustainable development. African countries living with extreme poverty are the most vulnerable to climate change because those two scourges overburden their population. This means that many challenges await Africa given that the continent has 9 out of the top 10 countries with the highest poverty rate in the world.

Many sectors in Africa are in desperate need of support, and Miller Center sees social entrepreneurs as a key vector to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Read the full article, Fostering the Impact of Social Entrepreneurs working on Climate Change in Africa here.

Written by: Mialy Rasoanarivony, Atlas Corps Fellow C42 from Madagascar, who worked with Miller Center during 2021-22.

Guest Blog

Solving Energy Poverty in Haiti, Earthspark Bridges Funding with Truss

Guest blog by Analiese Tisa, Marketing & Communications Intern, Beneficial Returns

Photo: Members of Fanm Vayant, an agricultural women’s cooperative in Les Anglais, Haiti, pictured with an electric-powered machine for agricultural processing that they adopted upon receiving electricity through EarthSpark, a Miller Center alum.

In Haiti, less than half of the population has access to electricity, making it the most energy-poor country in the Western hemisphere. The situation is especially pronounced in rural areas where electrification rates are below 15%. Rural households routinely spend up to $20 a month for candles, kerosene, and charcoal — a steep price for energy that is damaging to the environment and human health. With a vision to meet the needs of the rural poor and expand clean energy access, EarthSpark was founded in 2009.

Les Anglais, a coastal town in Haiti, is home to 27,000 people. It is also the first town with a microgrid system. When EarthSpark first started working in Les Anglais, it provided small household solar lights and efficient cookstoves as an alternative to candles, kerosene, and charcoal. In 2009 EarthSpark connected 14 people to the grid; by 2015, it had expanded its reach to over 2,000. Community members shared their desire for higher levels of cost-efficient power to energize not just homes but also businesses. These conversations sparked the creation of microgrids (community-sized electricity systems) which cut energy costs from 10% to only 2% of household income.

EarthSpark, a 2012 and 2018 Miller Center graduate, builds businesses to solve energy poverty. Since its inception, EarthSpark has brought clean energy to over 4,000 Haitians and launched two companies that each tackle a specific aspect of energy access. SparkMeter is a smart meter company that provides microgrid technology and services in over 25 countries. Enèji Pwòp (“Clean Energy” in Haitian Creole) brings solar energy to Haitian communities without access to the national grid and currently operates in the towns of Les Anglais and Tiburon. Under the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, both companies work toward achieving SDG 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.”

EarthSpark prides itself on taking a human-centered approach by deeply assessing customers’ energy service needs and opportunities. It follows a model of “business accompaniment,” where the EarthSpark team works alongside businesses to unlock and expand their economic opportunities with the arrival of electricity. Additionally, EarthSpark takes a “feminist electrification” approach to infrastructure planning, ensuring that women’s voices, especially female business owners, are central throughout the planning and implementation of the electrification process.

Truss Fund’s recent $150,000 loan to EarthSpark will tide the enterprise over until it receives a substantial award from Green Climate Fund and other committed grants. This means the enterprise can continue to operate at full capacity and bring electricity to more Haitians without delay. Its long-term goal is to scale from two to 24 grids across Haiti. EarthSpark aims to bring reliable, high-quality electricity to over 80,000 people in the next four years.


This article originally appeared in the Truss Fund 2.0 Quarterly Update, April 2022.

The Truss Fund was created by Miller Center and Beneficial Returns, which manages the fund. It provides emergency loans of up to $150,000 to Miller Center social enterprise alumni that are employing market-driven solutions to end global poverty and protect the planet.

Guest Blog

Weaving Stories and Tradition

By Giancarlo De León Argueta, Marketing Intern

I’m a sophomore English major at Santa Clara University. In my role as a marketing intern for Miller Center, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonio Nuño, CEO of Someone Somewhere. He visited Santa Clara for the April In-Residence to receive Miller Center’s Impact Excellence Award, where I had the opportunity to talk to him about his company’s sustainability and employment efforts during the pandemic. Antonio is down-to-earth and incredibly passionate about his work — focused on giving local artisans in Mexico the tools and chance they need to retain their traditional crafts while boosting their incomes. I appreciate the company’s brilliant work and am thankful for being able to share their story. I hope you enjoy it just as much as I did.

