The next leg of the journey of East African Catholic Sisters into social entrepreneurship has brought them to early-stage impact investment. Five congregations’ social enterprises have applied for and received funding from the Nancy Ottoboni Impact Investment Fund for Sisters to grow their impact. To our knowledge, this is the first impact investment fund dedicated exclusively to social enterprises led by Catholic Sisters.

The Sisters understand social entrepreneurship as a new form of social ministry that is fully consistent with their religious vocations and their congregations’ missions to create impact in their local communities. Prior to the investment stage, Miller Center, in partnership with the Association of Consecrated Women of Eastern and Central Africa (ACWECA) and several of our local GSBI social enterprises, provided apprenticeships to Sisters in which they learned how to replicate successful business and impact models. Next, the Sisters brought their business models into our accelerator program, and at the same time, applied for Ottoboni funds. The Sisters are using these investments to develop their farming systems’ climate resilience and foster economic empowerment for women and youth, aligning with Miller Center’s own strategic priorities.

Led by Sister Christine Imbali, a team of three Assumption Sisters of Eldoret, Kenya, were apprenticed by Eggpreneur to develop a poultry production social enterprise and then began the Sisters Accelerator program. Their congregation and a private donor provided initial seed funding for proof of concept, and the Sisters sold two batches of several hundred birds. But the Sisters needed more funding to scale their impact, especially since they want to ramp up their own production and train local young women to start their own micro-poultry business. “We plan to use the Ottoboni funds to purchase an incubator to hatch our own chicks for our own farm and for outgrower farmers,” said Sister Christine. They will also purchase a power generator for backup, and train their young Sisters in learning social entrepreneurship.

They offer a beautiful thank you video here:

The Ottoboni Fund was established by John A. Sobrato to help the Sisters’ Blended Value Project participants learn how to use investments for social impact, especially to benefit women and youth. Knowing that Sisters would apply for their first impact investment through this fund, the donor wanted the Sisters to learn enterprise financial management while creating social impact. “To introduce the Sisters to impact investing and balance these two goals, the Ottoboni Fund needed an innovative approach,” said Alex Pan, Miller Center’s Associate Director of Alumni Programs and Impact Investing. He proposed that the fund match dollar for dollar a philanthropic gift with a recoverable grant, which functions like a zero-interest loan.

For the Banyatereza Sisters Coffee Blended Value Project, the Daughters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in Fort Portal, Uganda, partnered with NUCAFE, a GSBI social enterprise. This project seeks to transform the livelihoods of coffee farmers in neighboring villages and support the elderly of its congregation. Working with NUCAFE, these Sisters will train local farmers in sustainable coffee production, organize them into cooperatives, add value to their coffee through local processing, and provide marketing linkages to premium markets. They applied for impact investment to improve their demonstration farm, train farmers, and purchase and install a pulper and solar-powered coffee dryer to capture more value for their local community.

“Invest in us and let us create and put a smile on the lives of many of these smallholder coffee farmers!”

—Sr. Gaudentia Kababiito

NUCAFE Executive Director Joseph Nkandu stated, “We are gratified to partner with ACWECA and Miller Center to provide mentorship to these two congregations. With their new skills, Sisters built their social enterprises to provide sustainable incomes to their congregations, and using the NUCAFE Farmer Ownership Model, improved livelihoods in their local communities.”

All of the Sisters embarking on this journey reveal their shared values through the common features of their enterprises. They feel very close to their land and want to protect Mother Earth and improve their farming practices to feed hungry people with nutritious food. They want to create social value through farming, even as they adapt to climate disruption. And they want to train local people to create livelihoods in African agriculture. For example, the Religious Sisters of the Holy Spirit (Zambia) Emerging Farmers Initiative offers an agroecological apprenticeship to high school drop-outs to help them launch their own enterprises. The Sisters see their social enterprises as a way to be part of the solution to poverty in Africa.

Sisters bring many personal assets to this work, including relatively more education than many African women, combined with a lifelong commitment to serving the poor and vulnerable. Perhaps most importantly, they are able to leverage the high levels of trust that local people have in their congregations and thus lead them toward enterprise-driven economic opportunity.

Last year, Global Social Benefit Fellow Emily Petermann wrote her University Honors Thesis on the Sisters’ goals and impact in this project. As a fellow, she worked with NUCAFE and met some of these Sisters, who left quite an impression on her, as narrated in her reflective blog. Her thesis, titled Catholic Sisters as Faithful Agents of Sustainable Development, explores the integration of entrepreneurship with the Sisters’ faith and further weaves social entrepreneurship into the DNA of Santa Clara University.

The Nancy Ottoboni Impact Investment Fund for Sisters was designed by Miller Center and ACWECA to reflect the values of its namesake. Each social enterprise led by Sisters is eligible to apply for between US$6000 to US$16,000. ACWECA manages the fund and repayment process, and thus the fund becomes a source of earned income for ACWECA. John A. Sobrato wanted the fund to honor Nancy Ottoboni, the deceased wife of John Ottoboni, Chief Operating Officer and Senior Legal Counsel of Santa Clara University. The Sobratos and Ottobonis have been lifelong friends. Throughout her life, Nancy Ottoboni had a love and appreciation for the work of Catholic Sisters, and this fund advances her devotion to them and her desire that their work bear much fruit.