Atti Worku is a fashion model turned educator and NGO-founder. From representing Ethiopia at the Miss Universe Pageant in Thailand, Atti is now concerned with providing quality education to children in her birthplace, Adama, Ethiopia. Her foundation, Seeds of Africa is an afterschool program that is modeled after project-based learning. Seeds also runs community development schemes including one that provides loans to women to start or grow their businesses. Liz Moran, Seeds’ Country Director and SLA Contributor spoke to Atti to discover the story behind her foundation.
You started Seeds as an after-school program which later evolved into a full-time school. When you were laying out your plans for Seeds, how did you want it to be different from other schools in Ethiopia?
When I was conceptualizing the program, I wanted to focus on quality. At that time elsewhere, there was a huge focus on numbers. The big push was to put kids in school rather than looking at what they were learning or the learning outcomes. I wanted to provide opportunity for students to reach their potential. I know this is cliché but I didn’t want kids to be limited by what was around them.
I also wanted something that focused on the whole family rather than push kids away from homes. I knew I didn’t want a boarding school. Finally, I wanted to create a place where both boys and girls got the opportunity to learn together. We definitely need a push for girls’ education but I also believe that if boys and girls are in same space and learn to collaborate as children they can work better together as adults.
I know that you recently returned to Ethiopia after several years abroad. How did it feel coming back and what changes have you seen in the country?
The population growth is intense. You read about it but then in person you are confronted and think, “Holy cow, that is a lot of people!” The difficult thing is that the poverty is still there. The economy is growing but the population is growing even faster.
On the positive side, the infrastructure has really improved which is necessary for development. Mostly, I was struck by how a lot of younger people are working now. People are very entrepreneurial. Growing up there was always a sense that people had lost hope. It just seemed insurmountable. People didn’t know where to start so they didn’t. I loved seeing the hustle of so many people –especially women– going to work in the mornings.
With Seeds, seeing everything after so many years was really incredible. The kids are unbelievable. They are so smart, and inquisitive; so confident! When you think of the backgrounds they come from it is really a testament to the work of our team. They really understand why this work is important and treat the kids with a lot of love and respect.
I also loved seeing the women whose businesses our micro-loans program has helped start or expand. It is actually changing the quality of people’s lives.
Looking towards the future, tell me a bit about the Dream School Campaign and Seeds’ plans for expansion.
Currently, we have been renting facilities for our current campuses which is difficult. I believe that environment is a big part of learning. If you learn in a well-designed environment, you learn better and, more importantly, you see what is possible. I want to build something that our students and the community are proud of. In addition, the new facility will not only be a school but also a space that the community can take advantage of.
We want to create a hub for other organizations to provide service and collaborate. We want to create the first public library in Adama and establish a model of how to build sustainably using recycled and indigenous materials that meet the standard of a quality school anywhere in the world. Right now, we are in process of acquiring land and the initial stages of the design process. It is a big project but we are hoping to open the first phase by 2018/2019
What advice would you have for a woman who wants to start her own organization or company?
If you know it’s something you want to do, just get started. Starting is the most difficult thing. Then stay focused on the long term. It is stressful and difficult in the short term and there are a lot of sacrifices you have to make, financially (especially at the beginning). Also ask for advice by those who have done something similar before.
Some people might tell you it’s too hard to do but trust your instinct and the research you have done (make sure you have done enough research to understand the marketplace for whatever you are working on before you start). It’s not an easy road but it is one of the most fulfilling experiences because even if your venture doesn’t succeed you gain experience and expertise that make you a more valuable asset to others. If you fail, try again. Never give up, ever!
This interview first appeared on She Leads Africa.