Launched in 2016 by longtime friends Antonio Nuño, Fátima Álvarez, and Enrique Rodríguez, Someone Somewhere has integrated environmentally conscientious and traditional techniques into beautiful and sensitive cultural products that generate sustainable work for its 400 artisans in Mexico’s poorest states. As Antonio states, “Our mission is to contribute to the welfare of artisans by integrating their traditional work in innovative products that generate consistent and equitable labor opportunities.” And that’s what Someone Somewhere is doing. A certified B Corporation on a mission to improve artisan wellbeing and empower its workforce of 98% women, Someone Somewhere’s creative and sustainable use of traditional techniques has brought rural artisans into the global market and provided labor opportunities for artisans in Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Hidalgo, and Estado de México. These opportunities provide steady and diversified income and improve local economies — increasing artisans’ monthly income by 300% and dedicating 30% of the product cost to their payment.

Someone Somewhere’s research and design teams work closely with the leaders of artisan communities to supply the artisans with quality materials — creating gorgeous and sustainable products whose utility doesn’t compromise their cultural significance. Artisans also report improved well-being, including increased self-esteem, reduced stress, and greater educational opportunities for their children. The B Corp’s commitment to creating a positive social impact for its workers and consumers also appeals to the conscientious millennial market. Antonio describes, “We are focusing on a particular lifestyle of exploring the world and connecting with the people of the world. This creates a good circle: the more you travel, the more you connect with the problems that exist.” Someone Somewhere’s approach to sustainability also contributes to its appeal. This year, the company joined other B Corps in committing to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. It has also integrated recyclable bags in stores to reduce its carbon footprint.

Someone Somewhere continued its positive impact during the pandemic. The company established an emergency fund for its artisans and expanded its B2B business to provide consistent work while keeping its workers safe from harm. Since 2020, Someone Somewhere has generated over 100,000 hours of work for its artisans and recently landed a contract creating environmentally-friendly amenity kits for Delta Airlines which will benefit more than 1,000 people from Mexican communities.

Antonio first connected with Miller Center in one of our 2015 social enterprise workshops in Mexico and has since participated in two accelerator programs and joined Miller Center’s Social Enterprise Advisory Council. This year, Someone Somewhere was awarded Miller Center’s Impact Excellence Award for its many contributions to alleviate poverty and build climate resilience. When discussing Miller Center, Antonio shared, “Miller Center’s constant support has been amazing. The quality of their mentors is really good. It’s people you’d normally never have access to, but here they give you a lot of their time, connections, and resources to help you build your brand and your company.”


Funding Women Entrepreneurs: From Bias to Bonus

Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the School of Engineering’s Frugal Innovation Hub collaborated to explore the challenges (and a few viable solutions) for women and people of color raising capital for their businesses. Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship is the premier university-based social enterprise accelerator in the world, combining the innovation of social entrepreneurs, accompaniment of executive mentors, and passion and enthusiasm of Santa Clara University students to create proof points for business as a driving force for positive change. Frugal Innovation Hub engages Santa Clara University students and faculty in technological and humanitarian projects through partnerships and programs.

Guest Blog

The Impact Investment Gap in West Africa

In summer 2021, Father Bossou Constant SJ, Miller Center Jesuit-in-Residence, spent time working with social enterprises in West Africa. These enterprises are all alumni of a 3-day Boost workshop that Miller Center delivered in partnership with West African Jesuits in 2017 and 2018. In conversation with Keith Warner, Miller Center’s Chief Learning Officer, Bossou shares his research and reflections. This is the third and final in a series of 3 articles. (Read the first 2 articles: Social Entrepreneurs Distinguish Themselves in West Africa and Navigating Social Entrepreneurship and the Pandemic in West Africa)

What is the state of impact investment in West Africa?

There are nearly no local impact investors in West Africa. The culture of impact investment is not even present in the understanding of social entrepreneurship in the region. Many social entrepreneurs don’t even see themselves as social entrepreneurs until someone explains to them that what they are doing is social entrepreneurship. Thus, they don’t seek impact investment for their social ventures.

They mostly, like any other entrepreneur in the region, turn to banks for loans. Unfortunately, those loans usually carry high interest rates (up to 15%). Most of the entrepreneurs I spoke to this summer have all tried to get bank loans. The bank requirements for getting loans do not allow some to get loans. Those that do get these bank loans get them with an interest rate that ranges from 10% to 15%. The best enterprises as rated by banks in West Africa can get as low as 7%, but rarely less than that. As an example, Africa Global Recycling, the Togolese social enterprise that specializes in collecting and selling plastic waste with average annual revenue of $260K, is in the process of securing an Ecobank loan with an interest rate as low as 7%.

Social entrepreneurs are rarely able to secure grants for their projects within their regions. Those who manage to get grants do so through international grant-making companies. Of all the alumni in West Africa, none of them have been able to secure a grant for the social impact they are making.

