By Erin Hinrichs
When Harper McConnell (B.A. ’06) met actor Ben Affleck and nonprofit executive Whitney Williams in 2007, she was hooked up to an IV, recovering from a bout of malaria inside a hospital in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The two philanthropists had stopped by McConnell’s bed to wish her a speedy recovery.
The meeting turned out to be fortuitous. A couple of years later, Affleck and Williams recruited McConnell to jumpstart a nonprofit called Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) to support community-based economic and social development initiatives—everything from small-scale coffee and cocoa production to child soldier demobilization and reintegration.
Many view DRC as a nation lost to war and extreme poverty, but McConnell has spent the last eight years focusing on its potential. “I really believe in building capacity in Congo,” she says. “I believe anything worth doing is going to take a long time and is going to be an arduous route.” McConnell’s current focus is helping smallholder farmers—those who support their families with a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming—become more competitive in the global marketplace by building relationships with buyers who will pay them a fair price. McConnell helps farmers increase both the quality and quantity of their crops and she negotiates with international buyers like Falcon Coffees, which sold 40 tons of Congolese coffee to Starbucks last year. “This is a much more sustainable way to work, rather than just giving business out in aid [funding],” McConnell says.
According to the World Food Programme, the DRC currently has about 197 million acres of arable land, only a small percentage of which is being utilized. In McConnell’s estimates, all the ingredients for success exist.
McConnell now lives in Washington, D.C., and travels to DRC every couple of months. Visiting with the beneficiaries of her work, however, takes her back to the intensity of her first encounter with the African nation she came to love. “Every time I sit down and hear their stories, it feels like I’ve come to the Congo for the first time,” she says.
Photo Above: Harper McConnell, second from right, walks with Richard Kabala, Christine Musaidizi, and Ben Affleck. Musaidizi is the founder and director and Kabala a staff member of Children's Voice, a partner organization of Eastern Congo Initiative.