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Erna Grasz: Unleashing the potential of Africa’s youth

Food, water, clothing, and shelter are the basic needs of a human being. In addition, everyone deserves access to quality education, irrespective of their gender, financial background, caste, or religion. Education elevates our thinking levels and its life-changing potential enables understanding of the world around us and gives us the tools and wisdom to create the life we want to live. However, even in 2020, a considerable percentage of the global population is deprived of the right to a quality education. While brilliance and talent are universally distributed, opportunity is not.  

Breathing life into a shared vision  

With that belief, Erna Grasz launched Asante Africa Foundation in 2007 with two passionate African women, Emmy Moshi, and Hellen Nkuraiya. It all started when Erna traveled to Tanzania with her husband to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. There she met co-founders Emmy, a young dynamic woman working to take an entrepreneurial route with a safari business, and Hellen, one of the first Maasai female school principals in southwest Kenya.

erna grasz

Long conversations with these two visionary leaders gave Erna serious insight into Africa’s demographic and gender inequality and how children of different ages are deprived of their right to education and opportunity.  Inspired by their vision of what rural communities could achieve given comparable education and opportunity to their urban counterparts, Asante Africa Foundation was established with a global mission “to empower the next generation of change agents, whose dreams and actions transform the future for Africa and the world,” shares Erna.  

Educating Children | Transforming Worlds

Asante Africa Foundation is a locally-led and globally-supported non-profit organization educating East Africa’s youth towards achieving elevated analytical & thinking skills, a sense of responsibility and ownership of one’s destiny, and the courage to convert challenges into opportunity. “Our local African staff, many of whom are program graduates, have a common commitment: to collaborate with rural African communities to educate children who have brilliance and dreams – but lack opportunity,” says Erna. The Asante Africa Team works to bring educational opportunities to the most marginalized, overlooked and frequently forgotten children across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. “We work to create healthy interactive learning environments that improve the quality of education, and provide practical life skills with hands-on tools and training,” says Erna. “Armed with knowledge, skills, and the passion for success, our students are better prepared to thrive in adult life.”   

“We believe the human resource is the greatest untapped resource in the world. Everyone has a role to play in cultivating talent, opening doors, connecting dots, and creating new opportunities,” says Erna. As a systems engineer, Erna recognizes that solving complex problems requires system-level solutions. To bring about long-lasting change, the process must be owned at the most local level, occur gradually, and build the skills of everyone involved.  Over the past decade, Asante Africa Foundation has refined a suite of interconnected programs that encourage, educate, and train youth to apply their knowledge in real-life challenges. The low-cost programs are highly replicable, offering visible impact with measurable outcomes. The organization enlisted a team of local and global experts in breaking the cultural norms of gender inequality, a major breakthrough that continues to change many lives. Girls are now continuing their education, starting family-owned businesses, and taking community leadership positions.

Our unique, globally-recognized model utilizes a Learn-Do-Teach methodology for skill development and novel Pay-it-Forward concept to ensure youth apply their skills to local needs and opportunities benefiting themselves and their communities,” says Erna. With its prime focus on improving educational quality, introducing needed life skills, and developing livelihood competencies, their programs have proven to be transformational for the youth, their families and their communities. 

External evaluations have provided evidence of deepened cognitive skills and decision-making capabilities, while instilling leadership and ownership of their own futures. To date, Asante Africa Foundation has supported over 300,000 children and teens, trained over 3,200 teachers, and impacted over 600,000 people within East Africa. “We are pioneering unknown territories and making the impossible possible, locally and globally,” says Erna.

Success comes from failing forward and staying humble

Erna’s path to success has had its challenges yet has been life changing. She left a very well-paying job in Silicon Valley as a Vice President and business leader with significant responsibility, status, and perks.  She was used to driving her own destiny. “When I first made this transition, I remember people saying, “What do you do?” I would say, “I used to be a vice president of research and development and now I’ve transitioned to being the CEO of a global social impact organization.” They would say, “Why would you do that?” It took me quite a while to get comfortable in this new skin and own it,” says Erna. “I believed in my own ambition and the dreams of other people, and decided to use my skills and talents to breathe life into other people’s visions.” Her decision to support two visionary African women was made, and nothing could deter her from doing what she wanted to do – Educate Children and Transform Worlds

Erna learned the importance of remaining humble. Early on, a major miscommunication between a funding organization, Asante Africa, and its partners led to a huge monetary loss in funding. Rather than blaming herself for her lack of political knowledge of the non-profit sector, Erna chose to treat the setback as a learning experience. “I’ve always believed that one must remain a life-long learner while remaining humble,” Erna adds. “I understand that difficult challenges require a diversity of thought and this demands leaders who do not fear failing forward.”  Using every experience as a lesson, Asante Africa Foundation is now clearer and more careful in choosing its partners and more dedicated to effective, transparent communication. 

On this journey, Erna had to unlearn many things. Her co-founder, Emmy once told her, “Quit thinking like an American. We are in Africa. That will not work here.”  Having had to change her mindset and problem-solving approach, her journey has been truly transformational, personally, professionally, and organizationally. “We have learned to allow the local leaders to go at a pace that works within the context of their schools and communities. If the solutions are not coming from within the community, the skills are not being developed, and the project will not survive long-term,” Erna emphasizes. “The path to success is defined by perceiving challenges as opportunities and empowering others to join the journey. Ultimately, we measure OUR success by the successes of our young graduates, those they love, and their communities.” 

Bringing youth innovation to forefront during the pandemic

COVID-19 brought the entire world to an abrupt halt. The pandemic reached East Africa in March of 2020. With every organizational decision backed by a commitment to the safety, health, and security of the children they serve, Asante Africa Foundation rallied the local leaders and young people who co-created a plan to serve their local communities. Then we engaged global funders to support the plan. Since March 2020, Asante Africa youth groups launched radio broadcasting programs breaking down myths and ensuring locals had accurate information, created over 145 small businesses serving community needs, and formed older youth guided “out of school” learning groups for middle school and high school aged children, keeping everyone focused on future possibilities instead of pandemic stresses. Our educated and empowered youth rose to the challenge. 

Today, Asante Africa Foundation remains focused on reducing vulnerabilities and strengthening resilience in young people, while they develop the skills required to thrive and flourish in the global economy and lead positive change. 

Finding your role in transformational change

Now is the time to take action and time is of the essence. Regardless of where you live, you have a role to play in supporting transformational change. It can be with time, talent, and/or treasure. “This generation is very hungry to do leadership right. Their job is to use their voice and skills for change. My generation’s job is to advise and protect the space for them to take the reins of leadership,” says Erna.