The concept of shareholding and equity investment is still at a baby stage in West Africa, probably because many social entrepreneurs in the region do not like the idea of sharing their companies with others. Only Foufoumix, our multi-million dollar company alumnus in West Africa was contemplating the idea, but later got an important loan instead.

What role might Miller Center play in this context?

Given the current focus on working with more advanced social enterprises, I recommend identifying those social entrepreneurs in West Africa who also speak English and working with them. Many social enterprises in West Africa are naturally women-led and/or organic agriculture/production related. They can benefit from the training offered by Miller Center and mentorship to connect with impact investors.

Training social entrepreneurs in West Africa is not the only solution to social entrepreneurship capacity development in West Africa. Impact capital culture is an even bigger challenge to take on. Most of our alumni in that part of the world have said they were not able to find any local impact capital fundraising opportunities. And usually, they are not big enough to attract international impact capitalists. Moreover, many Francophone social enterprises in West Africa lack adequate English language skills to engage accelerator centers and impact capitalists in America.

In these reflections, I showed evidence of the many social entrepreneurship-related opportunities in West Africa. However, accelerators and investments available for social entrepreneurs are scarce. The most successful social entrepreneurs can only get bank loans with high interest rates. To bridge the gap between the abundance of business opportunities and the available investment opportunities, there must first be training such as accelerator programs to help social entrepreneurs hone their business skills and formalize their knowledge of the social impact they are making. This will help social entrepreneurs in West Africa prepare to talk to impact investors abroad as well since there are very few locally. In the long run, many more capable Africans should embrace the idea of impact investing and become impact investors to help startups take off and scale their social impact.

Photo: Founder of VEGA (Vision Eco Green Afrique) Recycling with bags of sorted and cleaned plastic waste


Continuing A Family Legacy of Social Impact

By Giancarlo De León Argueta, Marketing Intern

Will Gagan’s 2021 Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship fellowship with a social enterprise based in Zambia required tenacious adaptability and community-building that culminated in an adaptable Agro-entrepreneurship curriculum. I had the opportunity to interview Will about his fellowship experience and his family’s influence.

Will (SCU ‘22) is a hard-working and passionate student who spent his fellowship helping to build a sustainable and adaptable program for the Emerging Farmers Initiative (EFI) sponsored by the Religious Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Zambia. With a major in Environmental Science and minors in Sustainability and Religious Studies, he’s spent his college career embodying the Jesuit values of Santa Clara University through his classes and experience with Miller Center. Will is one of four members of his family currently studying at Santa Clara, a Bronco lineage that traces back to 1919. His commitment to fighting for equity is deepened by his ability to connect with others and work alongside them, as exhibited by his and William Mockapetris’ SCU ‘22 project with EFI.

Will (3rd from left) with his uncle Mark Gagan, Miller Center Fellow William Mockapetris, and Will’s grandfather Brian Gagan SCU ‘54


How did you familiarize yourself with the circumstances of the organization you were working with?

Something William and I did pretty early on in our meetings was setting apart some time to get to know the sisters and everyone we were working with personally. We noticed that connecting with them as people made our work as colleagues easier. I remember at the end of one meeting, William and I started talking with one of the team members about soccer and how he was a big Barcelona fan. It became another connection we had to each other and the program. I’m still in contact with them — I texted Sister Junza the other day to congratulate her on an award she recently received. It’s super cool these relationships are still strong. That foundation made me feel more comfortable, especially when working over zoom with people I hadn’t met before. The stakes of the project felt high, and I was nervous. Realizing they were there for us like we were there for them opened me up.

What was your deliverable for EFI? How’d you fulfill it?

The main project EFI needed help with was developing its curriculum. They have this learning center with six different production units that teach rural Zambian youth sustainable agriculture practices and financial literacy to run their farming operations once they graduate from the program. They already had the learning center up and running, but they needed to recruit apprentices and develop a curriculum. That is what we did. We met up with three local experts in agribusiness, business and leadership, and agricultural science over the summer to learn the necessary skills. William and I then structured that information so that the program could teach it to its students.

How do you feel about the work you’ve done? What are you most proud of?

