traversing Oxford, Brazil and West Africa – by Elie Slama
It was late-2015, in the immediate aftermath of Liberia’s Ebola epidemic, when in an extraordinary coincidence, I ran into Samafilan Ainan (Somalia, MSc Global Health Science, Louis Dreyfus), a fellow Weidenfeld Scholar from my cohort, in a small coffee shop in Monrovia. Sama was there working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), providing medical support to help with the Ebola crisis. This chance encounter held particular meaning for me as it connected the various strands of my life – from being a Weidenfeld Scholar in Oxford, to working in West Africa after graduating from Oxford. Sama and I later helped to plan and organise the Liberia marathon (‘A new beginning’), which was dedicated to the thousands of people whose hard work made it possible to contain, and then eradicate, the dreadful epidemic. Those were tense and painful times in Liberia. The day of the marathon was very emotional for all of us. Hundreds took part in the marathon and ran along Tubman Boulevard, the road that spans all of Monrovia, while spectators jubilantly cheered and sprayed water on the runners to keep them cool – it developed into an improvised street festival across the city. I looked at Sama and told her, “We’re so lucky we’re here to see this”. She smiled. It felt like a real triumph for humanity.
I chose to open this letter reminiscing about that day because, in a way, meeting Sama in that coffee shop, working together, and becoming part of something so beautiful captures the essence of the Weidenfeld Leadership Programme’s vision – it exemplifies the enduring, border-transcending bond between its scholars, and the incredible possibilities it entails. I think about those days a lot.
Sama left Liberia shortly after, and I stayed on with my partner. We originally moved to Liberia after graduating from the University of Oxford’s MPhil in Development Studies programme, to get involved in the Development sector there. That decision was motivated by the ethnographic fieldwork I had previously conducted (as part of my studies at Oxford) in a favela (urban slum) in southern Brazil, where I researched the impact of social policies on poverty and crime in marginalized communities. That favela unofficially constituted a no-go zone for outsiders, as a substantial part of the socioeconomic activity there was linked in one manner or other to the illegal, covert and dangerous drug trade.
Gaining research access was immensely challenging. I tackled this challenge in two ways: first, by drawing from my personal life experiences of growing up in the Israeli periphery in a working-class family, which made me intimately familiar with problems that poor communities face, such as debt and early-youth employment. These issues proved universal and enabled me to empathize and connect with the community, despite cultural and lingual barriers. Second, I started volunteering in the community daily. I lived there for four months, studying the most personal and intimate manifestations of urban poverty in a developing country. The favela community welcomed me into their homes, and allowed me a window into the usually opaque social systems that regulate their lives. This was an invaluable learning experience for me – one that helped shape my professional approach later on in my career, and inspired me to get more involved in developing country contexts. I declined an offer to continue with my research in the DPhil Programme and moved to Liberia (which at that time was a focal point for aid activity during Ebola).
In Liberia, I worked to independently promote entrepreneurial initiatives in the development sector. In the first year, the going was slow, as my desire to do impactful work was undercut to some degree with uncertainty on how to proceed. Drawing from my experience in Brazil, I decided to put to use my personal and professional networks. I contacted and began mobilizing young Liberian politicians, and in collaboration with local government, I developed a proposal to rehabilitate and formalize a commercial zone in Monrovia and build affordable housing for nearby low-income communities. I negotiated a package of incentives with high-ranking government officials and drafted the outline for a public-private partnership. From that point, I worked to engage international donors and investors to finance the project. I was eventually able to enter into positive communications with Vital Capital Fund, an impact investment company that implements large-scale infrastructural projects in Sub-Saharan Africa in collaboration with local governments.
I was invited to present the project to the Fund’s Managing Partner during his visit to the neighboring country of Ghana. I left Liberia for the first time in a year, and headed to Kumasi – the capital of Ghana’s Ashanti region. I was young and relatively inexperienced – a recent university graduate – about to meet a well-seasoned business leader, to convince him to invest US$ 50 million into rehabilitating Liberia’s public housing sector. I was nervous. Equipped with maps of Monrovia, a business plan, some financial reports, and cautious optimism, I boarded the flight. This was a rare, high-stakes opportunity, especially as it was coming at the end of a particularly tumultuous year.
I met him in Accra’s airport and took the flight to Kumasi together. He has managed large-scale projects in Sub-Saharan Africa (similar to the one I was proposing) for over 30 years – he’s a real seen-it-all, cut-to-the-chase type of person. He gave me the 40 minutes between take-off and landing to make my case for the Liberia project. When we landed, he shook my hand and said curtly: ‘Liberia is not ready yet’. While that was, without further explanations, the end of that, we spoke about development and housing in Sub-Saharan Africa throughout that day. I was growing increasingly puzzled by our continued conversation, as he had rejected my pitch quite early on in the day. Eventually I asked, “Then, why did you invite me here?” It was then that he told me about the Fund’s flagship project in Ghana.
Two years prior to that day, Vital Capital Fund had entered a joint partnership with the Ashanti King, His Majesty Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, to launch Prabon Greenfields, one of the most ambitious infrastructural development projects in the Ashanti region’s history: building a 500-unit urban housing community in Kumasi. This also included developing related public and social infrastructure to serve the area, like a school, medical facilities, modern sewage and water treatment facilities, roads, and a connection to the national electricity grid. On that day, out of the blue, I was offered a job with Vital Capital Fund – they wanted me to manage the Prabon Greenfields project, as well as represent the Fund more broadly in Ghana. It was an incredible twist of fate – while I wasn’t able to proceed further with the project I had envisioned in Monrovia, I suddenly had the opportunity to take the lead on a massive project that would impact many thousands of people in Ghana. I had to say yes.
During my three years in that job in Ghana, despite numerous challenges, my team and I finalized the entire neighborhood’s infrastructure system and the first phase of housing. I was also trusted by the Fund to design and launch multiple other fascinating and impactful initiatives. Among others, I facilitated a public-private partnership with the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture to refurbish Ghana’s national agricultural storage infrastructure, with the purpose of mitigating rampant post-harvest losses, promoted the establishment of a support fund for Ghanaian SMEs with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, liaised with a local university to develop an affordable housing scheme for its staff, and successfully mobilized local businesspersons to lobby the government to build a public road connecting our community and approximately 10,000 nearby villagers to the city centre.
In short, my time in West Africa was highly rewarding, and I feel immensely fortunate for being part of such impactful activities so early in my career. Working with Vital Capital Fund and learning about the potential of its impact investment model for improving developing countries and economies, truly opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. That invaluable experience made me decide to orient my career towards the productive intersection between private and public actors in developing countries. I am presently exploring how to adjust and import the impact investment model that we successfully implemented in West Africa into the Middle Eastern context, and put it in service of advancing peaceful and productive socioeconomic relations between Israeli and Palestinian communities. Ultimately I am hoping to develop a model that could be implemented in conflict zones globally.
With this ambition in mind, I decided to return to the University of Oxford after four years in West Africa. I have enrolled in the Said Business School’s MBA Programme to further develop my entrepreneurial skills, with the ultimate hope that I can bring into fruition that idea.