By, Joseph Cahalan, President, Xerox Foundation

What started out as a trip to inspect the results of an investment the Xerox Foundation made in the Tanzanian operations of Concern Worldwide turned out to be an inspiring example of how similar people are the world over. The stated purpose of my trip to Ngara, Tanzania, miles from the Rwanda border, was to see the fruits of an innovation grant in a remote farming community where most people survive from harvest-to-harvest if not day-to-day. Concern workers there had a hunch that Lantana plants repelled mosquitoes that carry malaria which is the number one cause of death in these remote hills in northwest Tanzania. Based on their initial findings, they may just be on to a big idea. I learned all about their experiments and results, of course, but I learned so much more. Here is a recap.

Innovation can spring up anywhere. We tend to associate innovation with universities, think tanks and laboratories, but the human race’s thirst for knowledge and drive to innovate knows no boundaries. Heartened by the malaria research, the Tanzanian team is on to another idea. It seems that the nut of the Moringa tree may be able to purify water. The nuts are ground into powder and placed in contaminated water. The pollutants (for reasons the researchers explained and I have forgotten) cling to the powder and sink to the bottom, leaving potable water on top. In an area where the tree grows abundantly and where most people walk miles each day for safe drinking water, this experiment holds great promise.

Teamwork and collaboration are at the heart of  innovation and creativity. Sit around with the key players in the Tanzanian research team and you get a lot of finger-pointing. Ask whose idea this was and they point at one another! Ask who should get the credit and you get the same result – more finger-pointing. It’s hard to figure out whether this is modesty or that they don’t know. Either way, the point is clear. Innovation usually comes from a team of people building on each other’s ideas and not competing for the credit. The group is more powerful than the individual.

The value proposition increases exponentially when individual offerings are integrated. James Davey, Concern Country Director, says it better than I can. “We are at our best,” he says, “when we deliver all our offerings to a community. That means improving health care by providing clean water and fighting malaria and educating people on good hygiene and nutrition. It means improving education and giving people the tools they need to feel empowered to help themselves. It means upgrading livelihood skills like new framing techniques or even introducing new high-yield crops. It means helping build communities that are better equipped to deal with the next disaster that is just around the corner whether it’s a drought or political disruption. When we can do it all, we’re at our best.”

Staying the course builds trust. When Concern arrives somewhere, usually to help in a disaster situation, they pledge to stay as long as they are needed and as long as they have the resources. Ngara is a perfect case in point. At the height of the genocide in Rwanda that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border seeking refuge in Tanzania, there were eight NGOs here all operating refugee camps. That crisis has passed. Only one NGO still has a significant presence on the ground. You guessed it -Concern Worldwide. 

Focusing on the mission produces results. Concern people know what they are all about and don’t stray far from their core objectives They are helping the poorest of the poor – the people we rarely see and too often forget – get a foothold on a better life. At the risk of stretching a metaphor, they are in the business of helping the poor get ready for their real business – improving the quality of the lives of their families and communities Its a noble mission, but so too is ours – helping organizations around the world do what they do best. And that makes the world a better place.

Yesterday morning, I received a Christmas card from Concern. It had a request: “Tell your colleagues at Xerox how much we appreciate their support, both moral and financial. Tell them we will continue to try to make things better one life at a time. Tell them thank you from all of us to all of you.”.