One thing that William and I are really proud of in terms of our final deliverable was that we gave them a living document — that way, they could change it and update it as they got feedback. That is something we struggled with, too — they didn’t have any students yet, so we couldn’t get feedback while we were building it to figure out what worked and what didn’t. We kept that in mind and had to build it in a way so that future teachers could add to it and edit it as they taught. The fact that we created something that will continue to grow and develop is something we were and are proud of. If two years from now, the curriculum is entirely different from what we started with, it would be a dream come true. It’s supposed to evolve. It’s meant to grow to be effective for the students. It’s connected to our mindset shift partway through the project, too — we went from thinking we would have to explain everything and make it cut and dried to creating something open-ended. It was stressful because it wasn’t something we were used to. We had to adapt and learn, and I think we did a good job at it.

Your family has roots in Santa Clara and social activism. How did that influence your experience?

My family has definitely defined my time and connection to Santa Clara. The first person in my family to come here was my great-grandfather, who graduated in 1919, which was 99 years before I started here. He was followed by my grandfather, then my dad, and a number of my aunts and uncles. Santa Clara is actually where my dad and mom met. Now it’s me, my brother, and my two cousins who are all here. It’s very special to me.

I never felt an obligation to come here when I was growing up. It was never really pushed on Nick and me, but my parents always spoke fondly of it. I remember when we both decided to come here, they were super excited. When we had the Miller Center Fellowship presentations, my grandpa, uncle, brother, and cousin came. It was special because my parents couldn’t join, but I could still share it with my family. I know they’re really proud of me. It was great getting to share that with them.

In the context of the fellowship, I would say that the deaths of my grandmas basically bookended my summer with the fellowship. Looking back, it gave it so much more meaning. It created so many challenges in getting my work done for the fellowship, but it was awesome that I had been here for the summer, and I was able to go up and visit my family. William was also so supportive and understanding. He made all the difference with the challenges I faced during this time.

I remember there was this one moment where it all clicked. During my dad’s eulogy at my grandma’s funeral, he told us this story about how she was involved with the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement in the 60s. She wouldn’t let my dad and his siblings eat grapes, joining the national boycott to support better pay and conditions for grape workers. Whenever my dad would be at someone’s house, and he’d get fruit salad, he’d pick out the grapes. Grapes were off-limits until the grape growers finally signed union contracts with the UFW. In his eulogy, my dad said, “It is important to remember that this was not political for Mom. It was human and personal. Mom saw the people she was working with — young husbands and wives, fathers and mothers trying to provide for their families and make their way in the world — the same as she and Dad.” I never forgot that. My grandma on my mom’s side spent her entire career as a teacher, teaching kindergarten for the SFUSD and spending a year abroad in Germany in the 1960s teaching children of military personnel.

When I realized that EFI’s work embodies their values — transformative education and creating good, dignified work for people in agriculture  — it made the project so meaningful to me despite all the challenges. When I told Sister Edna what happened with my grandmas, she said she had heard about it through Keith [Warner, who runs the fellowship]. She was so understanding, and she said they’d been praying for me the whole time. That meant something to me. It made me appreciate the work social entrepreneurs do so much more. It is all about the people. This was the most meaningful moment of the fellowship. I realized how EFI’s work connected to my grandmas’ lives and the special interaction with Sister Edna. The opportunity Miller Center has given me, where I got to continue my grandmas’ legacies and the impact they wanted to make, made me realize that I deserve to be here. I am paying it forward and making a difference. It’s a very good feeling.

What do you think about your connection to Miller Center? What does it mean to you?

I view Miller Center as a web of connections and networks — coalitions of people that are doing different and unique things. The Miller Center is this hub for building these meaningful connections. At the start, I didn’t know the majority of people in my cohort at all. Before the fellowship, I didn’t know William, and it was terrific to work with him. I feel so connected to my cohort, and it’s a community. It’s a challenging process, and there’s so much ambiguity. We have to adapt and be resilient. We all experienced that. That shared experience made me super connected to all of them. I’m so grateful for that. It’s also cool that everyone drawn to Miller Center is completely devoted to the mission. You’re starting from this point of shared values, making everything easier. There were times when William and I had different perspectives or approaches on the project’s direction, but we were both guided by the same ethos. That’s everyone at Miller Center. That’s one of the most meaningful things to me.

When I was a senior in high school, a family friend told me that I should pick a college with values that align with mine. I didn’t understand that at the moment, but now as a senior looking back, I see it. It’s been so impactful — talking about injustice, our place in fixing it, promoting equity. Santa Clara’s tenets drive these social elements. Everything that I’ve learned in my classes is helpful, but I appreciate most the value system that Santa Clara has instilled in me. I’m fortunate for that. I got that from Miller Center as well. Miller Center makes it easy to connect with people. Their work addresses huge social issues that can sometimes feel insurmountable. Seeing that there are this many people with the passion and courage to address those issues makes me feel good about the future.

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