By Gilbert Niyomuhoza
Some see problems and choose to ignore them. Others see different challenges and choose to solve them. Jean D’Amour Mutoni is certainly in the latter group as the Co-Founder and CEO of Acts of Gratitude (AOG), a Rwandan-based social enterprise that tackles youth unemployment by training young people to solve problems through the launching of their own social enterprises.
“The idea sprung to mind in 2010 when 12 of my friends and I reflected on the people, organizations and government initiatives that supported our education and resulted in other benefits along the way,” said Jean D’Amour. “We thought of giving back to our society.”
When most of the 13 graduated from the University of Rwanda, they brought their strengths together to help fellow humans in need. The team visited admitted patients in hospitals, refugees in camps and orphans in their homes. Using their personal incomes, they offered food and basic essentials like clothes and sanitary materials.
In doing so, they noticed social problems in Rwanda still stemming from the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. They also were able to have a new appreciation for the role of education in their lives and were thus motivated to help dropouts go back to secondary schools.
“We started small - many people didn’t understand it,” explained Jean D’Amour.
From 2011-2014, AOG worked as an unregistered community-based organization. The organization eventually became registered with the Rwanda Governance Board as a social enterprise with the hope that this structure would be the best model to address social problems.
“Social enterprises combine business and benevolence,” Jean d’Amour said. “Our ambition was always and still is to impact the lives of Rwandans. We needed to generate minimal funding so we could continuously support our different actions.”
Jean D’Amour acknowledges and extends thanks to people and organizations, including His Excellency Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, who supported the launch of the first Ingenzi Social Enterprise program for youth.
The team also formed partnerships abroad with organizations like Unlock UK, the Scottish Government and the Social Enterprise Academy International, among others. All this made it possible for the organization to launch income-generating activities like a co-working space, skills training center and social enterprise consultancy to support aspiring social entrepreneurs. These partnerships played a role financially and in terms of building individuals' skills. Some of the organizations in partnership with AOG had skilled professionals who assisted with mentoring and training. In terms of finance, the partnerships provided support on the goals, mission and vision.
Through AOG's work, 222 social enterprises have been supported, 637 jobs have been created for youth, 400 jobs have been created for women and over 150,000 people have been served.
Moving forward, AOG’s goal is to build a community of 10,000 social entrepreneurs in Rwanda by 2030. The education component will be key as Jean D’Amour and his colleagues aim to train and reskill youth in response to society’s changes. A common name is shared by all members: AOG 'Change-maker’.
As a Co-Founder and CEO, Jean D’ Amour is in charge of leading efforts to set the mission, vision, and objectives. Given the emerging nature of AOG, he is still involved in most of the everyday organizational activities and works with external stakeholders to ensure smooth and desired outcomes are achieved and sustained.
Throughout the programs, AOG is equipping youth with digital business skills that aim to make them impactful change-makers. This increases their confidence which comes as a result of understanding their dreams and career goals as they pave their paths to success. AOG helps them to learn how to develop business plans, business model canvases, PowerPoint presentations and elevator pitches, among other skills. As a result of the experiences, the youth crystalize their ideas and learn how to execute them. They are gaining perspective on where they’re taking the community from and where they want it to go. Once they are ready to launch their business, they’re helped even further. AOG provides a co-working space at little cost and a free consultancy aimed at scaling the start-ups.
Advice for Aspiring Innovators
Jean D’Amour defined innovation as “identifying a problem, being concerned with it, and finding a solution… which should always start on a personal level.”
He believes youth need to create enterprises that will provide solutions to problems a community is facing. He also believes that youth should stop calling themselves ‘unemployed’ and start to investigate the problems. With a clear understanding, they can come up with a solution to the problem. This will immediately create a job.
Additionally, the youth are encouraged to expand their networks, upskill themselves and keep up with global development. He encourages youth to start small and aim big.
“The best thing to keep in mind is your dream and vision,” he said. “As long as you know where you want to go, you can reach it. Just start small and never give up on the vision.”
He also encourages young people to trust in the power of teamwork.
“There are a myriad people who want to pursue the same things as you do,” he shared. “Look for colleagues with similar and complementary dreams and visions; you will get things done.”
Here are three of my key takeaways from the interview that I will apply as I pursue my dream of being a communicator and a changemaker in my community.
● Don’t live to consume only; give back. When Jean D’Amour and his colleagues graduated, they thought of giving back to the society which supported their learning process. It was inspiring to see how I can use my skills to influence and change others’ lives positively.
● Connections count. From the interview with Jean D’Amour, I was able to see the importance of professional connections. With connections come new opportunities, ideas and experiences. It was exciting to hear how AOG formed partnerships abroad that made it possible for them to extend their operations. Connections will hopefully play a big role in realizing my dreams around an initiative I started of establishing social enterprises mostly catering for street children in Rwanda (see photo at the conclusion of this article). The focus is helping them feel loved and needed.
● If you start and stick to things, people will support you. Amazingly, His Excellency Paul Kagame appreciated the actions of AOG. If Jean D’Amour never started, President Kagame undoubtedly wouldn’t have supported them. Whenever you do something that positively impacts the world we live in, other people are always willing to provide support. I will keep this in mind as I work on my dreams. Like Jean D’Amour, I don’t want to be a person who ignores challenges. I want to be part of the solutions.
Gilbert Niyomuhoza is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a degree in communications. You can connect with him on LinkedIn. He wrote this story after going through Global Innovators Academy's Interview an Innovator online course experience.